Chapman, a combat control technician who was killed in action in Afghanistan during 2002′s deadly Operation Anaconda, was first recognized with the Air Force Cross prior to the award’s 2018 upgrade to the Medal of Honor.
The reformed recognition followed an exhaustive investigation led by Air Force Capt. Cora Alexander, whose examination into the heroic firefight that claimed Chapman’s life, coupled with the best-selling book “Alone at Dawn” by Dan Schilling and Lori Longfritz, is forming the basis of the film’s script.
In March 2002, Chapman was flying with a team of Navy SEALs when the helicopter transporting them came under heavy fire from al-Qaida fighters below. When a member of the assault force was thrown from the helicopter amidst the turmoil, Chapman and other SEALs volunteered to go out on foot and retrieve their teammate.
Chapman was “the first to charge up the mountain toward the enemy,” former President Donald Trump said at the 2018 Medal of Honor presentation. The airman had just cleared a bunker of its enemy occupants when he decided to launch into a sprint toward additional al-Qaida fighters. That’s when Chapman was hit by multiple enemy rounds, knocking him unconscious.
Minutes transpired before Chapman regained consciousness and resumed fighting. After engaging the enemy for nearly an hour, another helicopter carrying Army Rangers and airmen approached. Rather than remain covered, Chapman emerged from his concealed position to fire at the assailants who were sighting in on the helicopter.
In the open, the airman was struck by two machine gun rounds that delivered the fatal blow, but his last-ditch efforts were lauded as saving numerous lives of those onboard the arriving helo. The husband and father of two daughters, then ages 3 and 5, was 36 years old.
For years, the exact circumstances surrounding Chapman’s death remained a mystery. A 2016 report from The New York Times revealed that former Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, after seeing enhanced drone footage of the engagement, was the first to recommend Chapman’s Air Force Cross be upgraded to the Medal of Honor.
James argued that early after-action reports were inaccurate and that Chapman had not been killed when he was first knocked unconscious, as initial reports indicated.
After cross-referencing a video feed from an MQ-1 Predator drone and testimony by troops on the ground and in the air — an AC-130 air crew was overhead — a 17-person investigative team was able to pinpoint actions taken by Chapman on that frigid mountainside where he took his last breath.
“John survived that initial wounding that he got, and continued to fight on for an hour,” Chapman’s squadron commander Col. Ken Rodriguez said. “And then at a crucial moment, right at the end of his life, he sacrificed his life for the incoming quick reaction force, when he could have hunkered down and said, ‘Finally, the guys are coming in to get me.’ But instead he said, ‘If I don’t do something, others are going to die.’ He’s clearly a Medal of Honor-worthy warrior.”
When former President Trump presented the Medal of Honor to Chapman’s widow, Valerie Nessel, the Windsor Locks, Connecticut, native became the first airman to receive the nation’s highest award for valor since the Vietnam War.
Now, the portrayal of Chapman’s heroics will fall to the 40-year-old Gyllenhaal, who, among his numerous commendable roles, received critical acclaim for his depiction of Marine sniper Anthony Swofford in the 2005 big screen adaptation of Swofford’s Gulf War book “Jarhead.”
Details on the film’s release have not yet been made available.
Former Air Force Times reporter Stephen Losey contributed to this story.
Jon Simkins is a writer and editor for Military Times, and a USMC veteran.