WASHINGTON — President Trump on Thursday awarded the Medal of Honor to Britt Slabinski, the retired Navy SEAL who rallied his outnumbered troops during a chaotic rescue mission on a snow-covered mountain top in Afghanistan in 2002.
Slabinski was initially awarded the Navy Cross for his heroics in the fight against al-Qaeda terrorists to rescue a colleague, but a review of citations for valor since the Sept. 11 terror attacks ordered in 2014 by then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel resulted in the upgrade to the Medal of Honor.
“Special man,” Trump said. “A truly brave person.”
Another member of Slabinski’s team, Air Force Tech. Sgt. John Chapman, is also being considered for the Medal of Honor posthumously — closely held discussions at the Pentagon that cast a shadow on the actions that occurred on March 4, 2002. In addition, several other troops, including at least three sailors, received Silver Stars in secret ceremonies for their heroism in combat that day.
About 1 a.m. on March 4, Master Chief Slabinski’s team, aboard an Army Chinook helicopter, was attacked by unseen militants as it attempted to land on mountaintop of Takur Ghar in eastern Afghanistan. Navy SEAL Neil Roberts fell from the aircraft as it pulled back from the gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades. It crash landed about three miles away.
In another helicopter, Slabinski returned to lead a rescue operation for Roberts and was attacked by a more heavily armed force of al-Qaeda militants. Slabinski “repeatedly exposed himself to enemy fire as he engaged in a pitched, close-quarters firefight against the tenacious and more heavily armed enemy forces,” according to a statement from the White House.
The fighting, known as the battle of Roberts Ridge, raged for hours as Slabinski requested reinforcements, aided fallen members of his team and continued fighting until they could be rescued.
Chapman raced from cover when the team was pinned down by fire from three directions, according to an Air Force account. He rushed an enemy position and was wounded. Thought to be dead, he was left behind. However, analysis of video from a drone years later showed that he had continued to fight, a revelation first reported by The New York Times. Air Force officials have recommended that he also receive the Medal of Honor.
Chapman’s death should not tarnish Slabinski’s medal, said Dwight Mears, an author and expert on military valor.
“Even if the SEAL team unintentionally left Chapman behind, this in no way taints Slabinski’s valorous action,” Mears said. “The two events are not mutually exclusive. It’s difficult to imagine that Slabinski would not have sacrificed his own life to save Chapman if he had known that the man still lived; after all, the entire mission was orchestrated to rescue another colleague from certain death.”
Citations to three other sailors that day offer a glimpse of the brutal fight. Another SEAL, whose name is redacted in the documents obtained by USA TODAY, was part of the six-man team “that flew back into an enemy stronghold atop a 10,000-foot mountain to rescue a captured teammate.”
The citation notes that the petty officer encountered automatic weapons fire from a bunker about 15 feet from him. He leaped from cover to aid a wounded colleague and poured “fire from his M60 machine gun into the enemy bunker, killing several enemies.”
Bullets and fragments from a blast wounded both his legs, according to the citation. But he led the withdrawal, “ignoring intense pain and blood loss from his wounds to maneuver over one kilometer through icy and precipitous terrain to reach a defendable location.”
A second SEAL awarded the Silver Star was caught in a crossfire with no cover. He killed an enemy machine gunner and another militant, and later called in fire from aircraft,” accounting for several more enemy casualties.”
It wasn’t until 8:15 p.m. that helicopters whisked all the troops, including the fallen, from the mountain top.