Green Beret Remembered for His ‘Warrior Ethic’
It didn’t matter what it was, his buddies said, Nate Chapman wanted to be there. Lending a hand. Doing the hard stuff.
“There’s a couple times where he’d be halfway dressed, running down the hallway, trying to catch up. You know, he never wanted to be left behind, he always wanted to be right there, willing to help and give a hand,” Sgt. 1st Class William Pence said Saturday, fighting back tears as he recalled his Army comrade of 14 years, Sgt. 1st Class Nathan Ross Chapman, the first U.S. soldier killed by enemy fire in Afghanistan.
“When he was around, he always made you laugh,” Pence said. “He always, no matter how bad it [was], he always made you laugh.”
In a dwindling war without major tank battles and few direct firefights, Chapman’s death brought home to those who knew him the reality of the distant conflict--the possibility that a man who only a few months ago was barbecuing with his friends in suburban Washington could die in a rocky desert on the other side of the world on a mission his friends and family knew almost nothing about.
“It brings the war home,” Col. David Fridovich, commander of the 1st Special Forces Group, said Saturday.
Fridovich joined several of Chapman’s friends and colleagues in the elite 1st Special Forces Group at Ft. Lewis, about 30 miles south of Seattle, to talk about the communications specialist, a 31-year-old Green Beret killed by small-arms fire in an area of southern Afghanistan near Khowst, an area known to shelter groups of Al Qaeda fighters.
Chapman was accompanied on the mission by an unidentified CIA officer, who suffered a serious chest wound in the fighting. A U.S. military rescue team removed both men from the area.
“His loss affects us deeply, but I’m convinced he was doing exactly what he joined the Army and Special Forces to do, and that is to contribute at the highest levels to our nation’s goals and policies,” Fridovich said.
“Nate Chapman was a dynamic, outgoing, physically and mentally hard soldier, known by his team to have an absolutely great sense of humor,” he added. “He embodied not just the warrior ethic but served as a stellar example of the Special Forces ethos.”
In Georgetown, Texas, Chapman’s parents recalled a son who was brimming with pride when he told his parents after enlisting many years ago that he was selected for Special Forces duty.
“He said he qualified for the Rangers,” said his father, Wilbur Chapman, a retired Air Force major. “That surprised me. We had thought he could get some skills that would be useful when he got out of the military. I jokingly told him there was not a big demand for what he did when he got out. But he said he didn’t want to get stuck behind a desk.”
His mother, Lynn Chapman, had a different memory: “He was my little boy.”
Nathan Chapman’s wife, Renae, was secluded in the home they had recently purchased in Puyallup, Wash., with the couple’s two children, Amanda, 2, and Brandon, 1. Her parents and Chapman’s were expected to join her before a memorial service scheduled later this week. Chapman also is survived by a brother, Keith, of Germantown, Md.
In visits to Ontario and Portland, Ore., President Bush paid tribute to the fallen soldier.
“We mourn for Sgt. Nathan Chapman and we pray with his family for God’s blessings on them,” the president said. “Nathan lost his life yesterday. But I can assure the parents and loved ones of Nathan Chapman that he lost his life for a cause that is just and important. And that cause is the security of the American people, and that cause is the cause of freedom and a civilized world.”
The 5,000 Southern Californians in the Ontario Convention Center burst into sustained applause.
A Knack for Communication
Chapman was remembered for his deft skill with communications technology and computers and his sense of humor, both of which served him in the rarefied brotherhood of the Green Berets, an organization so tightly knit, his colleagues said, that it becomes a second family.
“Basically, for about 12 hours a day, we work and live together,” said Pence. “Until you’ve experienced it, there’s nothing like it. It’s like a family. We get together, we barbecue, we drink beer, we go out. We all suffer together. The guy’s right there next to you suffering, and when it’s all done, you drink the beer, laughing about it.”
Chapman, born April 23, 1970, at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., surprised his family during his last year at Centerville High School in Ohio by announcing he planned to join the Army. He was so young--just 17--that his father had to sign an Army consent form.
“A recruiter might have come to the high school--something must have rung a bell for him,” Wilbur Chapman said.
It wasn’t necessarily a surprise. Chapman had always been the adventurous one who loved the outdoors and the smooth hum of a finely tuned car. “He was always doing the kind of things most people might find on the edge or dangerous. The military, particularly this kind of work, gave him that opportunity,” Campbell said.
From there it was on to Cincinnati for a battery of tests, which qualified him for the Army Rangers. He served on missions in Panama, Haiti and in Desert Storm before telling his parents he had set his sights on the Green Berets. He graduated from Green Beret training at Ft. Bragg, N.C., where he also was trained in Army scuba diving.
Ft. Lewis officials said he was stationed twice at the Washington state Army base, with a deployment in Okinawa, Japan, between the two postings.
Assigned as a communications specialist to a 12-member Green Beret team at Ft. Lewis, Chapman was adept at handling computers, satellite communication and other kinds of high-frequency communications. But his colleagues said he was also gifted in a more basic kind of communication.
Known for His Physical Prowess
“When we were in Thailand, he was responsible for running a sniper range. He was able to communicate the information in the class off the top of his head through an interpreter, and also on an individual basis with the Thai soldiers--he was able to communicate to them without using an interpreter and without knowing the language, just because he’s that type of person,” said Capt. Edwin Hoenig, detachment commander with Chapman’s unit.
Hoenig said Chapman, over 6 feet, was also known for his physical prowess. “He was as strong as an ox. He was always in competition . . . to be the strongest man on the team . . . [and] the fastest man on the team.”
‘A Wonderful Man, a Wonderful Child’
In November, Chapman temporarily joined the 5th Special Forces Group out of Ft. Campbell, Ky., for deployment in Afghanistan. He simply told his parents he was going on a mission to the Far East.
“We didn’t know where exactly, but we thought it could be the Philippines. We know there are terrorist activities in that part of the world,” his father said.
It wasn’t until Christmas morning, when their son called by satellite telephone, that they began to suspect he was likely in a place far more dangerous.
“During the conversation, he let it slip what time zone he was in, the time of day it was,” Chapman said. “We were able to deduce he was in Afghanistan, or close to it. We still didn’t know for sure until the chaplain came yesterday to confirm his death.”
“He seemed so far away,” his mother, Lynn, recalled tearfully. “But I was glad that he was able to talk to us. . . . He had been through so many things, so many actions. And I guess I came to think that nothing would happen to him. I was wrong,” she said, her voice breaking.
“We’re very sorry to lose Nathan,” she said. “But we’re also very proud of him. He was a wonderful man, a wonderful child. And we’re proud that he was doing a good thing for our country.”
Murphy reported from Ft. Lewis, Hart from Houston. Times staff writers Edwin Chen in Ontario and David Willman in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.