KK: It’s the StoryCorps podcast from NPR. I’m Kamilah Kashanie… and in this episode, we wanted to share one story with you from our Military Voices Initiative… which records and shares the stories of service members and their families. This week, we’re remembering the first American soldier to be killed in combat during the War in Afghanistan.
31-year-old Army Sgt. 1st Class Nathan Chapman was killed on January 4th, 2002. He was a Green Beret in the Special Forces and was working as a communications specialist.
His mother and brother, Lynn Chapman and Keith Chapman, came to StoryCorps to remember the complicated dynamic between brothers, and the things that sometimes go left unsaid.
Lynn Chapman (LC): We were sitting around with our fingers crossed that he was going to graduate from high school. But he did because he knew that if he didn’t, he wouldn’t be able to get into the Army.
Keith Chapman (KC): When September 11th happened, did you know that he was going to be doing what he was doing?
LC: Well, in some ways, I was so clueless about all that, because he was in Special Forces.
But then on Christmas Day, he called us and he couldn’t say where he was. But somehow he told us what the time was. And then it was obvious where he must have been.
KC: I don’t remember that we said very much. I wouldn’t have imagined it was our last conversation so… Two weeks later, I’m sitting in a traffic light listening to the news on the radio, and it says that a soldier has been killed in Afghanistan. And I think, ‘Well, yes, Nathan is there, but he’s one of who knows how many?’
So, I put it out of my mind. And then when I get home, my wife greets me at the door and says, ‘I have bad news.’ It was my birthday and I said, ‘Oh, you burned the cake.’ She says, ‘No. Your father called.’ And, umm, that was the moment that it was clear what had happened.
LC: You knew then?
KC: I knew then. This was the first death by enemy fire.
LC: You know, people take on larger than life quality when things like this happen. But I think of him as a son and a child. And then a soldier. I don’t see him as a symbol. In some way that takes him away from me.
KC: You know, as children, I was very studious, and I had trouble making friends. But he was more outgoing. And at the time, I felt like he was too different from me to really understand what was really good about him. So he didn’t withdraw from me. I think if anything, I withdrew from him.
LC: If you could tell him something now, what would you tell him?
KC: There was an opportunity at his funeral to provide words to be spoken. But I wasn’t able to come up with what was really important. I’ve thought about it over the years and the thing that I would say instead was that —
There were times when I thought of Nathan as less than me. And that I was wrong. There were times when I thought — and even said to him — that he would never amount to anything. And I was wrong. Everything he wanted to do was important and meaningful.
LC: It’s OK, Keith. I think a lot of siblings come to a greater understanding as they mature.
Had you been given the time, you guys, you would have had a chance to say everything you wanted. So that’s what’s really sad about somebody dying young. You lose all that future.
KK: That’s Lynn Chapman with her son, Keith remembering Army Sgt. 1st Class Nathan Chapman.
He was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star.
This story was produced by Eleanor Vassili. It was edited by Jarrod Sport. Our Executive Editor is Jasmyn Morris. Our technical director is Jarrett Floyd.
We’ll be back next week with two full episodes for the 20th anniversary of September 11th we’ll look at the legacy of 9/11 through the stories of those closest to it.
For the StoryCorps podcast. I’m Kamilah Kashanie.