Alone at Dawn: Medal of Honor Recipient John Chapman and the Untold Story of the World's Deadliest Special Operations Force
The New York Times bestselling true account of John Chapman, Medal of Honor recipient and Special Ops Combat Controller, and his heroic one-man stand during the Afghan War, as he sacrificed his life to save the lives of twenty-three comrades-in-arms.
In the predawn hours of March 4, 2002, just below the 10,469-foot peak of a mountain in eastern Afghanistan, a fierce battle raged. Outnumbered by Al Qaeda fighters, Air Force Combat Controller John Chapman and a handful of Navy SEALs struggled to take the summit in a desperate bid to find a lost teammate.
Chapman, leading the charge, was gravely wounded in the initial assault. Believing he was dead, his SEAL leader ordered a retreat. Chapman regained consciousness alone, with the enemy closing in on three sides.
John Chapman’s subsequent display of incredible valor — first saving the lives of his SEAL teammates and then, knowing he was mortally wounded, single-handedly engaging two dozen hardened fighters to save the lives of an incoming rescue squad — posthumously earned him the Medal of Honor. Chapman is the first airman in nearly fifty years to be given the distinction reserved for America’s greatest heroes.
Alone at Dawn is also a behind-the-scenes look at the Air Force Combat Controllers: the world’s deadliest and most versatile special operations force, whose members must not only exceed the qualifications of Navy SEAL and Army Delta Force teams but also act with sharp decisiveness and deft precision — even in the face of life-threatening danger.
Drawing from firsthand accounts, classified documents, dramatic video footage, and extensive interviews with leaders and survivors of the operation, Alone at Dawn is the story of an extraordinary man’s brave last stand and the brotherhood that forged him.
About the Author
Book Club Session
Air Force Historical Foundation Book Club (Session Five)
Alone At Dawn: : Medal of Honor Recipient John Chapman and the Untold Story of the World’s Deadliest Special Operations Force by Dan Schilling and Lori Chapman Longfritz
26 October 2022
Moderated by Mr. “Pepe” Soto; and featuring special guests, Mr. Dan Schilling and Senior Enlisted Advisor to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff “CZ” Colon-Lopez.
- Being in the USAF with 2/3rd of the Nuclear triad, special tactics, airlift humanitarian capabilities and space capabilities, you’re the deadliest sons of bitches in the history of the world
- MSgt John Chapman represented the best tenants of humanity and the Air Force: humility, dedication and capability
- Vulnerability and love are the key to resilience
Opening Remarks (by Mr. Soto and SEAC CZ Colon Lopez) thanking everyone for being attending session 5 of the AFHF book club and CZ thanking “Dano” Schilling and Lori Chapman for telling the story of the deserving deeds of John Chapman that led to his Medal of Honor and deserving recognition – and the opportunity to talk about the man, John Chapman.
Mr. Schilling, the author and previous USAF Combat Controller shared two focus areas for the evening. First, he wanted to offer a perspective of the Air Force that not many people know and tell the story of the incredible life and sacrifice of John Chapman. Secondly, he emphasized that it’s important to be in the Air Force, and that “if you’re wearing a uniform, you’re probably pissing me off.”
(Schilling) Here is why – you are probably one of the most powerful entities in the world. The AF owns 2/3 of the Nuclear Triad, while the navy owns 1/3 and Army owns none. You are the most powerful force on the planet, of all time. When you combine this, and the other capabilities coming from the USAF/USSF – satellites, airlift, humanitarian – that is the Air Force. And we do not act like it. I wanted to change the public’s view of the entire USAF. You should act like you are the deadliest and most powerful force in history. He wrote the book partly to change the public’s perspective of the USAF.
(Soto) What was your main motivation for telling the story of John Chapman and the Battle of Takur Ghar (AKA “Robert’s Ridge”)?
(Schilling) I didn’t want to write that book. I retired after 31 years to Utah to spend time with my wife, ski, and write novels. I wanted to retire, but a fellow controller asked if I would help John’s sister write the book. I didn’t sleep for two weeks and since I knew all of the Delta guys, SEALs, John and everyone else involved, I agreed to help. It was John’s life and the force known as Combat Control Teams (CCT). Everyone knows who Delta Force and SEALs are, but no one knows the CCT. I spent 2.5 years writing the book.
(Soto) Who was John Chapman?
(Schilling) John was a remarkably empathetic, humanistic, valued people, and compassionate. He had a set of morals and ethics that drove everything he did in his life. He was incredibly humble, and not someone who sought glory in any sense. He was the number one diver in high school and never actually wanted to be abadass, but want to prove the standards. What made him such a remarkable CCT was the desire to prove himself against these standards that are extreme in every sense. He ended up in this community that allowed him to advance and evolve against these standards, This was the well that he was able to draw on – his courage and resilience that allowed him to become who he was.
(Soto) There was another heroic Airmen on that mountain during the Battle of Takur Ghar, SRA Jason Cunningham, who was awarded the Air Force Cross – can you tell us about Jason?
(Schilling) He epitomizes the Pararescue (PJ) motto – That Others May Live. Everything he did was in service to other people who were there on that mountain. His AFC was deserved. He not only laid down his life but showed the fortitude needed to provide an umbrella of protection and overwatch to others.
(Soto) Unless you’re in the “Family”, many Airmen don’t know about the 24th STS, who you – rightfully – call “…one of the deadliest and least known forces in the history of human warfare”. Why are they not as well-known as Dev Gru and Delta? And why are they so badass?
(Schilling) First, in the public world where these narratives take place – Hollywood, and the media – they are well-trodden tropes. The thing that puts our airmen at a disadvantage for the due they should receive – is because they are integrated into these key components, and we get pushed aside in the narrative. One of our Airmen killed Uday and Qusay Hussein, Public Relations 101 for the other organizations won’t admit it. My job is to rectify that for the PJs/CCTs. They go save the good guys when something bad happens. It is an integrated, complex capability that does not lend itself to a sound byte. I considered how best to present this, and these factors are what puts the 24 STS at a disadvantage. They are at least as capable, but certainly deadlier.
(Soto) In your book you’re pretty tough on the overall plan of Operation ANACONDA. What would you have done differently if you had been in charge?
(Schilling) That is a difficult question because in retrospect we would all do something different. However, I think there were people in leadership positions on the ground who knew the right things to do. An example is Pete Blaber – he had a sound methodology and gameplan for how to employ forces behind enemy lines. He understood how to use Delta and CCT. He knew what not to do – for example, using helicopters to insert troops because you give our position away. These are mistakes that were made in the interest of rushing units into the battlespace and not listening to the expert on the round. The key is that they would have benefitted greatly from listening to the guy on the ground. When forward, listen to the expert on the ground who has been there for a while making the plan and executing it. Most of the errors at Takur Ghar took place tactically. Things happen fast when you make a tactical error. Much of the plan is in this book, and in Blaber’s book The Mission, the Men, and Me.
(Soto) It seemed to me that the Army/JFC hadn’t developed a comprehensive IPB before the Op took place – do you see that as a major factor?
(Schilling) In my experience with combat, you’ll never have the IPB or intel or forces that you want. Would gunships have been decisive during Operation GOTHIC SERPENT (better known as Black Hawk Down)….sure, but they weren’t available.
(Soto) It also looks as though the SEALs were as much a problem as anything else…you state in the book, “The SEALs, like everyone else on the battlefield, thought strictly in 2-D…But John (Chapman) didn’t think that way, nor could he afford the luxury of its and simplicity. His world was ruled by three axes, not two.” Is it safe to say he had that ability due to being an Airmen and an STS guy?
(Schilling) It’s actually a CCT perspective. Here is a way to make sense of that – I think CCTs experience combat in four dimensions. Everyone’s experience during combat is personal, so you only ever have your perspective. During writing the book I realized that during a gunfight – you think near, far, left, and right. It is a 4D kinetic connection between you and the bad guy. A CCT is thinking of this, and high and low (third dimension) – to apply air space power. The ability to integrate the fourth dimension makes the CCT unique – time. How long do you have the aircraft for? The CCT holds the bag with everyone’s life in it. If they do not understand this dimension, to include the callsigns, capabilities of each aircraft and related munitions then everyone dies – or lives. We owe them a great debt of recognition and I would like to change that. They think differently than anyone in the battlefield. I don’t call them battlefield Airmen. I call them what they are.
(Soto) Was that part of the issue with your planning process? The different dimensions?
(Schilling) No, the SEALs didn’t have a lot of experience either- we had a lot of people rolling into battlefields and combat who had little experience. I will say that the 24th Special tactics squadron is the most remarkable unit that you’ve never heard of.
(Soto) In your book you highlight the mentality. What are the most remarkable traits?
(Schilling) Well every great CCT I know have one trait in common – they are intellectually curious. They are always thinking, learning, and interested in training. They understand that when you win, the whole team wins. If you drop one bomb in the wrong place, you lose as an individual. It manifests interestingly when you integrate socially with someone else’s team, you have to subordinate your ego to their dynamic (Australian SAS, Green berets, SEALs). Each team is unique, but you have to integrate quickly into their social fabric. You have to perform high enough to keep up, but if you go too far they think you’re acting superior. You must prove yourself to them, and it is an interesting dynamic. It makes you a more evolved person in a healthy way. ). You don’t simply call in bombs, but you have to prove yourself to these people and know how to integrate with these teams. You must guard against excessiveness and peer pressure. In my pipeline, we started with 150 guys and ended with 6 men two years later. You’re subject to the same social pressures and metrics as on the outside.
(Steve Speares from Air Force Test and Evaluation) Has the lack of public recognition (unlike the SEALs or Delta) helped Combat Controllers more effectively remain the masters of their craft?
(Schilling) I think it has served us well to date but is a double-edged sword. You are competing from the same pool for your CCTs as other professions, so not transmitting the message limits us. I think it is my role – whether right or not – is to get that word out. We don’t project so much ego out in front of us as other SOF units. It does not serve us to not share the message about CCTs.
(Soto) Is that cultural integration with other elite groups part of CCT training, or is it all learned/mentored?
(Schilling) It’s sink or swim—cultural integration is not part of the training pipeline and you have to learn it along the way. The USAF Special Operations School does a lot of training that helps you become culturally attuned. The best CCTs are good with other people since relationships are required for humanitarian efforts. Your relationship with the enemy is a human-to-human relationship. It isn’t just about tactics or capabilities – if you do not understand the human component, you will not be successful and if you’re not successful, lives will be lost.
A good thing that came out of Afghanistan isn’t that they were a global player, but we did recognize the cultural differences. Going from Yemen to Somalia to Bangladesh, it was appealing to find another culture that I had no experiences with. I would try to find the things that separate us and all of the things that bring us together. We are the US’s most capable force for good in the world and if we’ve learned our lessons well, the intelligence community will do a better job understanding the people than we did in Afghanistan. It all comes back to the human equation.
(Soto) Takur Ghar is some of the roughest terrain our forces had ever had to fly and fight in. Can you talk about the terrain and elevation? And how does one train to fight and operate in that type of environment?
(Schilling) One of the things that helps people understand just how vertical the terrain is when you watch the SEALS retreat, in which they sliding down the mountain rather than walking or climbing down. John is running uphill, killing people in knee-deep snow, in the dark, at 10K ft, fully exposed to the enemy is an astounding display of commitment to do what he had to do. Jay Hill, the foremost witness to what John had to do was on an adjacent peak three hilltops away and set up to control from that mountain. Steep terrain and sub-freezing temperatures demonstrate John’s fortitude. This guy had 12 gunshot/shrapnel wounds – the first two rounds that hit him were fatal without immediate treatment, which was unlikely. Blood loss, shock, wounds, lacerations, and being able to fight through that – I don’t know how he could possibly do that. I cannot believe he could even function. It is the most amazing story of perseverance I’ve been involved in.
(Soto) With concurrent actions, as with Anaconda, seems difficult for Combat Controllers to coordinate/prioritize limited assets between their teams. How do they accomplish that challenge?
(Schilling) At the heart of what differentiates a CCT is their ability to initiate and establish an informal network between themselves is unique. They are a self-establishing, informal network that happens through radio nets, understanding where everyone is and how air assets are getting allocated. We deconflict and coordinate things, work out priorities, etc. There were four CCTs supporting Operation GOTHIC SERPENT (Black Hawk Down) – and we had to know not to take away capabilities from the person (Jeff Bray at the time) who was stuck in the gunfight. I was not taking capability from more dire situations.
What we do is an amazing ability to coordinate – leaders at the operational level have no idea what the CCTs are up to. These actions do not get caught in the After Action Report (AAR) – they do not know why some of these things behind the scenes happen. It is a remarkable thing to see and to happen. This lack of visibility is a blessing and a curse – . What happens when it comes to Airpower is that these guys are communicating with one another and leaders think they know everything going on on that mountain; but, in reality they are looking through a soda straw. Some leaders fall into this trap.
(Soto) One of my favorite lines from the book is, “The uglier it got, the less likely he was to be shooting. It was the Controller way. When everyone else fired, he’d be on the radio that much more…He and his radio were their last line of defense.” How do you maintain that type of discipline?
(Schilling) Your ability to focus on a task is different from whether I should be shooting or not. Bob GZ Gutierrez – should have a Medal of Honor, too. But the AF is its own worst enemy. Discipline like his is a product of training. When things go bad, I can kill more guys with my radio than my gun. The first time I ran out of ammo during a big gun fight was the last time, but I already carried more weight than the other guys. Everything takes a backseat to batteries and radios. When things go bad, you’re going to be laying down fires while I’m on the radio. But running out of ammo is not a good idea.
(Soto) The toughest part of the book for me was reading the two chapters about the battle and MSgt Chapman’s last few hours alive. How tough was it for you to write those chapters?
(Schilling) I talk about resilience and culture a lot and I’ve really struggled with this. When I talk about resilience I talk about what is and isn’t healthy. I spent about a week writing the last minutes of John’s life. I of course cannot say what he felt, but I can say what he decided based on his actions. I still struggle from PTSD about things I’ve done and seen. It (John’s death) left me pretty devastated, and I hope to never need to write about something like it again.
(Soto) How did John Chapman’s medal get upgraded from the Air Force Cross to the Medal of Honor?
(Schilling) This is the power of the pen. It can be traced directly back to a Stars and Stripes article. That is the power of the pen. It came to then Secretary of the Air Force Deborah James’ attention and she initiated a query – are we missing something/what does it take for an Airman to get a Medal of Honor? Is the USAF using a different standard than other services (we are) than other services and how do we look into it whether John Chapman deserved a Medal of Honor. Ultimately, the inquiry was successful in upgrading the Air Force Cross to the Medal of Honor. Notably, Many recognitions land in Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) due to a prevalence of ground and gunship crews – the supporting gunship crew had courage to stay overhead.
(Soto) What are your take-away points about the Battle of Takur Ghar versus Operation GOTHIC SERPENT?
(Schilling) There are a number of parallels between them. People do not do what you want them to do, and they move when you shoot at them. Also, the enemy did not shoot down one, but four helicopters during GOTHIC SERPENT – and each one approaching Takur Ghar was shot down too. Things went sideways and there were a lot of heroes in both battles. One constant is the combination of austere environments and combat is that people will do anything for each other. I will take risks for you that I would not take for myself. This is one of the good things about us as humans.
(Soto) What is your take away message of resiliency as you travel and talk to people?
(Schilling) Vulnerability and love are the key to resilience. Everyone years to be a teammate. On marriage and love, my wife is a big part of the reason that I’m alive. It is taking the risk to share whatever you’re going through – especially if you are type A it is hard to go through and open up. The power of stories – sharing that information allows you to connect.
(Soto) For Chief Lopez and Mr. Schilling – what are your takeaway points about the performance of our Battlefield Airmen/Special Tactics personnel in the 20-year Global War on Terror – especially in Afghanistan?
(SEAC) For the 20 years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, our generation used it as the test ground for our skills and validating our capabilities we are bringing to the fight. Many of us were highly trained but not proven and waiting for the big mission and validate our capabilities that were in theory supposed to work – making the impossible possible. For SEALS, CAG, we were waiting for that opportunity. After 9/11, it was a rinse-repeat cycle of deployments. There were many things that were supposed to work but evolved over time.
(Schilling) I think it (GWOT) was an evolution accelerator. From logistics to intel – intel was an underappreciated component before the war. All of these things have allowed you to do what is more effective. It is one of the things that has pistured the US foremost in the world for any conflict. Symmetrically, you do not want to go toe-to-toe with the US. For the next ten years, the people training their successors will be training them to be better than we were – our responsibility to the next generation. The upside, we trained. The downside is all the men and women we lost. For me, I did not like killing people. As a Buddhist, that is a problem for me.
(Soto) Why are we as Airmen not celebrating this culture more?
(Schilling) Culturally – it goes back to the beginning of the USAF as a service. It is about the airplane and the Army Air Corps in 1947. It is still about the airplane in a cultural sense. It is not that the leaders do not appreciate these enlisted that do these hard jobs on the ground. These hard jobs that happen in remote parts of the world do not factor into the leadership of the broader air force. They do not value it as it does not get the money on the hill – protecting the resourcing for the strageic causes. CCT is 0.1% of the USAF, but I find it unfortunate that they were over 50% of its Silver Stars, 70% of AFCs, and its only Medal of Honor, yet they do not factor into the USAF Narrative.
(SEAC) It’s part of Air Force culture, which is demonstrated by the Air Force Song which is all about the fighter pilot and nothing else. All other service songs have troops on the ground. General Jumper capitalized on showcasing the value of special tactics. If I were king for a day, I would do something that thanks every single one of you (in the Air Force).
(Soto) For Closing Remarks, what are some of the last things you want to highlight about John Chapman?
(SEAC) I met Chappy when I was Green at the 24STS in 1999. He was the definition of quiet professional and wasn’t cocky, and very mellow mannered. The last time I saw him, I took the keys from him in the apartment in Virginia Beach to assume alert – and a few months later we got word that he had been killed. That was who he was, and it hit us hard. He was the first one that was killed in combat in a long time. GOTHIC SERPENT was a long running source of motivation, but when Chappy got killed that fueled the fire for every deployment after that. It was payback time after time. Chappy’s legacy is going to live – in Brianna, Valerie, and Madison. But also in the operator and on the spiritual side – we are not going to let that legacy die just because he didn’t have wings…he had horns. That guy had horns and the enemy got to see them.
(Schilling) I would only add this as a coda: John represented the best tenets of humanity and the USAF. He represented all that was good: humility, dedication and capability. Remember you are the deadliest sons of bitches in the history of the world, and don’t forget it!
Capt Jenn (Mahowald) Brown ran technical solutions for this session and Maj Melissa “Death” March and Maj Mel Sidwell Bowron produced notes. All three are Active-duty Air Force Intelligence Officers serving at Ft Bragg, North Carolina. Some statements in this document are paraphrased.
The next AFHF book will be in December on the Air Force’s only five star General, Hap Arnold.