WASHINGTON (Circa) -- More than 16 years after sacrificing his life in a mountaintop battle in Afghanistan, Technical Sergeant John Chapman was awarded the Medal of Honor on Wednesday.
Chapman's widow, Valerie Nessel, accepted the award from President Donald Trump on her late husband's behalf. The citation which accompanied it told the remarkable story of how Chapman gave his life to save those of his fellow troops.
"In one of the most harrowing engagements of Operation Enduring Freedom, John was part of a highly-trained team on a combat mission to establish a secure position at the peak of Takur Ghar mountain," said Trump during the award.
It was March 4, 2002, just months after U.S. forces had invaded Afghanistan in response to al-Qaida's terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Chapman's team was on board a helicopter, attempting to land on the mountain peak. As it came closer to the ground, the helicopter was suddenly ambushed by al-Qaida fighters, causing a Navy SEAL to fall out and onto the ground. The team's helicopter was forced to leave the area, but Chapman and his team insisted on returning to retrieve the SEAL.
The odds were stacked against them from the start. Enemy fighters not only had numbers in their favor, they were also entrenched. Chapman's team would have to land on the exposed snowy peak and fight uphill in several feet of snow more than 10,000 feet above sea level.
It was a daunting task, but something Chapman was prepared to tackle. As a special tactics combat controller, Chapman was an elite operator trained to fight with special operators as an air support specialist. He was one of the Air Force's best attached to a team of Navy SEALs.
"Without regard for his own safety, Sergeant Chapman immediately engaged, moving in the direction of the closest enemy position despite coming under heavy fire from multiple directions," said the citation. "He fearlessly charged an enemy bunker, up a steep incline in thigh-deep snow and into hostile fire, directly engaging the enemy."
Chapman killed the enemy fighters in bunker and noticed a machine gun team firing on his comrades from another bunker less than 40 feet away. Exposing himself to enemy fire, Chapman engaged the machine gun and was severely wounded. His teammates thought he was dead, and Chapman was awarded a posthumous Air Force Cross, the Air Force's second-highest award.
But that wasn't the whole story. A 30-month investigation revealed that Chapman had only been temporarily knocked unconscious after receiving his wound. After regaining his faculties, he continued to engage the enemy force. A Quick Reaction Force was on its way in a helicopter to reinforce Chapman's team, who had been pushed back. As the helicopter attempted to land, it received heavy small arms fire. Noticing the dangerous situation, Chapman once again exposed himself to enemy fire to take out an enemy rocket-propelled grenade team. He was killed in the process, but saved his comrades along the way.
Upon discovering the whole story of Chapman's actions, former Air Force Secretary Deborah James recommended him for the Medal of Honor. The decision would prove controversial, after James accused senior special operations leaders of slowing the upgrade in order to protect the image of the SEALs, according to the Washington Post. The White House announced in July that Chapman would be receiving Medal of Honor.
"To use an often repeated phrase, it's that last full-measure of devotion he gave," said Air Force Col. (ret.) Kenneth Rodriguez, Chapman's former commander, during a press conference after Wednesday's ceremony. "Put all that together, he's clearly a Medal of Honor-worthy warrior."