Colonel Mason Dula
Address at Plaque Unveiling Ceremony for Medal of Honor Recipient MSgt John A. Chapman
delivered 4 March 2021, Airmenís Heritage Park, Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas
Staff: Thank you for joining us today. The Airman's Heritage Park was created to honor America's airman past and present. Within this area, there are several displays, including the aircraft that had flown at Randolph over the decades. It also contains the statues of distinguished airmen who have passed through Randolph's gates and trained at what once was called "The West Point of the Air."
Within the park is a Medal of Honor Memorial, adorned with plaques dedicated [to] those airmen who have received our nation's highest award, many of them making the ultimate sacrifice and service to this great nation. The names inscribed in the plaques serve as a reminder that we must never forget the sacrifices made by those airmen.
Today, Master Sergeant John Chapman joins his fellow Medal of Honor recipients on the wall for his actions in the war in...Afghanistan, becoming the first, and to date only, airmen since the Vietnam War to do so.
Ladies and gentlemen, it is my honor to introduce today's presiding official, Colonel Mason Dula.
Col. Dula: Good morning. Thanks so much for being here. General [Marshall B.] Webb, Miss Donna [ph], Command Chief, thank you so much for the opportunity to do this; ATC [Air Traffic Control] leadership command chiefs; most of all, Miss Val,1 Miss Terry2 -- it's going to be a -- a special day. It would be less special without you being here -- we are very grateful; Chaplin Rodriguez, most of this crowd needs all the prayers they can get, so keep those coming (I'm not sure where he went.); Band of the West, thank you -- you guys sound great.
I'm going to start today by focusing on what all really great speeches should: and that's myself. That might be confusing if you came here today expecting to hear some soaring rhetoric about the Medal of Honor and Master Sergeant John Chapman. And all I can tell you is that it's part of a long and distinguished tradition that nobody in this audience has ever heard of. And frankly, I've never employed in front of an audience this senior before. But you're going to have to trust me that we'll eventually circle back to Master Sergeant Chapman; but please, for now, focus on me.
When -- When General Webb offered us the opportunity to -- to honor Master Sergeant Chapman over six months ago, I was really excited. I assumed that there would be a short opportunity for me to speak, which means a captive audience from my favorite subject. And it got me thinking about the speech itself and what I should focus on. But I didn't really sweat the details. I mean, a -- a speech about Medal of Honor winner Master Sergeant John Chapman is going to write itself. And I had tons of time.
It did occur to me that potentially a parachute jump might distract the audience from remembering my speech at all. We'll see if that plays out.
But the more I considered my speech, the more my excitement began to fade a little. And to be honest with you, I got a little bit nervous. Nineteen years after the Battle of Roberts Ridge, most of the good, really good, speeches about Master Sergeant John Chapman have already been given. And it occurred to me that perhaps back in 2002, Lieutenant Colonel Webb or Captain [Andrea D.] Tullos might have heard those speeches.
So now I'm a little bit aggravated because I can't really figure out how to start this thing, and my thoughts keep circling back to the seemingly impossible task of writing a speech to honor Master Sergeant Chapman in a way that hasn't been done before. So I lost a lot of time, to be honest, trying to come up with this brilliant and innovative theme to honor Sergeant Chapman in a new way.
And then -- and you can't really make this up -- it started snowing in Texas. And in this surreal moment, instead of working on my speech, I found myself watching my five-year-old son ski down a hill at the Lackland Air Force Base Golf Course. And General [Caroline M.] Miller, this may be too soon, ma'am, but if you've got any reports about damage on the 3rd tee box, or pictures of a kind of spread-eagled impact crater roughly the size of a small human -- I just wanted on the record right now that I know nothing about that.
But I got back on task because speeches don't write themselves. And I'm not -- I'm not trolling for sympathy, but it was hard. I mean, it -- it was cold. It was dark. I was writing by candlelight, and I have to keep running outside to my gas grill on which I was boiling water. And when I came back in the last time, I bumped the candle, the wax got all over the speech, some got on the dog. It got complicated. And to be frank I ran out of time -- so there's no speech.
But since I'm up here, I thought I'd share a few stories about the speech that I could have written if I had time, and it would have been awesome.
I could have written a great speech about combat. It's been the shared experience of the Special Operations community since we lost Master Sergeant John Chapman and combat stories are always an easy crowd pleaser.
I could have written a killer speech about Master Sergeant Chapman marching into his commander's office and volunteering to sit alert for a back -- to backfill a position with a Navy team [unclear at: 4:54] most sensitive missions, and how that alert led to a deployment to Afghanistan in 2002, when the Taliban were reeling from the nation's response to 9/11. And frankly, Afghanistan wasn't terribly kinetic.
And how that deployment and the battle on top of Takur Ghar taught a generation of Special Operators the kind of fight that they were in, and it transformed a relatively inexperienced Special Operations force into something else; how it created a machine designed to relentlessly hunt men; about the pressure that came from living inside of that machine; and how Master Sergeant Chapman's loss was the harbinger to all-too- frequent reports of casualties and fallen comrades and ceremonies at Arlington that robbed the Force of rest even when it was in Garrison -- because someone you knew and loved was always downrange.
I could have written a great tactical speech about MAKO 30 and Razor 01 and hot HLZs [Helicopter Landing Zones] and plunging machine gun fire and thigh deep snow and the ties that bind small teams together during horrific circumstances.
I could have written a really good speech about combat, but I think it would have been the wrong speech. Anyone who knew, really knew, Master Sergeant John Chapman would say with absolute certainty that he was not defined by his combat experience, even an experience as heroic and awe-inspiring as Roberts Ridge.3 But I'm not sure that either Miss Terry or Miss Val needs a speech about combat to know that Master Sergeant John Chapman was a really hard man, and we sent him to do impossibly hard things in really hard places.
With better time management and -- and, frankly, with fewer second degree burns to golden retrievers from candle wax, I could have written a totally different speech, a real tear jerker about families and spartan wives and the price paid by those who love them that allow men like Master Sergeant John Chapman to be valorous in combat.
There's a really good speech about the courage and strength of Miss Val and Miss Terry in every line of Master Sergeant Chapman's Medal of Honor citation. Supporting an operator that works at Fort Bragg is hard business. Raising two girls for extended periods of time as a quasi-single parent and then as a widow is hard business. There's a great speech in there somewhere about love and sacrifice and the long line of strong women who, like Miss Terry and Miss Val, paid a steep price for the chosen professions of their sons and the men that they love.
But I think that would have been the wrong speech, too. It would have missed what she taught us about resiliency, Miss Val, before most of us knew what that word really meant. We learned about it by watching you. A speech like that wouldn't have captured a fraction of the obstacles that you and the girls have fought and overcome since losing John; and how in some very real ways, you're a more accomplished fighter than your husband was.
So I'm driving here this morning and I'm doomed. I'm 0-2 on great speeches that I didn't take the time to write. And I'm outlining these challenges to my chief. Well, he used the term "panic attack," but I prefer a calm and thoughtful description of an impending train wreck. But the chief's a pararescueman which means that unless your complaint is about a femoral bleed, his empathy level hovers at near zero, particularly when you're squawking about complaints. And so he looked at me with something approaching a sneer and kind of just grunts, "Huh. Why don't you just tell some stories. We'll knock out some memorial push ups and go back to work?"
And so it dawned on me on the ride over that perhaps that was actually the right answer. You see, ours is a business in a community that comes with costs, and those costs are borne by teammates in our formation today and the teammates whose pictures and etched bronze plaques grace the walls of our buildings. And Chief and I have been trying to convince our formation that when we lose a teammate in combat or in training, that we honor our teammates best by sharing stories and delaying as long as possible the moment when the pictures on our walls or on our parks become strangers.
All the good speeches about Master Sergeant Chapman may, in fact, have already been given. But we can never tell too many stories about Chappy. Master Sergeant John Chapman is now immortal. We teach young airmen about him in our professional development guides. We teach old airmen about him in our PME [Professional Military Education] courses. Chappy was a man and a husband and a magnet for children, including his own. He wasn't a legend or a case study in service before self. He was just a teammate and we loved him.
Master Sergeant John Chapman was an accomplished and seasoned Special Operator. Chappy was a scofflaw whose early run-ins with the police probably would require some sort of moral waiver to even join the Air Force today. I mean, we're talking about a troubled young man with an affinity for explosives. A mother's rose-colored glasses might characterize that as a nine-year-old's run-in with the police, firing off Black Cat firecrackers until the long arm of the law hauled him in. But Miss Terry, I -- I'm fairly certain that you could see around some corners about the kind of work that your son was going to gravitate towards: either a criminal mastermind or a combat controller.
Master Sergeant John Chapman is a Medal of Honor winner who saved the lives of his teammates in battle. Chappy was lucky his teammates didn't run him out of town on a rail before he ever deployed. That does not mean that Chappy was not popular with his teammates. He was actually deeply loved in a way that's unique and rare. But they certainly had a list of grievances about his behavior in garrison.
And if we're going to talk about the elephant in the room, Chappy had this ridiculous mustache and he was inordinately proud of it. It was tolerated on the home front for reasons that can't be explained. He refused to -- to shave it despite endless volumes of ribbing, and he was fond of combing it after he ate in the team room and sprinkling little food particles onto his teammates' kit and computers.
Master Master Sergeant John Chapman displayed almost superhuman levels of strength and physicality when he assaulted multiple enemy fighting positions, uphill, through thigh-deep snow, despite being wounded.
Chappy, Chappy wasn't even a gym rat in a community where that's a cardinal offense. Chappy wasn't a fitness nut and he wasn't really much of a runner, and mind you this is 20 years ago, before this community had embraced all the facets of human performance. It took -- 20 years ago -- it took exactly 73 seconds, that is an empirical fact, 73 seconds after walking into a team room before somebody asked you how much you could bench, usually with a menacing leer: "Hey, man, where you from?" "Yeah, that's cool." "So what's your bench?" "Do you, do you even work out, bro?"
That wasn't Chappy. He'd rather be home with Bri and Madison4 than Jack and Steel.5
His -- His one saving grace is that he was half dolphin, likely a legacy of his near-Olympian career as a diver and a swimmer. He could swim circles around anybody in the team room, a fact that he'd like to remind his teammates of after dive workup admissions by reporting back to the team room with a neatly-pressed, to-standard BDU top, some Teva sandals, and a brightly colored Speedo, and then pretending that nothing was amiss going about his duties for the rest of the day. That's not an amusing quirk in most team rooms, Miss Val, and I frankly blame you for that because I know he came home and laughed with you about it, and it is inappropriate. Shame on you.
Master Sergeant John Chapman stares back at you at the pictures on our walls -- from the pictures on our walls with the moral authority of a -- of a Medal of Honor winner. Chappy's morality was anchored in his ability to be a father figure to damn near everyone around him. He embraced the dad life before dad jokes became a cool meme. But this particular dad-figure relished in his teammates' fear and discomfort. Chappy and a teammate, a new teammate, were deploying to do a --a sensitive survey mission in West Africa. And so they were headed to Liberia to the embassy in Monrovia, but they stopped over in the Ivory Coast. And it's his teammates first trip. So he's looking to Chappy to make sure that he doesn't make a wrong step.
And it's a different time in a very different place. What -- What was always a constant is that Chappy was covered in children. So as they -- as they're in the terminal, his teammates thinking through his actions, thinking through the next steps of the mission, Chappy's mobbed by small children. And because it was a different time then, because it was 9/11, there's no sky bridges in the Ivory Coast airport as it turns out. You walk out on the flight line so you can get on your plane, and so they walk out and confront this smoking heap of a Russian -- "aircraft" is a kind term -- some sort of turbo prop job. It's got a flat tire, and what appears to be the Russian pilot is manually pumping it up as they walk out to the aircraft. You kind of have to duck under this half-built ramp to get into the aircraft, and the spars and the skin of the aircraft are exposed because all the plastic cowling is gone. The front three or four rows of seats are removed, which didn't make sense at the time, but it was clearly an -- an airplane you'd rather jump out than fly in.
And so Chappy's teammate starts getting really nervous and -- and pretty evident. I mentioned it was West Africa, so it's getting hot. And so now the sweat starts coming and he sits down at his cheap plastic seat to find two male ends to the seatbelt that -- and...he looks over with kind of the universal "Hey, boss" signal to Chappy and Chappy just laughs and leans over and ties the seat belt in a square knot so that his teammate can feel safe.
And the Russians disappear after chattering in Russian and it looks like they're trying to start this thing up to take off, but not before they load the goats and the chickens in the front, which is why the front seats are gone. And so now the smell's really coming in. You can paint a pretty vivid picture -- if you're not wild about taking off in this thing and chickens are running around picking at your feet.
And so Chappy's teammate is terrified at this point and kind of staring straight ahead trying to keep it together. And Chappy starts laughing uncontrollably next to him. Not clear whether it was because of the comfort of his teammates or the scene out the window. So he pokes his teammate to look out the window, and there's a guy out there with an oil can tied to a wire hanger, and oil is running like a sieve out of the engine that they're trying to get started. And he's dragging it over, opens up a cowling of the engine and dumps the oil back into the jet, slaps it, throws the propeller and runs off. Chappy's teammates said he was near tears watching this, and Chappy couldn't stop laughing. Whether that was because of the discomfort of his teammate or because Chappy took such joy in life, we'll never know.
Master Sergeant John Chapman is now larger than life. He's the best of our community. He's the best [of] our Air Force. He's the best our nation can produce, and he belongs on the walls of this memorial next to the rest of the Air Force's heroes. Master Sergeant John Chapman inspires all, and he inspires the next generation of warriors to wonder if they can live up to the standard that he set on Takur Ghar. But Master Sergeant John Chapman doesn't really inspire affection. He's almost become too big for that. But we can still love Chappy, his humanity and his quirks and sense of humor. We can honor Master Sergeant Chapman, but Chappy is who we'll miss.
Miss Terry, Miss Val, we're not going to win the battle against time, but this community will do our very best for as long as we can to tell our Chappy stories and keeping him from becoming a stranger to his teammates.
Thank you all very much for coming, for honoring this community and Master Sergeant Chapman.
1 Valerie Nessel is the widow of MSgt Chapman
2 Terry Chapman is the mother of MSgt Chapman
3 Alternative reference to the battle of Takur Ghar. Topographically, Takur Ghar is a mountain in southeastern Afghanistan. "Roberts Ridge" is the christened name for the mountain's peak on which the Battle of Takur Ghar occurred.
4 Chapman's two daughters were named Brianna and Madison
4 Diction and reference uncertain. Could be a nod to the stainless steel materials found in commercial grade barbells used for bench pressing. [Clarifications welcome at: email@example.com]
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