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As a Navy SEAL receives the Medal of Honor, frustrations remain about a related case

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Tech. Sgt. John Chapman was killed in Afghanistan in 2002 while attempting to rescue a Navy SEAL. (U.S. Air Force)

Two Chinook helicopters carrying elite U.S. troops roared through the chilly Afghan air above a mountaintop when disaster struck. Rocket-propelled grenades and machine-gun fire ripped into one of the lumbering aircraft as it approached a landing zone, ejecting a Navy SEAL Team 6 member and prompting a rescue operation.

On Thursday, President Trump awarded retired Master Chief Petty Officer Britt K. Slabinski the nation’s highest award for valor in combat, the Medal of Honor, for his actions 16 years ago on 10,000-foot Takur Ghar mountain. The Navy SEAL is credited with braving withering fire from Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters in waist-deep snow while leading the rest of his team — call sign “Mako 30” — in search of missing Petty Officer 1st Class Neil C. Roberts.

“Britt wants the country to know that for him, the recognition he is about to receive is an honor that falls on the whole team — he wants you folks to know that, on the whole team,” Trump said at a ceremony at the White House. “When every American warrior who fought the forces of terror on that snowy Afghan ridge, each of them has entered the eternal chronicle of American valor and American bravery. Britt, we salute you, we thank you, we thank God for making you a United States SEAL.”


Retired Master Chief Petty Officer Britt K. Slabinski will receive the Medal of Honor from President Trump on May 24. (U.S. Navy)

Slabinski was recognized for his actions in March 2002 in what became known as the Battle of Roberts Ridge. The operation has spawned books, prompted study at U.S. warfare schools and been depicted in a video game[1], in large part because of its dire nature. Seven Americans, including Roberts, were killed, and the operation was scrutinized afterward for its flawed planning and communication at more senior levels.

“I’ll accept that medal with great humility, because all my guys followed me up the mountain that day, as did the aircrews that kept the flights coming, and the Rangers who came not because they knew us, but because they knew we were in trouble,” Slabinski said in an interview published[2] by Breaking Defense on Thursday before the ceremony. “In many ways I’m uncomfortable being singled out because when you wrap your head around that whole battle, every one of them deserved this medal. That’s no exaggeration.”

But there is another part of the story: Air Force Tech. Sgt. John A. Chapman, one of Slabinski’s deceased teammates, also has been nominated for the Medal of Honor. The White House and Pentagon have not disclosed whether the president will award it.

In a sad, cruel twist in Chapman’s case, the Air Force concluded that he was forced to fight to his death alone after Slabinski ordered that SEALs evacuate in the face of a vastly larger enemy force. Slabinski believed that Chapman was dead, the Air Force found.

But the service, using Predator drone video that was not originally considered, concluded in 2016 that Chapman was probably unconscious at the time and continued to fight off al-Qaeda fighters when he regained consciousness. That finding, first reported by the New York Times[3], marked the first time the military had based a valor award nomination on drone video footage. Traditionally, cases rely primarily on witness accounts.

The two sons of New England grew up as strangers about 50 miles apart, but are connected by their actions during the opening months of the war in Afghanistan.

Slabinski, originally of Northampton, Mass., completed a 25-year career in 2014. He was considered a legend in the Navy’s SEAL Team 6 and received a Navy Cross — the second-highest award for valor — in recognition of his actions on Takur Ghar mountain. More recently, he has been dogged by media reports suggesting he mishandled enemy remains, including a story by the Intercept[4] that included previously unpublished audio in which a voice said to be his describes shooting one dead enemy fighter up to 20 times in the legs and calls it a form of therapy.

Chapman, a native of Windsor Locks, Conn., posthumously received the Air Force Cross for his valor in 2003 and already was considered perhaps his service’s greatest modern war hero. He left behind a wife and two young daughters. He was a combat controller, an enlisted airman who specializes in communicating with pilots to guide airstrikes on target in the middle of hair-raising special operations.

Deborah James, who served as Air Force secretary during the Obama administration, said in an interview that she approved a packet for Chapman’s nomination in 2016, convinced the totality of his actions recognized by the Air Force Cross along with the actions captured afterward in the drone footage deserved the Medal of Honor.

“These ISR feeds to me were like forensic evidence,” James said, using an acronym for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. “Forty years ago, nobody knew what DNA was. But 40 years later, cold cases are solved because of that evidence. To me, this was the equivalent.”

James had directed Air Force Special Operations Command to review whether any past valor cases merited an upgrade out of concern that the service was grading itself too difficultly, a contention that many service members have made since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. The assessment came back with a recommendation to upgrade some awards to levels below the Medal of Honor and to consider elevating Chapman’s decoration to the award, James said.

But in allegations first reported this month by Newsweek[5], securing approval for the Chapman case was difficult in part because in 2016, James said, some witnesses in the battle declined to sign the sworn statements they gave shortly after the battle. James said the top officer in U.S. Special Operations Command, Army Gen. Raymond “Tony” Thomas, assured her in the summer of 2016 that he would support Chapman’s nomination, but later requested an amendment asking that the findings based on the video not be considered.

James — and at least one member of Chapman’s family — consider the actions an attempt to downplay what happened on Takur Ghar mountain. They say Slabinski did his best and deserves the Medal of Honor but are frustrated at what they see as attempts to cover the truth that the SEAL was faced with the difficult call to withdraw from the mountain without Chapman.

“Nobody thinks that he did anything other than his absolute best on the worst day of his life,” James said of Slabinski. “He thought he was dead, and he was responsible for four or five others that he was trying to save.”

Chapman’s older sister, Lori Chapman Longfritz, declined to talk about what the military has told her family in recent days. But she “wants the truth told” about her brother, and said she is “glad that he’ll finally be getting what he earned 16 years ago,” raising the possibility that he also will receive the Medal of Honor.

“I’ve always said that I could never blame anybody for what happened on that mountain,” said Longfritz, of Cheyenne, Wyo. “I was never there, I’ve never been shot at, and I’ve never been in deep snow like that. But I don’t think they’ve been entirely forthcoming in the 16 years since then, and I can definitely hold them accountable for that.”

A spokesman for Thomas, Navy Capt. Jason Salata, referred all questions about the general’s involvement in the case to the office of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.

Several U.S. military officials said privately that it is assumed that Chapman’s Medal of Honor also has been approved, but that they are not sure how it is being handled. A report by Task & Purpose in April[6] said the White House informed Chapman’s family in March that a Medal of Honor was approved for him, citing an individual close to the process. But the White House has declined to comment.

Considering the sensitivities, there’s weariness in the Pentagon that so many details about the Chapman case have spilled out into public and a desire to closely manage the presentation of facts about Slabinski’s Medal of Honor. Air Force and Navy officials have referred questions about the case to the White House and Mattis’s office.

Typically, Medal of Honor recipients sit for several media interviews leading up to their ceremony, but requests for Slabinski by The Washington Post have been declined. That stands in contrast to 2016, when Navy Senior Chief Edward C. Byers Jr. discussed the December 2012 rescue operation in Afghanistan that led to his Medal of Honor. U.S. officials had previously acknowledged the operation was carried out by members of the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, the official name of SEAL Team 6.

Slabinski, asked about the possibility of Chapman fighting on after he was left, told Breaking Defense that there was no doubt in his mind that his friend was dead.

“But my first thought [on hearing of that possibility] was that it would be completely in John’s character to have done that. That was his DNA,” Slabinski said. “That was my whole team’s DNA. It’s not what I saw. Not what I experienced. But it was within John Chapman’s character to have done those things.”

A Pentagon spokesman, Army Col. Rob Manning, declined to comment on Chapman’s nomination but said in a statement that Mattis “fairly and thoroughly evaluated the Medal of Honor nomination” for Slabinski against “long-standing Medal of Honor criteria.”

Manning also acknowledged frustrations in the Slabinski case.

“Each recommendation is carefully considered based on the merits of the individual’s actions, eyewitness accounts, and other supporting evidence,” Manning said. “The standard for the Medal of Honor is high, as one would expect for our nation’s most prestigious military decoration. We are well aware of the passionate arguments that have surrounded this nomination, but no one should think that these issues were not given due consideration in our exhaustive process.”

Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.

This story was originally published Wednesday night and updated Thursday with remarks from the ceremony and comments from an interview with Slabinski.

Related stories:

After confronting a suicide bomber, this soldier must swap running for the Medal of Honor[8]

Medal of Honor recipient Kyle Carpenter celebrated at the White House as a modern miracle[9]

Obama awards more Medals of Honor to modern veterans — but it takes longer, too[10]

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Houston Recalls Legacy of George Bush, Its Lone Star Yankee and Senior Booster

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HOUSTON — Inside the airport that bears his name, George Herbert Walker Bush looks, at a distance, as if he’s wearing a cape.

An 8-foot-tall bronze statue at the Houston airport shows Mr. Bush, who , Barbara Bush[4], who died in April at the age of 92. After Mr. Bush’s death on Friday, Houston lost its two most famous residents in the span of seven months.

“George H.W. Bush served with valor and integrity as the 41st president of the United States,” Houston’s mayor, Sylvester Turner, said in a statement. “But to Houstonians he was one of our most esteemed and relatable neighbors. He and his wife, Barbara Bush, were our sports teams’ biggest fans, and boosters for everything Houston.”

This was the man whose most memorable quote in years had to do with men’s hosiery. In 2012, as his fondness for wearing bright eye-catching socks was going strong, he explained that he simply “likes a good sock.” At his wife’s funeral at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston, Mr. Bush wore a pair of socks with a colorful stack-of-books design, a tribute to Mrs. Bush’s advocacy work for family literacy.

In Houston and its surrounding suburbs, Mr. Bush had not only an airport in his name but a park, a high school and a few more life-size statues. Above Buffalo Bayou, a bronze statue of Mr. Bush looks out into the distance with his hand in his pocket, gazing at, of all things, James A. Baker III, the former secretary of state and Mr. Bush’s tennis partner at the Houston Country Club. The statues of the two close friends face each other in the downtown park, separated by about 100 yards, in Houston’s oddest and longest-running staring contest.

“All I can do now,” Mr. Bush told The New York Times in 2011 about the statue, “is hope that the pigeons will be kind and gentle.”

Charles C. Foster, a Houston immigration lawyer and a longtime friend of the Bush family, came up with the idea for the George H.W. Bush Monument, which was unveiled in 2004. Mr. Foster recalled the day he sat in Mr. Bush’s office at 10000 Memorial Drive and asked for his blessing for the project.

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Mr. Bush in 1970, when he was a congressman.CreditAssociated Press

“He looked at me and he sort of looked up at the ceiling,” Mr. Foster said. “He pointed to the ceiling and said, ‘Shouldn’t you wait until I’m up there?’ And then he said, pointing downward, ‘Or perhaps down there?’”

In 1990, Mr. Bush helped turn the eyes of the world to Houston.

As president, he brought thousands of reporters and foreign dignitaries to Houston that summer for the Economic Summit of Industrialized Nations, an annual gathering of the world’s economic powers. The summits had been held in a number of global cities — London, Tokyo, Paris, Venice — and Mr. Bush made the case that his adopted hometown belonged among such world-class company.

Houston was scrappier back then. The city was rebounding from an oil bust in the 1980s that crippled the economy, and it tried hard to present its best, and cleanest, face to the cameras and the visitors, picking up millions of pounds of trash, repaving roads and enlisting the aid of 12,000 volunteers.

“That was huge for Houston,” Mr. Foster said of the 1990 summit. “When the president had a chance, he could have picked some mountain retreat. But he picked his hometown. He was well aware of the chip on our shoulders that we didn’t feel like Houston got the recognition that it should.”

Now, with 2.3 million residents (compared with 1.6 million in 1990), Houston is the fourth-largest city in America, known as much for its diversity as its energy-capital status. George Bush High School, part of the Fort Bend school district, is 43 percent Hispanic, 38 percent black, 12 percent Asian and 4 percent white. More than 90 languages and dialects are spoken in the district.

Early Saturday morning in the upscale Tanglewood area, Houstonians paused at the gates at South Post Oak Lane and North West Oak Drive — the entrance to the gated community where Mr. Bush lived. Someone draped an American flag in the center of the gates, decorated for the holidays with Christmas wreaths.

Shirley Matthews, 66, a lifelong Houstonian who lives nearby, walked up and took a picture of the memorial for her mother. “He was just a good person,” she said. “He wasn’t perfect. But it’s family, and we love each other.”

References

  1. ^ died at his home here on Friday (www.nytimes.com)
  2. ^ Read the obituary of George H.W. Bush. (www.nytimes.com)
  3. ^ the funeral for his wife (www.nytimes.com)
  4. ^ Barbara Bush (www.nytimes.com)

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A Close Race, a Mysterious Ballot and Control of Alaska’s House at Stake

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With a crucial legislative seat in Alaska teetering toward a tie earlier this month, lawmakers in Juneau braced for the possibility of a coin toss deciding control of the state’s House of Representatives. Then a mysterious extra ballot emerged that threw the process into further disarray.

Amid several counts, the latest coming on Friday afternoon, a single ballot drew scrutiny across the state.

The state’s review board certified the race, between Kathryn Dodge, a Democrat, and Bart LeBon, a Republican, as a tie earlier this week, with exactly 2,661 votes going to each candidate. The extra ballot, for Ms. Dodge, could have settled the race for the Fairbanks-area district seat.

Later on Friday, the mystery appeared to have been solved — but the standoff over who won the election continued.

Samantha Miller, a spokeswoman for the state elections office, said that workers at Fairbanks’s No. 6 precinct told officials that a woman had come into the polling place to request a special needs ballot on behalf of her husband, who was outside in a vehicle.

The woman came back into the precinct. Her husband had made a mistake, she told the precinct worker, and needed a new ballot. She left behind the one he had already marked, thus making it a spoiled ballot.

The precinct chair told the worker who took the spoiled ballot to put it into a secrecy sleeve, “and that they would deal with it later in the day,” Ms. Miller said.

But instead, the spoiled ballot was put into a compartment with other questioned ballots.

Typically, Ms. Miller said, spoiled ballots are destroyed once they are accounted for. So, because the mystery ballot was found to be spoiled, it will not be counted, she said.

Still, that left the question of what happens if the recount that began on Friday afternoon ends in a tie — again.

Ms. Miller said that both candidates had five days to file a legal challenge to the results. And if the court decided the recount went as it should have, and the race was still a tie?

The prevailing candidate would be determined “by lot,” Ms. Miller said. “It could be a coin toss or some other way of deciding, as long as it’s random.”

It would not be the first time an Alaska race was determined by coin toss.

In 2006, State Representative Bryce Edgmon[1], a Democrat from Dillingham, beat the incumbent, Carl Moses. Mr. Moses’s name was drawn, so he got to make the call: Heads.

The state’s elections director at the time flipped an Alaska Mint medallion — the side with a walrus being heads and the side with the state seal being tails. It landed state seal side up.

Ms. Miller would not speculate about when the recount would be complete, but said both candidates were present, along with observers and officials.

Mr. LeBon did not respond to requests for comment on Friday.

Sara Harriger, a spokeswoman for Ms. Dodge, said in a statement that during Friday’s recount, one additional vote was found for Ms. Dodge and a challenged ballot was allowed for her opponent, Mr. LeBon, which meant that the tally stood at 2,662 apiece. Still tied.

Ms. Dodge said in a statement that she believed every legally cast ballot should be counted. “I just want everyone watching this process to take away a sense of confidence in our democratic system and a commitment to cast their votes in future races,” she said, “and knowing that their votes will matter.”

Ms. Dodge had said earlier on Friday that legal action “unfortunately” seemed probable.

“It’s certainly not what any of us expect when we set out to campaign, to find ourselves in a squeaker of this nature,” she said. “I hope we don’t have a coin toss. I don’t know quite what to say, but it doesn’t feel like it’s an appropriate way to settle an election.”

In Alaska, the repercussions of this race will be felt into the next legislative session, though party control of the House in Juneau will be far from clear-cut.

Political coalitions in Juneau do not always come down to party-line votes like in other state houses. Even if Ms. Dodge wins the race, Democrats would still not have an outright majority, and so members of the House will still be tasked with negotiating a coalition majority.

References

  1. ^ Bryce Edgmon (akleg.gov)

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3 Killed After Pickup Truck Fleeing Border Patrol Hits Tire Spikes and Crashes

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Three people in a packed pickup truck were killed on Thursday afternoon after the driver ran over tire spikes and crashed on a Southern California highway while trying to flee Border Patrol officers, the authorities said.

The officers turned on their vehicle’s emergency lights and began chasing the pickup truck on Interstate 8, near Boulevard, Calif., at around 4:20 p.m., according to the United States Customs and Border Protection. The authorities said they believed that the pickup truck had been illegally driven over the southern border and had crashed through an “iron bar vehicle barrier.” They said they identified it by matching a piece that was missing from the truck to one agents had spotted on the ground near the border, though they did not elaborate.

The pickup truck reached speeds of over 100 miles per hour, weaving between cars and bypassing others on the side of the highway, before it drove over spikes that the Border Patrol had placed on the road, the California Highway Patrol said. About a mile later, the truck spun out of control and flipped over, ejecting the nine people who were riding in the truck’s bed, the authorities said.

A woman inside the truck, who was not wearing a seatbelt, was killed, as were two people riding in the bed, the police said. Seven people who had “multiple serious injuries” were taken to the hospital, a spokesman for Customs and Border Protection said.

The driver, a United States citizen whose name was not released, was the only person wearing a seatbelt, the agency said. The California Highway Patrol took the man into custody, but it was not clear whether he had been charged. The identities of the passengers in the truck have not been released either.

“The investigation into the smuggling incident is ongoing,” the spokesman said in an email, “and the Border Patrol is fully cooperating with the CHP in their investigation of the collision.”

About an hour after the crash, the Border Patrol stopped another vehicle that officers believed had crossed over the border with the pickup truck, the agency said. The driver of that car was also arrested.

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