Medal of Honor recipient John Chapman "sacrificed his life" to save fellow troops

Medal of Honor awarded to fallen troop

HURLBURT FIELD, Fla. — President Trump presented the Medal of Honor, the military's highest award for valor, to the widow of Air Force Tech. Sgt. John Chapman Wednesday. He gave his life protecting fellow troops in one of the ugliest battles of the war in Afghanistan.

Al Qaeda fighters were waiting for Chapman and a team of Navy SEALs when they came off a helicopter.

"The enemy was in basically overhead positions around them on three sides, raining down fire in three directions," said Lt. Col. Michael Wendelken, who spent two and a half years analyzing every frame of surveillance video of the 2002 battle in Afghanistan. 

Video shows Chapman running up a mountain, straight at a bunker where an enemy machine gun was firing. It's hard to understand why he wasn't cut down, and harder still to understand where he got the courage.

"There were two enemy inside the bunker. He killed them both as they were shooting at him," Wendelken said.

Air Force video shows airman’s final moments on rescue mission

"Basically we watched what my aircraft commander described as 'a firefight in a phone booth,'" said Sgt. Robert Harrison.

At the time, Harrison was in a gunship circling overhead trying to blast al Qaeda off the mountain. The video is hard to follow, so the Air Force commissioned an animation, which Wendelken says is accurate down to the exact location of Chapman's wounds.

Chapman jumped out of the relative safety of the bunker to fire at another machine gun 10 meters away.

"He was hit and then went down ... and was likely rendered unconscious at that point," Wendelken said.

The rest of the team was sure Chapman was dead and pulled off the ridge to wait for reinforcements.

US-POLITICS-TRUMP-MEDAL
President Trump presents Valerie Nessel, the widow of Air Force Tech. Sgt. John Chapman, with his Medal of Honor during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., on Wed., Aug. 22, 2018. Getty

"A few minutes later, he awoke and continued to fight for another hour and 10 minutes," Wendelken said.

Chapman was on his own, fighting for his life against the enemy at point blank range. A helicopter was bringing in reinforcements and he tried to provide covering fire.

"Within 30 seconds of that helicopter landing, knowing that he was just 10 meters from a machine gun, he put his back to that machine gun to engage an enemy that was trying to shoot down the helicopter," Wendelken said.

That is when he was shot twice in the back and killed. The reinforcements made it in but not in time to save Chapman.

"It's pretty clear he sacrificed his life to make sure that they had a chance to land and rescue the rest of the team," Wendelken said.

If ever a man went down fighting for his country, it was John Chapman.

  • David Martin

    David Martin is CBS News' National Security Correspondent.