Alone at Dawn

  • Published

Alone at Dawn by Dan Schilling and Lori Chapman Longfritz. New Grand Central Publishing, 2019, 331 pp. 

Alone at Dawn is the untold and accurate story of the courage during a special operation of Master Sergeant John Chapman, the first Airman in a ground element to be awarded the Medal of Honor since Vietnam.

Author Dan Schilling, a 30-year Air Force special operations combat control veteran, took on the controversial two-year challenge to gather first-hand accounts and aerial drone footage of Chapman’s heroic actions. Deep in the Shahi Khot Valley, what surfaced was irrefutable evidence that he ultimately saved his fellow teammates’ lives.

Schilling separated his book into three parts. Part I is the historical evolution of the Air Force elite combat controller (CCT) career field. Part II is the detailed account of Chapman’s inspirational actions during Operation Anaconda in March 2002. Lastly, Part III is the arduous, multiyear process of upgrading Chapman’s award from the Air Force Cross to the deserved Medal of Honor. 

In August 2021, with the final withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan in America’s longest war, we must not forget the men and women who have paid the ultimate sacrifice protecting our freedom. Chapman, born in 1965, grew up in New England from humble beginnings. He later joined the Air Force in 1985 and cross-trained into the CCT career field through an 18-month training pipeline.

Throughout the first part of the book, Schilling interweaves Chapman’s childhood into adulthood with the formidable years of special operations, such as the evolution of the Special Operations Command after Desert One in 1980.  Air Force Special Tactics grew tremendously in 1983 after rescuing 233 Americans in Grenada from the Soviet threat even though it was not as well-known. This rescue marked a turning point for CCTs, and they continued to develop alongside SEAL Team Six and their Delta Force counterparts. From Desert One forward, the 24th Special Tactics Squadron (24th STS) has played a key role in special operations and has quadrupled in size since the 1980s.

In Part II, Schilling describes in exceptional detail the first major operation in the Global War on Terror called Operation Anaconda. Chapman was assigned to a six-man SEAL Team to establish a tactical observation point 10,469 feet on top of Takur Ghar mountain. On March 4, 2002, while on infiltration, their MH-47 (callsign Razor-03) was hit with multiple rocket-propelled grenades.

During the chaos, Petty Officer Neil Roberts fell from the back of Razor-03. He landed in waist-deep snow in the middle of Chechen, and al-Qaeda forces fired upon him from all directions. Severely damaged, Razor-03 crashed-landed 7 kilometers away. The team regrouped, got another helicopter, and went back to save Roberts. Upon the courageous follow-on rescue attempt, Chapman was shot twice in the abdomen and presumed dead by the rest of the SEAL team.

Due to the overwhelming enemy fire, the SEAL team exfiltrations were forced to leave Chapman on the mountain. Declassified drone footage shows Chapman still alive and attempting to gain the high ground and engage the enemy after the SEALs departed. After that, the final rescue attempt of an 18-member quick reaction force (QRF) also failed, and six Americans were killed during the operation. Chapman succumbs to his fatal wounds after selflessly attempting to protect the QRF helicopter by redirecting enemy fire to his position.

In part III, Schilling describes the emotional and heartbreaking notification of Chapman’s sacrifice to family and friends. Years later, then-Secretary of the Air Force Deborah James initiated a three-year journey of the most thoroughly investigated and documented Medal of Honor in history. Surfacing from an ocean of bureaucracy, on March 26, 2018, President Donald J. Trump signed Chapman’s Medal of Honor package.

Schilling served at the 24th STS, the same organization where Chapman was assigned. The story written by a combat controller for a combat controller shines through with admiration and justifiably, so.  Anyone who has ever worked with CCTs can attest to its depiction of Chapman’s story. Time and time again, we learn lessons through blood, and it is imperative for leaders to read military history and avoid repeating the same mistakes. The mission’s command and control issues led to miscommunication and senior leaders making impatient decision-making.

While evidence suggests 150–300 enemy combatants were killed in the operation, could leadership have made better decisions? Were the deaths of SEAL Neil Roberts, CCT John Chapman, PJ Jason Cunningham, aircrewman Phil Svitak, Ranger Marc Anderson, Ranger Bradley Crose, and Ranger Matthew Commons necessary? Although senior leaders must contemplate this difficult question, what is not a difficult question is that Master Sergeant John Chapman was a hero on that operation and emphatically embodied the special tactics motto, “First there, that others may live.” 

Like the combat controller’s role, Alone at Dawn is a book that is a jack of all trades and covers many topics. While heavy on military jargon for a nonmilitary reader, Schilling describes the background of special tactics squadrons and CTTs and takes readers on the untold and accurate account of Chapman’s last stand for his life. More time could have been spent on Chapman’s early life and the lessons learned from this special operation mission than highlighting interservice drama. While important, it was a distraction to getting to know the elite combat controllers and honoring Chapman’s sacrifice. Lori Chapman Longfritz, his sister, wrote an emotional portion in the acknowledgment section that is well worth the read.

This book, along with the Master Sergeant John Chapman Medal of Honor footage on YouTube,1 serves as an excellent professional developmental tool for Air Force Special Tactics Squadron members and those aspiring to join or work with this elite group of deadly warriors.

Major Thomas Haney, USAF

[1] Dan Schilling Books, The First Medal of Honor Ever Recorded, June 26, 2019, YouTube video, 8:51, https://www.youtube.com/.

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."