Nathan Chapman: Remembering the first US soldier killed in Afghan war as troops pull out after 2 decades

Chapman, who died after being shot by a teenager in January 2002, had told his wife that there is a fifty-fifty chance of him returning home

                            Nathan Chapman: Remembering the first US soldier killed in Afghan war as troops pull out after 2 decades
Nathan Chapman (L) and his coffin being carried by army pall-bearers in January 2002 (Fort Lewis Public Affairs Office/Getty Images)

The US has formally started withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan, a country where it has remained stuck for two decades now, amid criticism that it could prove to be counter-productive. On Thursday, April 29, White House Deputy Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters aboard Air Force One that a drawdown was underway and that the Joe Biden administration is committed to bring all American personnel out of Afghanistan by September 11, 2021, a date marking 20 years since the horrific terror attacks on the US soil. The US had launched its mission in Afghanistan days after those attacks to target late Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the attack. Though bin Laden was eliminated by American forces in Pakistan in 2011, Washington has struggled to wrap up its engagement in Afghanistan where the Taliban has regained influence in recent years and poses a threat to the US-backed government in Kabul. 

The US war in Afghanistan has seen massive monetary and human resources getting drained and Biden is the fourth president after George W Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump to deal with the endless challenge in that war-ravaged nation. Eventually, he has ordered completion of the US troops’ withdrawal from Afghanistan and it is being executed at the moment. However, the Pentagon is concerned about American personnel coming under attack from the Taliban at the time of departure and hence the details of the departure are not being publicly discussed much. As the US prepares itself for one of its biggest military withdrawals, the occasion merits a revisit to Nathan Chapman, the first American soldier to die from the enemy fire in the Afghan war. 


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US Army soldiers return home from a 9-month deployment to Afghanistan on December 10, 2020 at Fort Drum, New York. (Getty Images)

Who was Nathan Chapman?

Born on April 23, 1970, Nathan Ross Chapman was a US Army Sergeant First Class with the 1st Special Forces Group. Born to Wilbur and Lynn Chapman at Andrews Air Force Base, Nathan grew up in many towns across the US but considered San Antonio, Texas, where his grandparents lived as his hometown. He joined the military at the age of 18. Chapman’s military career lasted 13 years during which he served in Haiti, Panama and the first Gulf War. In 1989, Chapman was one of the members who parachuted into Panama as part of the invasion under Operation Just Cause. He took part in Operation Desert Storm and went to the US Army Special Forces School at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Chapman was assigned to the 1st Special Forces Group. It was when he was directing troop movements from the back of a truck in January 2002 that he was shot. He was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart and Bronze Star. The Forward Operating Base Chapman in Afghanistan’s Khost Province was named after him.

Ranae Chapman with her daughter Armanda after the death of his husband Nathan Chapman (Getty Images)

Years later, it was revealed that Chapman was the communications specialist for a CIA-led paramilitary team called ‘Team Hotel’. The WaPo report said that Chapman had gone to the Afghanistan war as a member of what the CIA called Team Hotel — “a six-man unit composed of three Special Forces soldiers, two CIA paramilitary officers and a CIA contractor”. Chapman and two other Green Berets, the report added, were selected from more than 1,300 soldiers in 1st Special Forces Group.
In 2015, the CIA unveiled a star on their memorial wall in Chapman’s honor. Chapman was married to Renae and the duo has two children -- Amanda and Brandon -- now in their 20s. He was buried at the Tahoma National Cemetery in Kent, Washington, where he lived with his family. There is also a Nathan Chapman Memorial Trail in Pierce County, Washington.

‘Fifty-fifty chance I’m not coming home’

When Renae asked Chapman whether he wanted to go to Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks, the latter said he had to, the New York Daily News reported. They then took a family photo with their children, who were then too little to remember their father. Chapman then told his wife that there is a fifty-fifty chance of him returning home. The family’s fear proved to be true as Chapman became the first casualty of the long war.

The Chapman family (Getty Images)

In 2016, the Washington Post published a report, saying: “Chapman’s death was a watershed event for a country that didn’t know it was headed into a seemingly endless war, where the news of those lost would turn into a kind of white noise for many Americans. The first of its kind in Afghanistan, his death drew national attention, including a televised funeral.” Nearly 2,500 American soldiers have died in the US’s Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan till 2020.

Chapman was shot by a teenager:

Months after the 9/11 attacks, the Special Forces trapped senior al Qaeda leaders in Tora Bora but yet bin Laden managed to flee after the leadership ignored the CIA’s appeal to send Marines and Rangers to nail the enemy. The Special Forces kept up their hunt for bin Laden and Chapman was energetic in his work. He spoke with his family over the satellite phone on Christmas Day in 2001. There, he said that he is with his “second family” and called his colleagues “a great bunch of guys”. He also told his kids in a video message that he missed them.

A still image of Osama bin Laden taken from a videotape aired on Al-Jazeerah station September 10, 2003 (Getty Images)

On January 3, Chapman and his team went to Khost and the next day, as they approached a checkpoint set up by a local warlord, gunfire started and Chapman got hit. The Daily News cited one report that said Chapman was shot by a 14-year-old Al-Qaeda sympathizer who later fled into Pakistan. According to many, Chapman was killed on orders from the warlord who was upset with the fact that the Americans did business with a rival. Former Afghanistan president Hamid Karzai, who the West had helped in coming to power, later appointed the warlord as a provincial governor and he also went on to become a member of the country’s legislature. 

CIA acknowledged Chapman’s death after 13 years

It took the investigative agency 13 years to acknowledge the death of the military leader and in 2015, then CIA director John Brennan reportedly told Chapman’s father that “it should have been done a long time ago”. He though did not give any explanation as to why the delay happened. 

Chapman’s family kept on suffering

In July 2012, the CBS News carried a report that spoke in detail about the difficulties that Chapman’s widow Renae went through after his death. Besides the tragedy of losing a loved one who she said “was funny”, Renae has also found it challenging to get the benefits from the veterans affairs department that were promised to Chapman’s family. Ranae, who faced medical hardships after her husband’s passing away, was quoted as saying by CBS News: “They clerical error you to death. They paperwork you to death.”

Former president George W Bush gestures at his State Of the Union address in January 2002. (Getty Images)

She said she hadn’t got the payments she owed for dental work because the VA department “insisted” that Nathan died a year earlier than he did and that meant some of her benefits were well past their expiry date. She also said she did not get medical benefits because the department thought she had conditions that were outside the purview of primary health insurance, something she denied. Ranae, who attended former president George W Bush’s State of the Union speech as a guest of former first lady Laura Bush in 2002, has also been made to prove to the department that she has not married again. Ranae told the network that she feels for those thousands of soldiers who return home from the battlefield with a bruised body and psyche and feared that they are not going to get the help they need.

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