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In the Company of Heroes
The Inspiring Stories of Medal of Honor Recipients from America's Longest Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq
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In the Company of Heroes will feature in-depth narrative profiles of the twenty-five post-9/11 Medal of Honor awardees who served in Afghanistan and Iraq. This book will focus on the stories of these extraordinary people, expressed in their own voices through one-on-one interviews, and in the case of posthumous awards, through interviews with their brothers in arms and their families. The public affairs offices of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the individual armed services, as well as the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, have expressed their support for this project.
Stories include Marine Corps Corporal William "Kyle" Carpenter, who purposely lunged toward a Taliban hand grenade in order to shield his buddy from the blast; Navy SEAL team leader Britt Slabinski, who, after being ambushed and retreating in the Hindu Kush, returned against monumental odds in order to try to save one of his team who was inadvertently lost in the fight; and Ranger Staff Sergeant Leroy Petry, who lunged for a live grenade, threw it back at the enemy, and saved his two Ranger brothers.
On an unseasonably warm evening in mid-September 2018, a crowd of Naval Academy midshipmen in starched uniforms poured through the entryway of Dahlgren Hall. The cavernous Beaux-Arts structure was buzzing with excitement. The young midshipmen had been promised a Friday night of celebration and celebrity, with “Patriot Awards” to be given to Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Fox News anchor Chris Wallace, Senator Susan Collins of Maine, and former Tonight Show comedian Jay Leno. Yet the patriots many of the midshipmen most wanted to meet on September 15, 2018, were not celebrities or politicians, but rather members of the world’s most exclusive fraternity.
Admission into the Congressional Medal of Honor Society cannot be purchased with any currency other than valor. Of the only seventy-two then-living recipients of the Medal of Honor—the nation’s highest military award for bravery in combat “above and beyond the call of duty”—fully forty-four attended the annual meeting in Annapolis, the society’s first-ever event at the service academy. Each of them had emerged through a painstaking process that begins with a recommendation from their chain of command or Congress, is subjected to months of intense scrutiny and investigation by a Decorations Board and must be approved by the Pentagon’s head of Manpower and Reserve Affairs, the chief of staff of their particular armed service, the secretary of defense, and ultimately the president of the United States.
Besides the Patriot Awards dinner, the Medal of Honor Society’s four-day convention included a town hall forum and autograph session with the public, a private lunch with Naval Academy midshipmen, a parade ground review of the academy’s marching brigade, and a Navy football game. At every stop and venue, crowds gathered close to these heroes to be reminded of something essential about the American character. The extraordinary qualities and principles they embody are often lost in our celebrity culture and in the self-absorption of social media, or they are discounted in an endless news cycle driven by sensational headlines and clickbait. Yet these men are nevertheless a true reflection of the parents and communities across the nation that raised them, and especially of the many nameless men and women in uniform who served by their sides and watched their backs. Their stories recall the broad sweep of history that has seen generation after generation of Americans called to duty during times of war.
That trumpet sounded even before President Abraham Lincoln first established the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1862 to recognize “such noncommissioned officers and privates as shall most distinguish themselves by their gallantry in action, and other soldier-like qualities during the present insurrection.” In 1863 the medal became a permanent military decoration available to all in uniform, including commissioned officers. That expansion came in time to honor Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. On July 2, 1863, during the Battle of Gettysburg, Chamberlain defended the left flank of the Union army from repeated Confederate attacks on Little Round Top. When his 20th Maine was decimated by casualties and nearly out of ammunition, Chamberlain ordered a bayonet charge down the mountain that broke the Confederate lines and helped secure victory in the decisive battle of the Civil War.
So it has been with the other 3,526 Medals of Honor awarded since it was established, a constellation of heroism delineating a nation born of high ideals, yet defended and sustained only through martial will and bloody sacrifice. The arc of America’s ascendance from a fledgling democracy ultimately to an unrivaled global superpower is also revealed in that accounting.
There were 1,523 Medals of Honor awarded during the war to preserve the Union, and 426 for the Indian campaigns as the country expanded westward in the name of Manifest Destiny. The colonial-era wars of the late 1800s and early 1900s (the Spanish-American War, Philippines War, Samoan campaign, Chinese Boxer Rebellion, and Haitian and Dominican campaigns) produced 268 Medal of Honor recipients. The U.S. entry into World War I eventually led to 126 Medals of Honor being awarded, notably to include Sergeant Alvin York, a freckle-faced Tennessee mountaineer and would-be conscientious objector who became a legend for his actions in the Argonne Forest during the final offensive of the war. York was credited with killing 25 German soldiers, silencing 35 enemy machine guns, and single-handedly capturing 132 German prisoners.
The Second World War fitted the United States for its superpower uniform, and the fighting in the Atlantic and Pacific theaters produced no fewer than 472 Medal of Honor recipients. They notably included Audie Murphy, the hardscrabble son of sharecroppers who lied in order to enlist in the Army at the age of sixteen, and at nineteen was credited with holding off an entire company of German soldiers. Murphy killed or wounded an estimated 50 German troops before suffering a severe leg wound, and then led a counterattack that decided the battle. Murphy would go on to become one of the most decorated soldiers of the war as well as a Hollywood actor and celebrity, though he never fully recovered from the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that plagues so many combat veterans.
Of the rapidly dwindling number of World War II Medal of Honor recipients, Hershel “Woody” Williams made it to the Annapolis convention in September 2018. The youngest of eleven children and raised on a dairy farm in West Virginia, Williams was rejected on his first attempt to enlist in the Marine Corps in 1942 because he was too short. Armed with a flamethrower, he would later single-handedly clear a network of reinforced Japanese pillboxes and machine-gun emplacements during the battle for Iwo Jima. He stood tall in receiving the Medal of Honor from President Harry S. Truman.
The Korean War that foreshadowed the long, twilight struggle of the Cold War between democracy and communism produced 145 Medal of Honor recipients. They included Japanese American Hiroshi “Hershey” Miyamura, who also attended the Annapolis reunion. Miyamura’s wife had been incarcerated in an internment camp in the United States while he fought with the all-Nisei 100th Infantry Battalion in World War II. During the Korean War, Miyamura killed more than 50 Chinese troops, some in hand-to-hand combat, to give his fellow soldiers time to retreat and avoid being overrun or captured. He was wounded and spent the next twenty-eight months in a North Korean prisoner of war camp, later receiving the Medal of Honor from President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
And there in Annapolis was Bruce Crandall, a former All-American baseball player in high school in Olympia, Washington, who in 1965 served as an Army helicopter pilot in Vietnam. After the Army’s 7th Cavalry Regiment was ambushed and surrounded in the Ia Drang Valley, some medivac crews refused to fly into the intensely hot landing zone. So Crandall continuously flew unarmed Huey helicopters on twenty-two missions into the teeth of the enemy fire, ruining many helicopters but managing to evacuate 70 wounded soldiers and deposit the ammunition that allowed the 7th Calvary to survive the night. He received the Medal of Honor in 2007 from President George W. Bush.
Few who talked to these rare individuals and heard their stories in Annapolis in September 2018 walked away uninspired. Theirs are stories of never surrendering despite harrowing odds, of facing death and finding the courage and faith not to be cowed, of wearing their scars like badges of honor. There is wisdom and warrior fierceness in these narratives, but also acts of profound tenderness. The common theme running throughout is men caught in a brush with eternity, and choosing to risk and even forfeit their own lives to save their brothers in arms. Greater love hath no man than this…
Perhaps because of their relative youth, members of the post-9/11 class of Medal of Honor recipients who fought in Afghanistan and Iraq were especially popular with the crowds in Annapolis. Unlike their forebears, they are members of an all-volunteer military that was created after Vietnam with the abolishment of the draft. As socially engineered and self-selected over many years, the force they represent is unlike any that the United States has fielded in the past, let alone during the longest period of extended war in the nation’s history.
Many of those troops volunteered after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks—the most devastating blow to the homeland since Pearl Harbor—knowing they were signing up for combat. They are mostly the sons and daughters not of Wall Street hedge fund managers or Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, but of working-class cops, teachers, firefighters, and especially other soldiers. One U.S. Army survey found that the 304 general officers in the military had 180 children serving in uniform, making military service something of a family business. By contrast, of the 535 members of Congress at the time of the survey, the country’s political elite, fewer than a dozen had children in the services.
The all-volunteer U.S. military hails from all corners of the country, though the South and Mountain West are somewhat disproportionately represented, regions that not coincidentally have venerable traditions of military service and play host to more than their share of major military bases. The ranks of the volunteers are filled disproportionately by African Americans, who account for 17 percent of the active-duty military (versus 13 percent of the U.S. population), largely because military service has long been seen as a step up the socioeconomic ladder in the black community. Hispanics are underrepresented but growing as a proportion of the military ranks at 12 percent (versus 18 percent in the general population). Women are likewise underrepresented (with 15 percent of active-duty ranks) in what remains a male-dominated occupation. Members of the volunteer military are also significantly more fit and better educated than their age cohorts in the civilian population, and less likely to have criminal records.
While they collectively represent less than 1 percent of the population, America’s military volunteers have disproportionately shouldered the burden of our nation’s longest wars. Not surprisingly, nearly two decades of fighting have made this professional warrior caste, and the military ethos they embrace, stand somewhat distinct from the society they have chosen to defend with their lives. Many have returned home from war the same way they deployed for combat—largely invisible to a distracted nation.
Through the stories of these warriors, readers will become closely acquainted with the volunteers who selflessly answered the call after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, a group that some military historians are already calling “the New Greatest Generation.” Their tales chronicle some of the most intense and impactful battles in Afghanistan and Iraq, and trace the sweeping arc of America’s longest wars, from initial routs and “Mission Accomplished,” to nearly twin defeats against implacable enemies, to hard-fought and largely successful countering “surges” that ultimately ended in a gray zone somewhere between defeat and outright victory. Such are the challenges for a democracy fighting unconventional wars against fanatical global terrorists and allied nationalist insurgents.
This book focuses on the post-9/11 Medal of Honor awardees in part because as a reporter I have covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and I have found the example set by our brave volunteers ennobling. I have also talked to generals who question whether the nation would ever have invaded Iraq, or still be fighting in Afghanistan after nineteen years, if we still had a draft army to bring the pain and grief of war home to Middle America and to Washington, D.C. But that’s a subject for another book. This one began with a phone call from the Department of the Navy offering an exclusive interview with new Medal of Honor recipient and Navy SEAL chief Britt Slabinski, whose gripping and tragic tale of a fight on a mountain called Takur Ghar in the early days of the “global war on terror” inspired me to seek out the stories of more of these extraordinary individuals, whenever possible expressed in their own voices, and in the case of posthumous awards through the voices of their brothers in arms and families. Some have detailed their experiences in full-length books that are also cited in these pages.
For a generation of Americans who have come of age in the all-volunteer era, war has become an abstraction, something best left to the professionals. In airports and train stations we politely tell those in uniform, “Thank you for your service,” knowing full well that their sacrifice and that of their families makes it possible for the vast majority of us not to serve. My hope is that the stories of these remarkable individuals will remind readers that war is never an abstraction, and we owe it to all the men and women who fight on our behalf to acknowledge and honor their sacrifice.
Men like Marine Corps corporal William “Kyle” Carpenter, still the youngest living Medal of Honor recipient. In Afghanistan in 2010, a twenty-one-year-old Carpenter purposely lunged toward a Taliban hand grenade in order to shield his buddy from the blast. He endured more than forty surgeries over three years to recover from the resulting catastrophic injuries.
In Annapolis, Carpenter took time out from the Medal of Honor Society festivities to speak to students at the Severn School. He shared with them the wisdom of a young life that, on a faraway battlefield, he had long ago surrendered to God.
“It took a life-changing event to get me to truly appreciate the precious and amazing life I have been blessed with,” Carpenter told the students. “Please take it from me, enjoy every day to the fullest, don’t take life too seriously, always try and make it count, appreciate the small and simple things, be kind and help others, let the ones you love know you love them, and when things get hard trust there is a bigger plan and that you will be stronger for it.”
After his speech at the Severn School, Kyle Carpenter shook hands and spoke at length with Kevin Looney, whose son, Navy lieutenant Brendan Looney, was killed in Afghanistan. Kyle knew he represented a living connection to a place and a cause that was forever etched in a grieving father’s heart. Later, as the crowd around him grew, Carpenter saw an old friend walk into the gymnasium. He went over and hugged Zachary Stinson, his former squad leader in Afghanistan, who lost both legs above the knee from the blast of an improvised explosive device. He and Carpenter had leaned on each other for support during the excruciating years of recovery.
When the crowd finally dispersed, Carpenter turned to a reporter who was present. “I’m so honored and appreciative of the Medal of Honor,” he said. “It’s not mine. It truly represents Zach, everyone who served in uniform who died and bled for our country. It’s such an incredibly heavy medal to wear.”
Where Angels Fear to Tread
Navy Senior Chief (SEAL) Britt K. Slabinski
Air Force Technical Sergeant John A. Chapman
Sometimes at night they huddled over a portable chess set in the dusty tent they shared, their cots pulled close together, heads bent over a board game that offered blessed respite from the ceaseless hours of preparation and worry. They plotted their next chess moves, talked about their children and families back home, and, for a few stolen minutes, tuned out the near-constant roar of helicopters launching nearby, the acrid smell of burning jet fuel and the crush of stacked combat gear—the rumblings of a gun outfit on the eve of a big fight.
Though they hailed from different Special Forces branches, Navy SEAL team leader Britt Slabinski and Air Force Combat Controller John Chapman would have been indistinguishable to the casual observer. Both young men sported beards and nondescript camouflage uniforms with few markings, and they carried themselves with athletic swagger, all signatures of special operations forces. As they sparred good-naturedly over the chess set in February 2002, the idea that these two friends would each receive the nation’s highest award for valor for their actions in the coming days would have seemed preposterous.
Despite choosing different services, Slabinski and Chapman followed similar paths from all-American boyhood to a secret base camp in the foothills of the Hindu Kush. In fact, they grew up less than fifty miles from each other.
Slabinski was a second-generation SEAL (Sea, Air, and Land) commando whose father had served as an underwater demolition expert. Growing up in Northampton, Massachusetts, the young Slabinski became an Eagle Scout at the tender age of fourteen, achieving the highest rank in the Boy Scouts and developing an early thirst for adventure. A possible outlet was suggested during junior high school, when he joined his father for a reunion of his SEAL Team in Little Neck, Virginia. Watching his father reconnect instantly with his former brothers in arms, sensing their timeless bonds of camaraderie, the young Slabinski yearned for that sense of belonging and devotion to a greater cause. When his friends went off to college or started day jobs after high school, he found himself drawn instead to the challenge of trying to become an elite Navy SEAL.
The SEALs are direct descendants of the Navy’s Operational Swimmers, Raiders, and Underwater Demolition Teams who distinguished themselves during World War II. Those unconventional warriors were forged out of necessity and the hard lessons of tragedy. During the Marine Corps’ landing on Tarawa atoll in the South Pacific in 1943, an armada of landing craft was unexpectedly stuck on a reef and left exposed by a low tide. Forced to try to wade ashore, many Marines drowned or were slaughtered by heavy Japanese fire before ever reaching the beach. Due to errant Allied bombardment of German beach defenses in Normandy, more than half of the men in the Naval Combat Demolition Unit that landed on Omaha Beach on D-Day were killed or wounded. The missions and tactics of today’s SEALs were developed in part as a reaction to those experiences. They include advanced beach reconnaissance, fire support “overwatch,” and explosive destruction of underwater obstacles for amphibious landings.
From that heritage, the U.S. Navy SEALs were officially christened in 1962 by President John F. Kennedy, who is considered the spiritual father of U.S. special operations forces. At the height of the Cold War between allied democracies and communist dictatorships—and with a war in Vietnam looming on the horizon—Kennedy foresaw the need for unconventional forces steeped in the tactics of guerrilla warfare. His administration thus greatly expanded the Army Special Forces “Green Berets,” and created two SEAL Teams out of existing Navy Underwater Demolition Teams. Both the Green Berets and the Navy SEALs largely came into their own during direct action missions and fierce fighting in Vietnam. The North Vietnamese and Viet Cong dubbed the stealthy SEALs “the men with the green faces” because of their camouflage face paint and warrior spirit.
As a raw enlistee, Britt Slabinski stood on a beach with roughly one hundred other young men at the Naval Special Warfare Center in Coronado, California, each of them determined to join that storied force of unconventional warriors. All of them believed they had the grit and determination to complete BUD/S (Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL) training, the notoriously difficult gateway to becoming a Navy SEAL. Yet after completing eight weeks of basic conditioning, more than half of the trainees “rang the bell” during “Hell Week,” unable to cope with a grueling crucible of sleep deprivation, exhaustion, and physical pain that purposely pushes trainees beyond their limits and into uncharted realms of misery.
As he proudly stood in his dress Navy uniform on BUD/S class graduation day, Britt Slabinski had looked around to see only roughly twenty of his original training class still standing. From that moment on, being a Navy SEAL just felt like home.
Britt Slabinski never looked back.
John Chapman was a small-town kid from Windsor Locks, Connecticut, a burg of twelve thousand citizens on the banks of the Connecticut River. Early on Chapman showed the athleticism and nerve that earned him All State in diving three out of his four years in high school and made him a standout on the soccer team. To his family and tight-knit circle of friends he was just a happy-go-lucky athlete with an easy smile and winning manner.
After a short stint at the University of Connecticut, Chapman felt himself yearning for more adventure in his life. He didn’t find enough of it enlisting in the Air Force and working in front of computers as part of an information systems squadron, so he volunteered for the elite Combat Control Team (CCT) career field. He began the grueling, yearlong Combat Controller training program at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas. From then on, he didn’t complain about a lack of adventure in his life.
Like the Naval Special Warfare units, the Air Force’s Combat Control Teams grew out of bitter lessons from World War II, most specifically a disastrous airborne assault in 1943 on the island of Sicily. Roughly seven hundred paratroopers were mistakenly dropped out at sea over the Mediterranean, where many of them drowned. Numerous aircraft involved in the operation nearly flew into each other on their approaches. Given the obvious need for more accurate airdrops, the U.S. Army created the Pathfinders, reconnaissance scouts who secretly infiltrated to an objective before the main assault forces arrived. Once in place, they provided visual guidance to inbound aircraft and jumpers with flares, high-powered lights, and smoke pots. When the Air Force became a separate service in 1947, the Pathfinders went with the air arm to provide the nascent service with expertise in air traffic control and airborne operations. The Pathfinders were later renamed Combat Control Teams.
Even a gifted athlete like John Chapman found CCT training daunting. There was the highly technical Combat Control Operator Course in air traffic control, air navigation, and communication procedures. That was followed by a rigorous, weeks-long course at the Air Force Survival School at Fairchild Air Force Base, Washington, where Chapman and his classmates received instruction on how to survive on their own in harsh climates and conditions. At the Army’s Airborne School at Fort Benning, Georgia, Chapman learned basic parachuting skills necessary for infiltration behind enemy lines. Combat Control School instructors at Pope Air Force Base, North Carolina, taught Chapman and his teammates small unit tactics, fire support, demolition, and land navigation.
After initial training, Chapman graduated to Special Tactics Advanced Skills Training, which includes training in free-fall parachuting at the Military Free-Fall Parachutist Course School at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. He also completed the Air Force Combat Dive Course, and he taught at the Naval Diving and Salvage Training Center in Panama City, Florida. On top of mastering skills such as establishing aircraft landing zones and parachute drop zones, and calling in ordnance from ground-attack aircraft, Chapman ultimately became a military free-fall parachutist, a static line jumpmaster, and a military scuba dive supervisor.
At one point when John Chapman’s rapidly dwindling class of would-be Combat Controllers was undergoing particularly tough scuba diving drills, someone asked their chief CCT instructor, Master Sergeant Ron Childress, whether he was actually trying to train them to become Navy SEALs.
“No,” Childress replied. “I’m training you so you don’t slow the SEALs down.”
The dropout rate for Combat Controller training was similar to that of the SEALs, and when Chapman received the signature red beret of Air Force Combat Controllers, only six other members of his class remained. Yet his instructors never doubted that Chapman would earn the Combat Control Badge and embody its motto: “First There.” John Chapman was quiet and unassuming, but he had the cocky attitude and swagger common to all good Combat Controllers. By the end of training, he and his remaining teammates had transformed into airpower-savvy commandos who could run, jump, or swim with members of any other special operations unit, and act as their conduit for close air support and insertion and extraction by air.
For the Special Forces community, one of the most intriguing quirks of the job was watching cable news reports on hot spots around the world and having a pretty good idea where they would soon deploy. Special Forces operators even used secret code words with their wives that alerted them to turn on the television to see where their husbands were likely going next.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, no one needed a code word to know to turn on their television. Navy senior chief petty officer Britt Slabinski was working out at a gym in Virginia Beach with his SEAL teammates when someone directed their attention to a nearby screen. Commercial airliners were flying into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon out of a clear blue sky. Technical Sergeant John Chapman was watching the same horror show at Pope Air Force Base, where he was stationed. Both men understood that the swift sword of U.S. retribution would soon cast its shadow over a landlocked country of towering mountains and verdant river valleys on the other side of the world. Before they had even received the official deployment orders, they began packing their gear for Afghanistan.
In late February 2002 the Special Forces camp at Gardiz was a frenetic hub of activity. Up until that time America’s self-proclaimed global war on terror had mostly been a rout. A relative handful of U.S. Special Forces troops, backed by overwhelming U.S. airpower and allied with local Afghan militias, had toppled the Taliban regime in a matter of weeks. They’d had Osama bin Laden and his top Al Qaeda lieutenants surrounded and all but captured or killed a few months earlier at Tora Bora, before allowing them to slip away. Everyone anticipated more of the same in the battle that was then brewing.
For more than a month, U.S. signals and human intelligence had indicated a large concentration of Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters in a steep, mountainous valley along the Afghan-Pakistan border called the Shah-i-Kot, or “Place of the King.” There were also indications that high-value Al Qaeda leaders and allied Taliban warlords were wintering in the valley, possibly in preparation for a spring offensive once the snows melted and the fighting season began in earnest.
The U.S. response was Operation Anaconda. From the beginning, the battle plan was designed to rectify the mistakes of the battle for Tora Bora, when U.S. commanders had counted on unreliable Afghan militias to close the noose on Osama bin Laden. The intent of the aptly named operation was to essentially encircle the enemy first before squeezing the life out of them.
- On Sale
- Aug 31, 2021
- Page Count
- 320 pages
- Center Street