A Navy SEAL who led a rescue operation to retrieve a fallen teammate on a treacherous mountain peak in Afghanistan will receive the Medal of Honor, the White House announced Monday.
Retired Master Chief Special Warfare Operator Britt K. Slabinski will receive the nation’s highest military award on May 24, the White House said.
Slabinski is credited with rallying a team of SEALs for a counter-assault on al-Qaeda fighters, who had pinned down another SEAL, Petty Officer 1st Class Neil Roberts, during a firefight in the early morning hours of March 4, 2002. Roberts had been ejected from a Chinook helicopter as it was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade, and he was surrounded by enemy fighters on the snow-covered ridge.
When Slabinski realized how dire Roberts’ position was, he “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,” the White House announcement reads.
“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,” the announcement continues. “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.”
The firefight would eventually come to be known as “The Battle of Roberts Ridge” in honor of Roberts, who was killed as he tried to fend off enemy fighters. Slabinski’s team had begun the mission the day before the battle, tasked with establishing an outpost on the top of Takur Ghar mountain in eastern Afghanistan. The mission was part of Operation Anaconda, a series of engagements led by CIA paramilitary officers and U.S. special operations troops that sought to root out and destroy al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters in the Afghanistan’s Shah-i-Kot Valley.
The story of the fateful battle was retold in a 2016 New York Times article, which focused on the actions of Slabinski and and an Air Force combat controller, Tech Sgt. John Chapman, who was attached to the SEAL team and also died on the mountain. Chapman, who directed air strikes after Roberts fell out of the Chinook, has been credited with saving the entire SEAL team during the rescue operation.
Chapman’s final living moments are the subject of some controversy, however. Slabinski believed, and told his men, that Chapman had been killed by gunfire as he called in air strikes from AC-130 gunships, according to TheNYT article. Air Force officials, using drone footage and new imagery analysis technology, contend that Chapman was still alive and fought on alone after Slabinski’s SEALs fell back to a safer position.
The military news and analysis website Task & Purpose reported in April that Chapman will posthumously receive the Medal of Honor for his actions in the battle. White House officials have not confirmed that report.
Controversy aside, Slabinski was awarded the Navy Cross for leading the rescue attempt and his heroic actions under enemy fire.
“During this entire sustained engagement, Senior Chief Petty Officer Slabinski exhibited classic grace under fire in steadfastly leading the intrepid rescue operation, saving the lives of his wounded men and setting the conditions for the ultimate vanquishing of the enemy and the seizing of Takur Ghar,” his medal citation reads, according to Military.com. “By his heroic display of decisive and tenacious leadership, unyielding courage in the face of constant enemy fire, and utmost devotion to duty, Senior Chief Petty Officer Slabinski reflected great credit upon himself and upheld the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.”
Now, with his latest commendation, Slabinski becomes the second living SEAL to receive the Medal of Honor for heroism in Afghanistan. He is the also the 12th living service member overall to receive the military’s highest honor for action during the 17-year Afghanistan War.
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