President Trump on Thursday awarded the Medal of Honor to a retired Navy SEAL who has been accused of committing war crimes — and leaving a man behind in enemy territory.
Former Master Chief Special Warefare Operator Britt Slabinski received the award during a public ceremony at the White House.
In 2002, he spearheaded a controversial SEAL Team Six mission in Afghanistan — which led to the deaths of seven Americans.
He was a Senior Chief Petty Officer at the time, in charge of leading a seven-member unit into eastern Afghanistan to set up an observation post on the mountain of Takur Ghar.
It was just six months after 9/11, and US forces had been waging war with Al Qaeda in the valley below as part of Operation Anaconda.
“Britt and his teammates were preparing to exit the aircraft on the mountain peak when their helicopter was struck by machine gun fire, and machine gun fire like they’ve never seen before,” explained Trump, who recounted the events on Thursday.
“Not a good feeling,” he said.
As the chopper “lurched away from the assault,” one of the SEAL Team Six members — later identified as Petty Officer 1st Class Neil Roberts — got tossed from the aircraft but was thought to have survived.
“At this point, Britt received information suggesting [Roberts] was probably still alive,” Trump said. “The team faced a choice: to wait for reinforcements and pretty much safety, or to return immediately to the enemy stronghold in the hope of saving Neil’s life.”
Despite being “out-manned, out-gunned and fighting uphill on a steep, icy mountain,” Trump said Slabinski and his squad made the choice to turn back.
“For them, it was an easy one,” the president added. “They went back to that mountain.”
While Trump hailed Slabinski for his actions, many in the military community feel that he made several bad decisions that day in 2002, which wound up costing the lives of seven Americans, including Roberts.
First, he chose to take a much more dangerous route than the one they had planned after experiencing maintenance delays and pressure from senior officers. Slabinski told the New York Times in 2016 that when they landed on Takur Ghar, Qaeda forces were already waiting.
Next, he reportedly made the decision to land his team directly on the observation post — rather than hiking up to it from a safer position. Military officials later determined that this was a major error, which “violated a basic tenet of reconnaissance.”
Slabinski then chose to turn back after losing Roberts — recruiting Air Force Technical Sgt. John Chapman in the process, according to accounts.
Unbeknownst to him, Roberts had already been captured by enemy fighters and killed.
“Britt continued to engage the enemy, repeatedly exposing himself to horrendous fire,” Trump said Thursday, calling the assault the “Battle of Roberts Ridge.”
“When they could go no further, Britt tended to the wounded and coordinated their escape until his team was finally evacuated,” the president added.
Members of the Army’s Delta Force and 75th Ranger Regiment teams, which were involved in the battle, believe Slabinski left Chapman behind that day after retreating with the rest of his unit.
Footage obtained by the Times appears to show the airman battling Qaeda forces on the mountain for another hour — even resorting to hand-to-hand combat at one point.
Chapman wound up dying in an attempt to protect arriving reinforcements from gunfire, according to the Times.
He will be posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, though it’s unclear when.
Slabinski has repeatedly denied leaving him on Takur Ghar that day, while also defending the rest of his actions.
“I can tell you, we left no one behind. No one,” he told Fox News, just three days before receiving the Medal of Honor.
“What I saw, what I experienced, I know that clearly that we didn’t leave anyone behind up there,” Slabinski said. “I wasn’t more than 20 to 30 feet away from where John was and that was my experience. But what I want people to focus on is that it’s called Roberts Ridge now because we lost six other people up there. A total of seven.”
Asked if he thought Chapman was still alive when they retreated, Slabinski replied: “That wasn’t what I experienced. It wasn’t what I saw.”
In addition to the 2002 incident, Slabinski has been accused of multiple war crimes. They include illegally ordering the executions of male Afghans and mutilating the bodies of fallen enemy fighters.
“[Slabinski] certainly has been accused of some very bad things,” retired SEAL officer Dick Couch told Politico.
He pointed out, however, how the award is based on “one specific action” — and not the recipient’s character.
“I’ve read excerpts of what he did in that battle and it certainly seems Medal of Honor-worthy,” Couch said.
Dana White, a spokesperson for Defense Secretary James Mattis, told Politico that Mattis “was well aware of the news reporting around Master Chief Slabinski” and recommended him for the Medal of Honor anyway.