First American to die in Afghanistan, Nathan Chapman, remembered eight years later
Monday was the eighth anniversary of the first American combat death in Afghanistan - and there's no end in sight.
Eight long years since Army Special Forces Sgt. 1st Class Nathan Chapman became the first solider to die going after those responsible for 9/11.
"How important is it? Do you want to go?" his wife, Renae Chapman, would recall asking him when he volunteered.
"Yes," her 31-year-old husband replied. "I have to go."
Before leaving their home in Washington state, they took a family photo with their 2-year-old daughter, Amanda, and 1-year-old son, Brandon, neither old enough to remember him. "Honey, there's a fifty-fifty chance I'm not coming home," Chapman told his wife.
The odds got better soon after Chapman arrived in Afghanistan. Just months after 9/11, Special Forces virtually trapped senior Al Qaeda leaders in Tora Bora.
The good guys had not suffered a single combat fatality and things looked so bleak for the bad guys that Osama Bin Laden made out his will. "Our prayers were not answered," he radioed his followers. "I am sorry for getting you involved in this battle."
Of course, Bin Laden could not have imagined the Bush administration would rely on Afghan mercenaries to augment the 90 Special Forces operators.
"We're going to lose our prey if we're not careful," CIA chief of counterterrorism Henry Crumpton warned President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. "How bad off are these Afghani forces, really?" Bush inquired, as recounted in a Senate report. "Are they up to the job?"
"Definitely not," was the reply.
Crumpton repeated the plea to send in Marines and Rangers who were definitely up to the job. The plea was ignored; Bin Laden fled.
Special Forces kept up the hunt. Chapman seemed still in his usual high spirits two weeks later, when he made a Christmas Day call home with a satellite phone.
"I'm with my second family; they're a great bunch of guys," he said.
His kids had a video message that Chapman sent his first family. "I sure miss you guys," he said.
On Jan. 3, 2002, the hunt took Chapman and a small team to Khost. The next day, they approached a checkpoint set up by a local warlord. Gunfire erupted; Chapman was fatally wounded.
By one report, Chapman was shot by a 14-year-old Al Qaeda sympathizer who fled into Pakistan. Many believe he was killed on orders from the warlord, who was angry the Americans had chosen to do business with a rival.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai later appointed the warlord a provincial governor. He's now in the Afghan legislature.
Meantime, an American outpost in Khost was named Forward Operating Base Chapman. A suicide bomber burst in last Wednesday, killing seven CIA operatives, including the station chief, a mother of three. That was five days after a Nigerian extremist carried explosives onto a plane, triggering memories of pre-9/11 intelligence failures.
Today, our new President reviews how we are addressing a threat that has grown in the years since we had Bin Laden cornered and a fine young father became the first to die in combat.
"The day he left we all cried and cried," Chapman's wife remembered in a 2002 interview. He gave her a heart-shaped pendant that they broke, so each could take half.
"And he left."
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