SALT LAKE CITY — In the early days of the War on Terror, a member of an elite Air Force unit single-handedly took on more than two dozen hardened fighters while mortally wounded and ultimately saved not only the lives of his team, but of an incoming rescue squad.
It would take 16 years and the tireless efforts of John Chapman’s family to bring those heroic events to light. The full story is told in the new book, "Alone at Dawn: Medal of Honor Recipient John Chapman and the Untold Story of the World's Deadliest Special Operations Force" (Grand Central Publishing, 352 pages), a work Chapman's sister Lori Chapman Longfritz and her co-author Dan Schilling hope will shine a light not only on Chapman’s selfless actions but the broader elite unit — the Air Force’s Combat Control — he served and believed in.
“John wasn’t an anomaly in the Combat Control community. It just happens he was assigned that team on that night and he did what he had to do,” Longfritz said in a recent interview. “He took control and owned it and took the fight to them. … He’s one of so many people cut from the same cloth. They’re all like that, not just John.”
While Chapman may have been cut from the same cloth as his fellow Combat Controllers, the Air Force’s equivalent to Navy SEALs or Army Green Berets or Delta Forces, his actions on a remote mountain in Afghanistan in March 2002 were hardly commonplace. Chapman was part of a small rescue group sent to recover another soldier who had fallen from a helicopter as part of a mission to attack a knot of al-Qaida fighters, including a fairly senior leader in the militant group. The already-difficult operation was further stymied by a lack of communication between different branches of the military. While searching for the other soldier, Chapman and his group were attacked by a team of al-Qaida fighters. Chapman was hit and presumed dead, but instead, he continued fighting after the rest of his team retreated.
Although there was no secret that he ultimately died heroically — he was posthumously given the Air Force Cross for selfless action and heroism — the mission's entire picture was murkier.
“After John was killed, we just felt like there was something more to the story than what we were told,” said Longfritz, who lives in Wyoming. “As time went on, we started hearing more things. The initial reports portrayed John as a hapless casualty — basically, he got off the helicopter and shot a couple of people and got killed — and he was kind of a footnote at what happened in Operation Anaconda. We didn’t want him to remain a footnote.”
Longfritz had tried putting her own pen to paper for years to write about her brother and imagine the moments and circumstances leading up to his death, but the effort proved too emotional and the details too difficult to get. Writing the story that would become "Alone at Dawn" wouldn’t click until a mutual acquaintance introduced Longfritz to Schilling, a recently retired Combat Controller who was planning on settling into his golden years comfortably in the Salt Lake Valley.
“My plan was to write novels. I was done with the military. I’d had some great experiences, and some bad experiences,” Schilling said. “I’d had enough of it, to be frank. I didn’t know Lori, I barely knew John — he was a new guy, half a generation behind me.”
Talking to Longfritz and learning more about John’s final mission, though, compelled him to help. Although he initially said he would help her write a proposal to get an agent to help shepherd the book into publication, he soon realized his involvement would stretch far deeper. With his unique background of both Combat Control and writing experience, as well as personally knowing many of the players in the story, Schilling was the perfect partner for Longfritz’s efforts to see her brother’s story in print.
"I realized, I'm meant to write this book. Sometimes things come your way whether you want them to or not,” Schilling said. “It upended my life for two and a half years, but I'm glad I did it."
A graduate of Davis High School, Schilling’s three decades of military service sent him into some of the world’s biggest battles during that time, including the real-life Black Hawk Down. As he begins to experience the ravages of old age, Schilling has increasingly looked to writing to broaden his personal and professional horizons, including two novels “held hostage,” as he put it, by his agent until after the publication of "Alone at Dawn."
“This is something I can do as I get older that forces me to expand my horizons and grow me as a person. Physically, I'm diminished. I'm a pretty damaged guy. Neck, knees, back,” he said. “This is a way to do that — it's a challenge.”
The gut feeling Longfritz and the rest of the fallen Combat Controller’s family had about there being more to Chapman's story was correct, something Schilling quickly discovered as he compared the official account with points of evidence. Chapman’s body, for example, was found a significant distance away from where he had reportedly fallen — and was surrounded by dead enemy combatants. His injuries, other physical evidence from the area and a use of his specific call sign over the radio after he was supposedly dead also served to prove the official account was lacking.
That same reexamination of the evidence also happened at the highest levels of the military and federal government. Through unrelated events, the Air Force reopened Chapman’s file, and that investigation ultimately led to him receiving the Medal of Honor.
These details had been hard for Chapman’s family to come by, though.
“Dan got a lot of information that I wouldn’t have gotten alone as his sister and a civilian,” said Longfritz. “As John’s sister, some of the people he talked to wouldn’t have wanted to tell me everything because they thought I couldn’t handle it — they would think they shouldn’t describe how he took nine bullets. (Our family) just wanted the truth.”
Partnering with Longfritz also helped make Chapman’s story clearer for Schilling, too. Longfritz gave a more personal and intimate picture of the man behind the heroics and was able to flag confusing military jargon or processes in early drafts.
“We wanted ('Alone at Dawn') to be written so anyone could read it and understand,” she said. “We want everyone to read it — military, nonmilitary. We just wanted John’s truth out there, and we wanted to have people understand what Combat Control is and what they do and bring that awareness to the Air Force.”
Comparisons to other elite military units go a long way to explaining Combat Control but give an incomplete picture. In addition to the same kind of land-and-water-based tactical skills undergone by SEALS, Green Berets and others, Combat Controllers direct aircraft to combat zones, sometimes under dire conditions. As part of their service, Combat Controllers are often attached to elite units within other military branches, requiring them to be highly adaptable, as well.
Chapman was one of just seven to graduate from a starting class of 120 candidates. Within Combat Control, Chapman was also in the “24,” a top-tier unit equivalent to SEAL Team 6 or Delta Force. When attached to those other units, Combat Controllers call in aircrafts and give them on-the-ground and to-the-minute intelligence to help those aircrafts maximize their firepower. Through this collaboration of boots on the ground and eyes in the air, Combat Controllers can be responsible for hundreds of kills.
“What they do that no one else does is they can orchestrate a symphony of air support for the battlefield, and they can do it by the score," Schilling said, noting that despite his personal experience, he viewed his work writing the book as one of an outside chronicler.
But Combat Controllers also operate from a place of humanity on a scale not typically enjoyed by other military units, Schilling said. The book details Combat Control’s role in helping alleviate the devastation in Haiti following a 7.0 magnitude earthquake in 2010, as well as Chapman’s successful efforts to win the trust of the Afghani people in a village near where his final stand would take place. In addition to telling Chapman’s story and bringing awareness to the existence and impact of Combat Control, Schilling said he hopes readers also take away the humanity with which Combat Controllers operate.
Schilling has communicated with movie producers interested in bringing Chapman’s story to the silver screen, and bringing that project to life will be his next undertaking after the book launch, which starts Monday with a reading at Salt Lake's The King’s English. But whether a movie or a book, he hopes Chapman’s story resonates with people of all backgrounds.1 comment on this story
“This is a war book like no other. It's not my writing, it's the material,” said Schilling. “With a novel, you don't change anyone's life. With this book, I'm hoping it will change at least some people's lives. This is not a military book. This is for Americans.”
If you go …
What: Dan Schilling reading and book signing
When: Monday, June 24, 7 p.m.
Where: The King's English Bookshop, 1511 S. 1500 East
Note: Places in the signing line are reserved for those who purchase a copy of "Alone at Dawn" from The King's English.