The legacy of leaving no one behind

  • Published
  • By Lt Col Melchizedek Martinez
  • 644th Combat Communications Squadron Commander

In the spring of 2006, I was deployed as the director of communications for the Combined Joint Special Operations Air Component as we moved forward into Iraq. During my time in the zone, I was privileged to be part of a ceremony in honor of a fallen Special Operations Forces warrior who upheld the code of leaving no one behind. It was by far one of the most moving and the most profound moments in my Air Force career. This event and the subsequent events from that deployment changed my life and defined who I am as an Airman. The phrase of leaving no one behind not only holds a special meaning for me but shaped my perspective in how I take care of the young men and women under my charge.
It was late afternoon as we all stood in formation in our small patch of sand in the heart of Iraq. We waited pensively for the start of the dedication ceremony for Technical Sergeant John A. Chapman. It had been a whirlwind since the moment I got off the ramp. The days and weeks that followed blurred into what seemed like an endless cycle of requirements and night operations. Time had lost its meaning as the concept of "now" was all that really mattered. For one night - a small moment in time amidst combat ops, we took a pause from the war to honor one of our own. The compound from which special operators from each of the services and coalition partners called their home away from home was dedicated to Tech. Sgt. John A. Chapman.

A former Information Systems Specialist from the 1987th Information Systems Squadron, Sergeant Chapman left the communications field and joined the elite ranks of the Air Force Combat Controller Teams. During a helicopter insertion for a recon and close air support mission on March 4, 2002, the aircraft that carried Sergeant Chapman and his team was hit by a rocket propelled grenade. In the ensuing chaos, Navy SEAL Neil Roberts fell from the aircraft and was separated from the rest of the team. What was originally a recon and CAS mission became a search and rescue operation to retrieve Navy SEAL Roberts. The events of that night in the eastern highlands of Afghanistan would later be better known to the men who fought there as the battle on Roberts Ridge. Sergeant Chapman's heroic actions that night epitomized the meaning of leaving no one behind and highlighted the culture of brotherhood and professionalism that characterized the SOF community.

The dedication ceremony was a simple one. It was devoid of the pomp and circumstance that would have been given if we were at home. But this was a combat zone and a memorial for a quiet professional. It was only fitting then, that we stood there side by side as the sun slowly faded into the night sky and the rhythmic beat of helicopter blades flew overhead. Soon after General Stanley McChrystal, who at the time was the Commander, Joint Special Operations Command, spoke about the meaning of the ceremony, Sergeant Chapman's life and sacrifice were recounted by those who knew and fought beside him. He was more than a Combat Controller. He was a father, a son, a husband and a fellow Airman.

I thought about the lives he saved that night as he valiantly fought the enemy in search of a fellow operator through withering gunfire and the cold darkness of that mountain. I was inspired by his heroism and his dedication to not only the mission, but to the members of his team. There was an overwhelming sense of camaraderie and purpose that filled the air that night as we all went back to prep for the mission at hand. In the many years I spent in SOF, I was always reminded of this culture of duty, honor and excellence that was evident in everything that we did and in the people I worked with. The mantra of leaving no one behind was more than just going back for a fallen comrade. It was about a genuine concern for our teammates that transcended the AF Wingman concept. It was also about the pride and unwavering dedication to the job that we do. I am, to this day, incredibly humbled to have been part of a community that not only lived this culture of excellence and honor but has fought to the end to uphold the values it stood for.

Six years later, I have been blessed to be in command of the only combat-rated communications squadron in the Pacific. The experiences and the lessons learned from my time in the SOF community have left an indelible mark on me and the lens through which I see the Airmen in my charge. In the weeks following my change of command, I have watched and listened as my Airmen have trained and readied themselves for the next chapter of this great squadron. With the unprecedented realignment of the 644th Combat Communications Squadron under the 36th Contingency Response Group, the mission of the 644th CBCS has been dramatically altered to reflect this new and exciting mission set. Along with the change in leadership comes a new way of doing business. In addition to the traditional heavy communications packages that we bring to the fight, we now provide a lighter and leaner Command, Control, Communications and Computers solution in order to support the more likely occurring events of humanitarian assistance, disaster relief and air base opening operations in the U.S. Pacific Command's area of responsibility. As we work toward improving both our traditional and newly-developed capabilities, our Airmen are challenged with not only learning new tasks but also adjusting to the pace and vision of a new commander. My Airmen have risen to meet the challenge with the knowledge that I bring a culture of dedication and brotherhood with me. As they have learned more about me and my philosophy on leadership, they've seen that it is not about being the fastest, the strongest or even the toughest. It is about genuinely caring about what you do and the people you work with. For when you achieve that mindset, everything that we do as Airmen and as a squadron goes beyond what we expect of ourselves and what others expect of us. It is my hope that as we continue to emphasize the value that each member brings to the team, it engenders a personal stake to the overall success of the mission itself. Moreover, as the importance of camaraderie and cohesion pervade the squadron, the more the Airmen of the 644th fully embrace the meaning of leaving no one behind and the SOF culture of honor and excellence.
The memorial to Sergeant Chapman will not only stand to remind me of his life and heroism, but also the ideals to which the foundation of the SOF community was founded upon. For special operations forces and Airmen around the world, his legacy of dedication, professionalism and selflessness will live forever in all of us who choose to believe and make a difference in everything we do anytime, anywhere.