By Joe Ragonese
A CH-47 Chinook helicopter took off on a mission deep in the Takur Ghar mountains of eastern Afghanistan in the early morning hours of March 4, 2002. The special operators aboard consisted of Navy SEALs and an Air Force Combat Controller (CCT). As the aircraft closed in on its landing zone it was met with unexpected gunfire, including a rocket propelled grenade (RPG) that went through its walls; fortunately not exploding.
As the pilot of the stricken helicopter jinked his aircraft out of harm’s way, one of the occupants, Navy SEAL, Petty Officer First Class Neil Roberts fell out and landed on the ground. As the helicopter retreated, Senior Chief Petty Officer Britt Slabinski, who was commanding this SEAL Team on the mission, realized that Roberts was missing and requested the aircraft return. The pilot landed the CH-47 under intense fire, taking several more hits that would disable the aircraft. The SEAL Team, along with Air Force CCT, John Chapman, exited to attempt a rescue. While rushing up the mountain, Chapman raced ahead of Slabinski, killing at least two al-Qaeda fighters.
They came under overwhelming gun, RPG, and mortar fire that forced them to take refuge behind rocks and in shallow depressions in the treeless landscape. Intelligence had miscalculated the number of Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters there would be in this location. It was very early in the War on Terror, and the Department of Defense was eager to capture al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who had escaped capture at Tora-Bora in another part of the country.
As the battle quickly turned against the special operators, Sgt. Chapman was struck with shrapnel from an exploding hand grenade, that knocked him to the ground. The intense fire was too overwhelming to continue the rescue mission, due to the limited number of fighters on the ground, and with several already wounded, so Chief Slabinski ordered a retreat. He believed that Sgt. Chapman was already dead, seeing the body sprawled on the ground, the laser on his rifle scope, that was laying across his chest, not moving up and down, and led the remaining SEALs away from the gunfire. Later evidence would show that Sgt. Chapman was only knocked temporarily unconscious.
Shortly after the SEALs left the area, Sgt. Chapman regained consciousness. Realizing that he had been left behind, he continued to fight off the Muslim zealots, while protecting the SEAL’s retreat. For over an hour, while Chief Slabinski was coordinating assistance from an Army Ranger standby team at Baghran Air Force Base, Chapman continued fighting, killing several of the enemy. Still, nobody knew that he was alive.
Two Army helicopters responded to Slabinski’s call for assistance; aboard those aircraft were 19 Army Rangers and an Air Force three man special tactics team, consisting of a CCT and a medical Pararescue team (PJ). Seeing the CH-47’s approach, Sgt. Chapman fought with a renewed vigor, standing up to get a better firing position to protect advancing Army Rangers, whose aircraft were taking intense ground fire. The fighting was fierce, at one point Chapman fought off Muslim fighters in hand-to-hand combat, killing one. It was while placing himself in direct fire to protect his fellow special operators, that he was hit with several rounds of machine gun fire.
When Rangers finally did arrive, Chapman was dead, his body riddled with nine bullet wounds. His heroism was recorded for posterity on video from a drone circling overhead; but it would take another 14 years before technology would advance enough to witness his selfless acts. The mission to rescue Petty Officer Roberts; however, was not yet over.
When the first Chinook landed, while Chapman was still alive, they immediately began taking fire and the helicopter’s door gunner, Sergeant Phillip Svitak was killed. As Rangers and Air Force Air Commandos left the aircraft, PFC Matt Commons, Sgt. Brad Cross, and Spc. Mark Anderson were killed. The helicopter had made a crash landing due to multiple hits, and the aircrew, airmen and Rangers were forced to take cover. The second helicopter landed several hundred meters down the mountain, offloading its soldiers and airmen, who charged uphill in thigh high snow to support their fellow warfighters.
The Air Commandos, SEALs and Rangers continued moving ahead under heavy fire. During the battle, Air Force F-15 and F-16 fighter-bombers were called in, while soaring high overhead a B-52 dropped precision bombs, all at the direction the Air Force CCT on the ground, who dodged bullets and RPG grenades while calling out commands. In the meantime, the PJ team tended to the wounded, carrying them from the battlefield to the remaining Chinook. After securing the hilltop, where they found Sgt. Chapman’s body, the enemy counterattacked, and in the heavy fighting that followed, Senior Airman Jason Cunningham, one of the PJ’s tending to the wounded, was killed.
An Air Force AC-130 Spooky gunship was called to the scene. Under ordinary circumstances the Spookies do not loiter during daylight, since one was shot down during Gulf War I; but their firepower was needed to save the troops in combat. It was due to their sustained fire against the enemy, with 105mm cannon and 25mm Gatling gun, directed by the CCT on the ground, that broke the back of the enemy’s counterattack. This air support, combined with the soldiers, sailors and airmen on the ground, forced the Muslim fighters to retreat. Afterwards special operators were able to recover Roberts’ body. He had been assassinated by an al-Qaeda zealot after his capture, with his head almost removed.
On today’s integrated battlefield airmen play a vital role in the joint branch combat effort.. Those who serve on the ground and those who are in the air are an essential part of the coordinated forces whose cooperation makes America’s armed forces the fiercest in the world. To be a warfighter in any service branch takes someone who is different than the majority of Americans. Most people do not have what it takes to face combat willingly. The Air Force is a special branch, whose members not only need that warrior gene, but they receive years of training before becoming combat qualified.
Pilots, Navigators, Weapon’s Systems Officers and Combat Controllers receive no less than two years of training before they are qualified. Pararescue troops, boom operators, aerial gunners, loadmasters and other flight crew members; both enlisted and officer, have no less than 1 ½ years of training before being combat qualified. Without these people, the Air Force cannot perform its mandated mission.
Yet, it would seem that the Air Force does not wish to continue its hard earned reputation as one of the most elite fighting forces in the world. In a March 14 article by Ray Starmann, in U.S. Defense Watch, titled “Off we go into the PC Yonder!,” he highlighted how little Air Force commanders care about having men and women in their service that can live up to the values and warrior code of people like Sgt. Chapman, rather they prefer compliance with a PC code that does not serve the military.
The Air Force has taken a path of self-destruction over the past eight years. Combine that with the horrendous cuts in defense spending under our last three Presidents, and we find ourselves in a crisis. As stated, the fighting members of the Air Force take years to train, and cannot be replaced easily or by draftees in time of war. The actions of senior Air Force officials make those who do have the right stuff, leave in droves, while not creating an environment to recruit replacements. The actions taken today cannot be repaired for years to come. This shortsightedness by senior Air Force officers could render all branches of the service impotent in any future war.
President Trump needs to modify the behavior of senior members of the Air Force. His appointing Heather Wilson to become the next Secretary of the Air Force is not a good start. The feminization of the Air Force is at the heart of the problem. While Wilson is an Air Force Academy graduate, nothing in her military career shows the right stuff to lead this branch of the service. She is much better suited then the non-qualified Deborah James, whom Obama stuck the Air Force with for the past eight years; but not a good choice to rebuild a fighting force of airmen ready to accomplish the demands of the service. In fact, it was James who created all of the problems and feminization that the Air Force is now coping with. Further feminizing the Air Force seems counterproductive.
While women have played an important role in the Air Force, since World War II, they have not been, until James, the directing force that empowers feminine behavior and traits which undermine combat readiness and behavior. Feminization is killing all of our services, but it is devastating the Air Force far worse than the other branches.
As a man who proudly wore the Air Force blue for six years, this decay of one of the best fighting forces in the world is very hard to accept. President Trump must put this service on the proper path and fill it with men who have the right stuff, before it is too late.