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Keith Rocco, The Battle of Takur Ghar, National Guard Heritage Painting.

The Deadly Battle of Takur Ghar in Afghanistan

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The fight became a cauldron that forged both heroism and tragedy, and produced the first-ever video recording of actions that resulted in the posthumous Medal of Honor for one participant, Air Force Special Tactics Combat Controller John Chapman.

In March 2002 a joint military operation was mounted to surround and defeat Taliban forces in Afghanistan. On the third day of Operation Anaconda, an Army MH-47E Chinook helicopter was fired upon as it attempted to land on a ridge on Takur Ghar mountain. Those actions set into motion what turned into a brutal extended fight that spanned from March 3-4 atop the remote, snow covered ridge.

The fight became a cauldron that forged both heroism and tragedy, and produced the first-ever video recording of actions that resulted in the posthumous Medal of Honor for one participant, Air Force Special Tactics Combat Controller John Chapman.

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The incident unfolded on March 3, when the helicopter lurched and attempted to extricate itself from the field of fire. One of the Navy SEALs on board, Petty Officer First Class Neil C. Roberts, fell from the rear ramp.

Too damaged to return for Petty Officer Roberts, the Chinook landed further down the mountain. A second MH-47E attempted to land and rescue Roberts, but it too was fired upon and forced to leave the immediate area. The third MH-47E to attempt a landing on what became known as Roberts’ Ridge was hit with automatic weapons fire and rocket-propelled grenades while still 20 feet in the air.

The helicopter hit the ground hard. Within seconds, the right door gunner was killed, as were three Army Rangers.

The 17-hour ordeal that followed would result in the loss of seven American lives, including Petty Officer Roberts.

Technical Sergeant Keary Miller, a Combat Search and Rescue Team Leader from the Kentucky Air National Guard, managed to drag the wounded helicopter pilot to safety. He orchestrated the establishment of multiple casualty collection points. In between treating the wounded, Miller set up the distribution of ammunition for the Army Rangers who were taking the fight to the enemy. 

Master Sgt. Chapman

Meanwhile, Air Force Tech Sgt. John Chapman and his teammates embarked on a treacherous mission to rescue Neil Roberts, who was stranded amid the enemy. During the mission to recover Roberts, Chapman and others came under heavy enemy fire from multiple directions.

Amid the fighting, Chapman charged uphill through thigh-deep snow to directly assault an enemy position. He took the enemy bunker, cleared the position, and killed the enemy fighters occupying the position. He deliberately moved from the bunker’s protective cover to attack a second hostile bunker, from where the enemy was firing on the rescue team.

Chapman was struck and temporarily incapacitated by enemy fire. His teammates believed he was killed.

“I was 100 percent convinced that John was dead,” Master Chief Petty Officer (SEAL), Britt Slabinski later said. “I never lost track of John.”

The team left without recovering what they believed to be the body of John Chapman.

Later, though, the Air Force confirmed via surveillance footage that after John’s teammates first left the mountain, the lone combat controller – an elite specialist – rallied. He regained consciousness. Despite being severely wounded, Chapman fought relentlessly. He is believed to have engaged in hand to hand combat, and killed two enemy.

Initially awarded a posthumous Air Force Cross for his actions on Roberts Ridge, John later was give the Medal of Honor. He is the first airman since the Vietnam War to receive the military’s highest recognition for heroism.

Soldier of Fortune publisher Susan Katz Keating spoke to Chapman’s widow when he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. 

“I’m as proud as can be,” Valerie Nessel said prior to attending the afternoon ceremony that brought bittersweet reunion with her beloved Air Commandos. “It’s very humbling that he is finally being recognized for what he did.”

Slabinski earlier was given the Medal of Honor. Miller was awarded the Silver Star by the U.S. Navy, one of the few members of the Air National Guard to be so honored.

About Susan Katz Keating

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