Nation

An airman left for dead, and a grainy hint of life

Britt Slabinski could hear the bullets ricochet off the rocks in the darkness. It was the first firefight for his six-man reconnaissance unit from SEAL Team 6, and it was outnumbered, outgunned, and taking casualties on an Afghan mountaintop.

A half-dozen feet or so to his right, John Chapman, a US Air Force technical sergeant acting as the unit’s radio man, lay wounded in the snow. Slabinski, a senior chief petty officer, could see through his night-vision goggles an aiming laser from Chapman’s rifle rising and falling with his breathing, a sign he was alive.

Then another of the Americans was struck in a furious exchange of grenades and machine-gun fire, and the chief realized that his team had to get off the peak immediately.

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He looked back over at Chapman. The laser was no longer moving, Slabinski recalls, though he was not close enough to check the airman’s pulse. Chased by bullets that hit a second SEAL in the leg, the chief said, he crawled on top of the sergeant but could not detect any response, so he slid down the mountain face with the other men. When they reached temporary cover, one asked: “Where’s John? Where’s Chappy?” Slabinski responded, “He’s dead.”

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Now, more than 14 years after that brutal fight, in which seven Americans ultimately died, the Air Force says that Slabinski was wrong — and that Chapman not only was alive, but also fought on alone for more than an hour after the SEALs had retreated.

The Air Force secretary is pushing for a Medal of Honor, the military’s highest award, after new technology used in an examination of videos from aircraft flying overhead helped officials conclude that the sergeant had killed two fighters with Al Qaeda before dying in an attempt to protect arriving reinforcements.

If approved by the president, the award will be the first of the more than 3,500 Medals of Honor given since the Civil War to rely not on eyewitness accounts but primarily on technology.

Slabinski’s team was ordered to establish an observation post on top of the mountain, Takur Ghar, during Operation Anaconda, an effort to encircle and destroy Al Qaeda forces in the Shah-e-Kot Valley in eastern Afghanistan, about 25 miles from Pakistan. The battle occurred less than three months after bin Laden had escaped at Tora Bora, and US commanders still hoped to capture or kill senior Al Qaeda leaders.

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Slabinski’s plan was to land by helicopter near the base of the 10,000-foot mountain at about midnight and climb up stealthily, but a series of delays involving aircraft left no time to do that before dawn. Under pressure from superiors, he said, he reluctantly flew to the peak at about 3 a.m.

Unbeknown to the SEALs, Al Qaeda forces were already there, and they hit the helicopter with heavy fire. One of Slabinski’s men, Petty Officer First Class Neil C. Roberts, fell out about 10 feet above the ground, and the pilot could not retrieve him before the stricken aircraft crash-landed a few miles away.

Shortly before 5 a.m., the five remaining SEALs and Chapman returned to the top on another helicopter to try to rescue Roberts. They did not know that enemy fighters had already killed and tried to decapitate him.

The Americans were again met by a withering barrage. Chapman charged ahead of Slabinski, and they killed two fighters in a bunker — a hole dug in the ground under a tree — before the airman was wounded. Under fire, the SEALs retreated about 15 minutes later.

Soon after, the military opened an investigation to determine what had gone wrong. The chief investigator, Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Milani of the Army, looked into footage captured by a Predator drone about 50 minutes after the SEALs had left the mountaintop. The grainy images showed someone in the bunker defending himself against two attackers and killing one with a rifle shot, prompting the question: Who was that?

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Milani’s investigation remains classified, but an unclassified paper that he wrote in 2003 offered two possible explanations: The Al Qaeda fighters had become confused and were firing at one another, or Chapman, still alive, had resumed fighting.

The Air Force’s review comes more than 14 years after a brutal fight in Afghanistan in which seven Americans died.

A briefing prepared by Air Force special operations officials dismisses as “not viable” Milani’s suggestion that the gunfight caught on video by the CIA Predator might have involved militants fighting one another, according to people who have received it. That the airman was alive and fighting “is fully supported by the evidence,” the briefing slides state.

The use of the imagery-enhancement technology to scrutinize the Predator video was central to the findings, particularly when combined with footage from an AC-130 gunship that had not been available to Milani.

A team led by the Air Force’s 24th Special Operations Wing commander, Colonel Matthew Davidson, briefed Slabinski on the findings late last year.

The chief, who is now 46 and retired, acknowledged that he might have made a mistake under intense fire in thinking that Chapman was dead. What stays with him the most is that morning he led his team into battle to try to save one man, only to be told later that he had left another fighting for his life.

“Is it within John’s character to go on and do this? Without a question,” the chief said. “If John did this stuff, I want him to get recognized.”