Newsweek

The Ghost in the Radio

What really happened during a deadly 2002 battle against Al-Qaeda has led to a bitter dispute among special operators in the Air Force, Navy SEALs and Army Rangers.
In eastern Afghanistan, Air Force Technical Sergeant John Chapman assaults the first bunker while Senior Chief Petty Officer Britt Slabinski, a SEAL team leader, trails behind him. Questions have arisen as to whether the airman was still alive when the SEALs escaped.
FE_SEAL_01 Source: Illustration by Ryan Inzana

Update | Editor's note: Hours after Newsweek published this story, the White House announced that President Donald Trump would award the Medal of Honor to Britt Slabinski.

As the pre-dawn twilight crept over an Afghan mountainside, an Air Force commando named Jay huddled in the snow, listening to a distressed voice crackle over his radio, then fade away. Moments later, he says, the voice came again, breaking through the static in little more than an anguished whisper: “This is Mako Three Zero Charlie.... This is Mako Three Zero Charlie….” The same six words, over and over, each time dissipating before Jay could hear anything else.

Jay was part of an elite reconnaissance team operating behind enemy lines, and he immediately recognized the call sign and voice. They belonged to his counterpart on another team: Air Force Technical Sergeant John Chapman. From his hidden perch, Jay responded again and again on his powerful satellite-capable radio. But he received no reply. The voice continued for about 40 minutes, he says, like a plaintive mantra—“This is Mako Three Zero Charlie…. This is Mako Three Zero Charlie….” Then it fell silent. It wasn’t until the next evening that Jay learned Chapman had died, that he was the last American to hear him alive.

Today, some 16 years after Chapman’s tragic death, fierce disagreement over what happened on that snowy peak threatens to overshadow two Medal of Honor recommendations that—as of publication—await White House approval. The bitter dispute pits members of the Navy SEALs against Air Force special operators and Army Rangers. It has entangled numerous senior military leaders, several of whom had personal links to the desperate fight on Takur Ghar mountain.

The controversy revolves around Operation Anaconda, a March 2002 attempt to surround and destroy a large Al-Qaeda force. It took place in eastern Afghanistan and cost the lives of eight Americans, seven of them on Takur Ghar. Chapman was among the dead. Using Predator drone footage and other evidence, the Air Force has argued that a SEAL Team 6 unit mistakenly left him for dead while retreating under heavy fire. Afterward, the Air Force claims, Chapman fought on for an hour, badly wounded and alone, before Al-Qaeda militants killed him as he provided cover for an approaching helicopter.

The SEALs, however, reject the claim that Chapman was alive when they fled. “The SEALs did not want to be told—officially—that they left a comrade on that mountain alive,” says a former defense official, who, like most sources mentioned in this story, requested anonymity for security reasons or to describe sensitive high-level discussions about members of classified units.

Never-released witness statements and video footage seen by a Newsweek reporter appear to support the Air Force’s version of events. Defense Secretary James Mattis eventually agreed, sending the recommendation to award Chapman a Medal of Honor to the White House in the fall of 2017. Should President Donald Trump sign off on it, Chapman’s Medal of Honor would be the first based primarily on technical intelligence rather than eyewitness accounts. (The Air Force and the Navy both declined to make any official comment for this story.)

What has shocked and angered some sources familiar with the battle is that Mattis has also recommended the same award for then–Senior Chief Petty Officer Britt Slabinski, the SEAL team leader who allegedly left Chapman behind. Some special operators blame Slabinski for not only Chapman’s death but also the lost lives of six other special ops on the mountain. Others say it’s absurd to recommend someone for the Medal of Honor for his bravery in a fight in which he left a teammate behind, albeit by mistake. Informed by a Newsweek reporter that Slabinski was in line for a Medal of Honor, an Army special operator who took part in the operation was aghast. “You kicked me in the nuts when you told me that,” he says. Mike, a former Air Force targeting analyst who monitored the Predator feed of the Takur Ghar fight in real time and re-watched it twice last year at the Air Force’s request, was similarly taken aback. “I’m completely shocked that the Navy is putting a package up.”

Some observers are angry at the Navy for even recommending Slabinski for the award, which they claim was part of a campaign to sabotage the Air Force’s effort on behalf of Chapman. Such a campaign would be unprecedented, according to military awards expert Doug Sterner. “I cannot think of a single instance in which one branch of service opposed a Medal of Honor for another one,” he says.

Chapman’s supporters say the entire episode shows the extraordinary length that the SEALs will go to protect their reputation. A SEAL who took part in the Takur Ghar fight strongly disputed that assessment: “That’s a bunch of BS.” The blame, he says, lies with the Air Force for allowing the controversy to become public without doing “due diligence,” which would have included interviewing him and his fellow SEALs. “The Air Force caused all the problem,” he adds, “by just trying to jam something down everybody’s throat without even talking to us.”

Others familiar with the battle sprang to Slabinski’s defense, even as they acknowledged the unusual optics of awarding him a Medal of Honor. “He’s an introvert, but he’s very bold in his actions,” says a former senior SEAL Team 6 officer who served frequently with Slabinski. “I thought he was a great leader.”

A former defense official familiar with the discussions over the Medal of Honor recommendations is adamant that Slabinski, a second-generation SEAL who retired from the Navy as a master chief petty officer in 2014, deserves his award, just as Chapman does. But he bemoans how, as the two award packages wended their way

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