Trump awards Medal of Honor to former Navy SEAL for 'daring assault' in Afghanistan

The honor is awarded after years of controversy surrounding the battle.

May 24, 2018, 6:58 PM

President Donald Trump awarded a former member of the Navy's SEAL Team Six with the Medal of Honor Thursday for an attempted rescue of his teammate on a mountainside in Afghanistan.

Retired Master Chief Special Warfare Operator Britt Slabinski received the military’s highest honor for his March 2002 "daring assault" amid ongoing enemy fire, according to the White House.

Seven of Slabinski's teammates were present at the White House ceremony on Thursday.

"You waged a fierce fight against the enemy and these really have become the enemies of America and the enemies of all civilization," Trump said. "Through your actions, you demonstrated there is no love more pure and no courage more great than the love and courage that burns in the hearts of American patriots. We are free because warriors like you are willing to give their sweat, their blood, and if they have to their lives for our great nation."

Sixteen years ago, during the early morning of March 4, Slabinski was leading a reconnaissance team to the top of a 10,000 foot snow-covered mountain when unexpected heavy fire knocked Petty Officer 1st Class Neil Roberts out of their Chinook helicopter and onto the mountaintop, according to the Navy and ABC reporting at the time.

The damaged helicopter was forced to land in the valley below and Slabinski rallied the remainder of his team on a rescue back up to the mountaintop, the White House said.

"The odds were not good. They were not in their favor, but Britt and his team didn't even hesitate for a moment. They made their decision. For them it was an easy one," said Trump.

During the rescue, then-Senior Chief Slabinski’s team was successfully inserted on top of the mountain, Takur Ghar.

He and a teammate assaulted and cleared one enemy bunker at close range, but then faced a hail of machine gun fire from 20 meters away, according to the Navy.

As they faced mounting casualties and ran low on ammunition, Slabinski maneuvered his team over the mountainside.

Slabinski carried a "seriously wounded teammate through waist-deep snow, and led an arduous trek" – eventually moving down the sheer side of the mountain, said the Navy.

After 14 hours on the mountaintop - stabilizing casualties and fighting against enemy fire - the team was extracted. Seven Americans were dead and six wounded.

As it turned out, Roberts had been captured and killed after falling out of the helicopter.

The battle, which became known as Roberts Ridge, was a part of Operation Anaconda – a 16-day mission to destroy al Qaeda and Taliban forces fortified in mountainous positions in eastern Afghanistan. At the time, it was the deadliest ground offensive of the war in Afghanistan.

Slabinski’s honor comes amid years of controversy over the events on the deadly day and his ensuing years in the Navy.

Earlier this month, Newsweek reported that its reporter had reviewed footage appearing to show that Chapman was left behind alive by Slabinski and the rest of the SEAL team during the rescue for Roberts.

The footage supported Air Force claims that Chapman “fought on for an hour, badly wounded and alone, before Al-Qaeda militants killed him as he provided cover for an approaching helicopter,” reported Newsweek.

Slabinski has told friends that he was not aware that Air Force air controller Technical Sgt. John Chapman — his own tent-mate in camp — was still alive when he and his fellow SEALs withdrew from the mountaintop in Takur Ghar under heavy fire from al-Qaeda militants," multiple sources close to Slabinski told ABC.

"I crawled right over John, looking for some sign, some movement, any sign of life," Slabinski said in a recent interview with Breaking Defense writer James Kitfield. "And I didn’t get anything out of John."

Chapman is expected to receive a posthumous Medal of Honor from Trump, Task and Purpose has reported. Slabinski has said he supports his fallen comrade receiving the nation’s highest award for valor and members of the Chapman family attended Thursday's ceremony at the White House.

At least one media report alleged the retired commando either approved of the desecration of enemy fighters or looked the other way. Fellow SEALs, who spoke to ABC on condition of anonymity to discuss classified missions, strongly disputed those allegations.

They said that as the top non-commissioned officer at Naval Special Warfare Group 2 from 2010-2012, Slabinski had to make unpopular disciplinary decisions at times which made him enemies and that he has been unfairly maligned by those he had held accountable as a leader.

The upgrade of Slabinski’s Navy Cross was approved by former Obama Secretary of Defense Ash Carter after a review of possible upgrades of awards for valor, the Navy said. But the award of the Medal of Honor to Slabinski was delayed by the Trump administration for more than a year amid the controversy over war crimes allegations in media reports, a source familiar with the process told ABC News.

Pentagon spokesman Maj. Dave Eastburn said, "we are well aware of the passionate arguments that have surrounded this nomination, but no one should think that these issues were not given due consideration in our exhaustive evaluation process."

"The secretary fairly and thoroughly evaluated the Medal of Honor nomination for SOCM Britt Slabinski against the long-standing Medal of Honor award criteria. Based on SOCM Slabinski's heroic actions at the Battle of Roberts Ridge, the secretary recommended that the president approve the Navy's request to award SOCM Slabinski the Medal of Honor,” he added in a statement.

The White House did not respond to requests for comment on the controversy, except to provide its official statement on Slabinski’s honor.

Luis Martinez, Elizabeth Mclaughlin and Alex Mallin contributed to this story.

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