Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Tech Sergeant John Chapman, Hero

I never had the pleasure of meeting Tech Sergeant John Chapman or his brave mother, who was featured in a short video, a loving remembrance of her son, sometime after the country graced itself by awarding to Chapman the Medal of Honor.  

We do however share a town: Windsor Locks, a mill town with a characteristic one-sided Main Street, a canal that flows parallel to the Connecticut River, full of perch and snappers in the heat of July. Chapman’s mother says in the video her son was a little Huck-Finnish growing up in Windsor Locks – nothing too serious, but there was a playful and sometimes mischievous spirit in the recent Medal of Honor recipient. When you live by a sun-spangled river and you are a boy in a town in which all eyes lovingly spy you out, Huck lives and breathes in you.

It did not surprise me at all that Windsor Locks had produced a hero, because I bear in my mind a lively remembrance of Dr. Ettore Carniglia, when alive the best diagnostician Connecticut had ever produced. In 1952, the peak year of the poliomyelitis epidemic, there were nearly 60,000 cases throughout America; 3,000 were fatal, and 21,000 left their victims paralyzed. In 1955, Jonas Salk  had invented his polio vaccine. I was just entering my teens when, looking out the window from Suffield Street, I saw a line of kids snaking up North Main Street to Doc Carniglia’s house and office. The Doc was dispensing Salk’s vaccine. Kids who cried when the needle pricked their arms were consoled with a parting gift, candy stored in a large wicker basket by the door.


We all put on our bravest face. It was only much later I discovered Doc always failed to charge the mothers of the poorer residents of the town, and many of us – whose hard working fathers and mothers unstintingly gave their time to the town they loved – were not that far in advance of the poorest residents. But money meant nothing, honor everything.

Ella Grasso lived up the street from Carniglia, whose large chestnut trees obligingly surrendered spiked and sheathed nuts we sometimes threw at each other on our way to either St. Mary’s Catholic Grammar School or the public school. Ella became the first woman governor in the nation who was elected in her own right (what a mouthful!), and no one in Windsor Locks  was surprised to hear that she sometimes whipped her caucus into shape with a salty tongue. A lot of salt was dispensed in those days, but never in front of the nuns or the eminences of the town or, it goes without saying, our parents, who did not think it all alarming, or psychologically crippling, to put the fear of God in us, a transaction that was handled expertly and professionally by the nuns. Grasso was struck down by cancer. When she came home to Windsor Locks to die, her heart was full of the fragrance of honor.

When we die, everything falls away, but not the love of a mother or father, not the love of a wife and children – and not honor, which is indestructible.

When presented with the medal honor by President Donald Trump, Chapman's widow Valerie Nessel triumphantly held it above her head. The night before the presentation she had said, “I know John would be extremely humbled. He always put his mission and his teammates above himself.”

Indeed. Ambushed by machine gun fire and a rocket grenade on a mountain in Afghanistan, Chapman's helicopter, carrying a special operations team, was forced to make an emergency crash landing. A member of the team had fallen out of the copter and a rescue was in order. Chapman engaged the enemy and was, his team thought, mortally wounded. But new technology and a later frame by frame examination of the video of the battle showed that Chapman had regained consciousness and continued to engage the enemy. Chapman’s commander and teammate Col. Ken Rodriguez said, “He continued to fight for an hour, he sacrificed his life. We put it all together and determined he clearly deserved a Medal of Honor.”

On Sunday, September 30th at 2:00 pm, at the Amphitheater adjacent to the Town Hall, our town, Windsor Locks, will grace itself by paying tribute at a commemoration ceremony for Master Sergeant John Chapman. It may be some consolation to his widow, his children and his mother to know that courage and suffering and the grace of God has raised him to a higher glory.

He is coming like the glory
of the morning on the wave,
He is wisdom to the mighty
He is honor to the brave,
So the world shall be His footstool
and the soul of wrong His slave,
Our God is marching on.

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