Profiles of Valor: U.S. Navy SEAL Britt Slabinski
This particular Medal of Honor for a battle in Afghanistan is not without controversy.
A retired U.S. Navy SEAL, Master Chief Special Warfare Operator (Sea, Air, and Land) Britt K. Slabinski, will receive the Medal of Honor on May 24 for “conspicuous gallantry” during a firefight in Afghanistan. Here’s how the White House describes Slabinski’s heroism:
As a Team Leader assigned to a Joint Task Force, in the early morning hours of 4 March 2002, then-Senior Chief Slabinski led a reconnaissance team to its assigned observation area on a snow covered, 10,000-foot mountaintop in support of a major coalition offensive [Operation Anaconda] against Al-Qaida forces in the valley below. Rocket-propelled grenades and small arms fired from enemy fighters hidden and entrenched in the tree lines and rocks riddled the team’s insertion helicopter. One teammate was ejected from the aircraft, and the crippled helicopter crash landed on the valley floor below. Then-Senior Chief Slabinski boldly rallied his remaining team and organized supporting assets for a daring assault back to the mountain peak in an attempt to rescue their stranded teammate. Later, after a second enemy-opposed insertion, then-Senior Chief Slabinski led his six-man joint team up a snow-covered hill, in a frontal assault against two bunkers under withering enemy fire from three directions. He repeatedly exposed himself to enemy fire as he engaged in a pitched, close-quarters firefight against the tenacious and more heavily armed enemy forces. Proximity made air support impossible, and after several teammates became casualties, the situation became untenable.
Senior Chief Slabinski maneuvered his team to a more defensible position, directed air strikes in very close proximity to his team’s position, and requested reinforcements. As daylight approached, the accurate enemy mortar fire forced the team further down the sheer mountainside. Carrying a seriously wounded teammate down a sheer cliff face, he led an arduous trek across one kilometer of precipitous terrain, through waist-deep snow while continuing to call fire on the enemy who was engaging the team from the surrounding ridges. During the subsequent 14 hours, he stabilized casualties on his team and continued the fight against the enemy until the mountaintop was secured by the quick reaction force and his team was extracted.
The Battle of Takur Ghar was considered by the Defense Department as U.S. special operators’ most intense firefight since Mogadishu in 1993. Seven Americans were killed and 12 wounded, and U.S. forces lost two MH-47 Chinooks. One other American, Air Force Technical Sgt. John Chapman, will receive the Medal of Honor posthumously for actions during the battle. He will be the first Airman to receive it since Vietnam.
It’s Chapman’s story, however, that makes Slabinski’s Medal of Honor unusually controversial. The Navy argues that Chapman was already dead when the SEALs evacuated under Slabinski’s command. The Air Force insists the SEALs left Chapman alone on the mountainside to later die in the assault. Drone footage and autopsy results appear to corroborate the Air Force’s account.
Though the USAF does not assert that leaving Chapman behind was purposeful or anything less than the best the SEAL operators could do under terrible circumstances, some argue that Slabinski’s Medal is a SEAL effort to save face. At the same time, the Medal of Honor is the most strenuously vetted award, and, given that it’s been 16 years since the battle, it’s not easy to second-guess the decision to award Slabinski with the Medal given what he thought he knew during the battle.
Slabinski previously earned the Navy Cross for his actions in the battle, but he will now become the 12th living service member to be awarded the Medal for actions in Afghanistan. He retired in 2014 after serving in the Navy for 25 years, including nine deployments overseas and 15 combat missions.
Trump awarded the Medal to Slabinski on May 24: