As Former SEAL Receives Medal of Honor, a Controversy Is Reignited

President Trump presented the Medal of Honor to Britt K. Slabinski, a former member of SEAL Team 6, on Thursday.

WASHINGTON — Britt K. Slabinski, a former senior chief petty officer of the Navy’s elite SEAL Team 6, received the Medal of Honor on Thursday for his leadership during a firefight in Afghanistan in 2002.

In a brief ceremony at the White House, President Trump highlighted Mr. Slabinski’s courage and selflessness in helping rescue a member of his unit in waist-deep snow after their reconnaissance team’s helicopter crash-landed during a Qaeda gunfire and grenade attack known as the Battle of Robert’s Ridge.

Mr. Slabinski, the 12th living service member to receive the award for service in Afghanistan, remained solemn and silent during the nearly 30-minute ceremony, but Mr. Trump offered words on his behalf.

“Britt wants the country to know that for him, the recognition he is about to receive is an honor that falls on the whole team,” Mr. Trump said, after asking former members of the mission in attendance to stand.

But the award has renewed controversy over exactly what transpired — and the decisions Mr. Slabinski made — during the 14-hour battle on Takur Ghar, a mountain in Afghanistan.

During the firefight, Tech. Sgt. John Chapman, an Air Force combat controller acting as the unit’s radioman, was left behind. Mr. Slabinski had believed Sergeant Chapman to be dead and moved the rest of the team — including Stephen Toboz, who had a serious leg injury — off the mountain peak.

It was a devastating decision for a leader of an elite team that, like many other military units, prides itself on leaving no one behind.

But the Air Force, citing an analysis of drone video footage uncovered more than a decade after the firefight, has since said that Sergeant Chapman was alive and fought for more than an hour after the SEAL team retreated. Officials said he killed two Qaeda fighters before being fatally wounded.

In a 2016 interview with The New York Times, Mr. Slabinski voiced skepticism about the video’s accuracy and the technology used to analyze it.

“I’m trying to direct what everybody’s got going on, trying to see what’s going on with John; I’m already 95 percent certain in my mind that he’s been killed,” Mr. Slabinski said in the interview. “That’s why I was like, ‘O.K., we’ve got to move.’”

Mr. Trump acknowledged Sergeant Chapman’s death and service as he recognized the entire team on Thursday. But the president did not mention Sergeant Chapman’s continued fight after the other commandos left.

It was the third Medal of Honor ceremony Mr. Trump has presided over.

Mr. Slabinski completed nine overseas deployments and 15 combat tours before retiring in 2014. He has also faced scrutiny over accusations that as a command master chief petty officer of SEAL Team 6’s Blue Squadron a few years after the firefight in Afghanistan, he gave guidance that allowed every man to be killed in a village that was targeted. He denied the accusations, and the squadron was later cleared of any wrongdoing.

The decision to upgrade Mr. Slabinski’s Navy Cross to the Medal of Honor, the military’s highest honor, further highlights the unsuccessful efforts to do the same for Sergeant Chapman, some of his advocates say.

Deborah Lee James, the Air Force secretary under President Barack Obama, said she recommended Sergeant Chapman as a posthumous recipient in 2016 after she ordered an internal review of awards. She had learned of the drone video footage showing Sergeant Chapman’s efforts to continue fighting after the SEAL team had left.

“So to me, that was slam-dunk evidence,” she said.

But the recommendation became bogged down, Ms. James said, in the bureaucratic process. She left her position at the end of the Obama administration with the award recommendation unresolved.

Some military officials believe the award for Sergeant Chapman — who would be the first recipient from the Air Force to be recognized with the Medal of Honor for valor in war after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks — was sidelined in part by officials who want to strike the fact that he had been left behind.

“I believe the SEALs want to honor John Chapman,” Ms. James said. “What some don’t want is they don’t want it linked to him getting back up and fighting back on.”

The Air Force and the White House did not respond to requests for comment about the status of a Medal of Honor for Sergeant Chapman, though reports have surfaced that the award application has been approved. Recognition for both men, Ms. James said, would effectively acknowledge the heroism both showed.

“He did the best he could do on the worst day of his life,” Ms. James said of Mr. Slabinski. “I’m all about, let’s get it done for Chapman.”

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