Alone at Dawn: Medal of Honor Recipient John Chapman and the Untold Story of the World's Deadliest Special Operations Force
“Chapman’s tenacity in sacrificing himself to save the lives of his comrades as other forces attempt to rescue him truly stand out as an example of the best America has to offer . . .”
For the past several years, the U.S. military has been conducting extensive reviews of combat awards made during the early years of the Afghanistan and Iraq campaigns. Several of these investigations have resulted in upgrades of previous medals to the country’s highest military award, the Congressional Medal of Honor (CMH).
This book is part biography, part narrative history of one of these awards, the first CMH awarded to an airman since the Vietnam War. The authors also provide some behind the scenes history of the Combat Controllers, part of the Air Force’s Special Operations Command and one of the smaller and less well-known components of America’s vast special operations armada.
At its heart, of course, the book tells the story of John Chapman, all American kid who joins the Air Force in 1985 to provide some stability and a secure job in his life. However, he yearns for something more challenging and ends up becoming an Air Force Combat Controller, completing the toughest training in the Air Force and one of the most challenging courses for any of the U.S. military’s elite forces.
An injury from horseback riding kept him from serving in Operation Desert Storm, and after performing some hazardous missions in the Balkans in the 1990s, Chapman settles down and raises a family, eventually taking a more comfortable staff job within the Air Force’s 24th Special Operations Wing. By September 2001, he was considering his post-military career, planning on retiring after serving his 20 years to take a more lucrative job to support his family.
September 11, 2001, was a watershed moment not only for the Air Force Combat Controllers, but for John Chapman and his goal of serving his country in combat. Working his way onto a team of Navy SEALs, Chapman manages to arrive in Afghanistan in February 2002, right before the start of Operation Anaconda.
Most Americans have long forgotten this battle fought in some of the most forbidding terrain in Afghanistan. In early 2002, the remnants of the Taliban and most of their Al Qaeda allies had been driven into their old mountain redoubts from which they had fought the Soviet Union 20 years earlier.
The American military, desiring a decisive battle with what was believed to be the remnants of Osama bin Laden’s followers, created a haphazard plan involving Afghan tribal militia belonging to the Northern Alliance, Special Operations troops from the United States and our allies, and soldiers from the 101st Airborne and 10th Mountain Divisions. The plan was designed as a simple “hammer and anvil” maneuver to use the Afghan forces to drive the Taliban and their allies into a wall of American troops before they could escape across the border into Pakistan.
Unfortunately, the plan had several flaws, all of which would come to light under the pressure of combat and nearly spell disaster for the entire operation. First, the numbers and willingness of the Al Qaeda forces to fight instead of flee was a severe intelligence failure. The Al Qaeda forces were well dug-in and well armed with mortars, machine guns, and a desire for martyrdom.
There were also probably three to four times the number of fighters the American military planners estimated, leaving them almost at a numerical parity with the attacking Americans. The fighting ability of our Afghan allies was severely over-estimated and as the battle unfolded, and nearly all of the fighting was done by American forces, along with a few close allies like British and Australian special forces troops.
Most importantly, the American planners and operators underestimated the terrain impact of the high mountain ridges and passes where much of the fighting would occur, which limited the traditional American strengths of mobility and firepower as helicopters had a difficult time flying at such altitudes and were subject to significant cross-fire from surrounding mountain positions.
All of these factors enter into John Chapman’s story as it unfolds during the battle. The author does an outstanding job of setting the stage for his entrance into the story, relating the tough fighting and overwhelming odds of the special operations forces as they seek to neutralize Al Qaeda positions and call down massive air strikes to support the beleaguered army troops dropped into the valley floor.
As Chapman’s story unfolds on the mountain top known as Takur Ghar, the reader is left in disbelief at the disregard for military common sense exhibited by American commanders in repeatedly sending helicopters into hot landing zones where three of them are shot up in quick succession, including the helicopter delivering John Chapman and his teammates into the battle.
The rest of the story unfolds in a mixture of bravery and bungling as Sergeant John Chapman is mistakenly left for dead in a captured Taliban bunker as his comrades are forced to retreat under heavy fire. Chapman’s tenacity in sacrificing himself to save the lives of his comrades as other forces attempt to rescue him truly stand out as an example of the best America has to offer in its soldiers, sailors, air force, and Marines.
But the story doesn’t end with his death on an Afghan mountaintop in 2002. The reader then gets to follow the amazing story as Chapman’s family doggedly spends the next decade seeking both the truth of what happened that fateful day, and to obtain for John the honors he rightfully deserves.
In August 2018, John Chapman was posthumously awarded the nation’s highest military honor in a White House ceremony attended by his widow, his children, and his extended family, including his sister who was so instrumental in fighting to reopen his case for the CMH. His is truly a story that has to be read to be believed.