The last conversation Keith Chapman had with his younger brother Nathan Chapman was Christmas Day 2001. Nathan had called his family from Afghanistan.
Although the 31-year-old, Sergeant First Class of the 1st U.S. Army Special Forces Group, was unable to reveal his location, his family rounded him up based on the time Nathan was at. said that was where he was calling from.
“I don’t remember much we said,” Keith said during a StoryCorps interview in Frederick, Md., Last week with their mother, Lynn Chapman.
It wasn’t that unusual. The brothers, who are only two and a half years apart, have always had a complicated dynamic born from their two very different personalities.
A few weeks after that phone call, Keith heard on his car radio that an American soldier had been killed in Afghanistan. He thought, “Well, yeah, Nathan is here, but he’s one of those who knows how many? So I put him out of my mind.”
That is, until he comes home that night.
“My wife greets me at the door and says, ‘I have bad news.’ ” he said.
“It was my birthday and I said, ‘Oh, you burnt the cake.’ She said, ‘No, your father called.’ “
It was then that it became clear to Keith that the fallen soldier was his own brother.
Nathan was killed in action near the town of Khost on January 4, 2002. He was the first American soldier to be killed by enemy fire in the war in Afghanistan.
Chapman’s death was just over a month after the first American combat death in the war. Johnny “Mike” Spann, a 32-year-old CIA paramilitary officer from Alabama, was killed in late November 2001 during a revolt by Taliban prisoners in northern Afghanistan.
Keith said that growing up with his brother, “I felt like he was too different from me to really understand what was good about him.”
Keith was studious and didn’t make friends easily. Nathan was the outgoing.
“He didn’t withdraw from me,” Keith said. “I think, if anything, I pulled myself away from him.”
The Chapman family
Since his death, Keith has struggled to deal with the relationship he had with his brother.
“All of these memories are over 40 years old now and they’re all very thin on my mind,” Keith said. “I haven’t had the last 20 years where an adult could share time with his brother.”
“And I think it probably, if not slowed down my improvement in understanding, maybe it accelerated my loss of understanding.”
The past two decades have given Keith time to think about what he would have liked to say to Nathan. Lynn asked her son what he would have said to his brother if he had had the chance.
“There was an opportunity at his funeral to provide some words to say,” Keith told him. “But I couldn’t find what was really important.
“The thing I would say instead is that – there were times when I thought Nathan was less than me. And that I was wrong. There were times when I thought – and he was. even said – that he would never be anything. And I was wrong. Everything he wanted to do was important and meaningful. “
“I don’t see it as a symbol”
Nathan Chapman immediately joined the army. In 1989, it participated in its first combat mission, in Panama, and continued to deploy to Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Storm. In September 1991, he volunteered for special forces training.
“He was a part of the special forces natural fit,” said Lynn. As a “very, very social guy,” she said, he developed a strong bond with his small unit in which supporting each other was crucial.
He also served in Haiti in 1995 before spending three years in Okinawa, Japan.
Nathan has been highly decorated, with accolades including the Bronze Star with the “V” device, denoting “Valor” for his heroism in battle, and a posthumous Purple Heart. It later emerged that Chapman had also worked for the CIA and was honored on the CIA Memorial Wall.
But for Lynn, her son is more than a famous example of American sacrifice and heroism.
“People acquire a quality greater than life when things like this happen,” she said. “But I see him as a son and a child, then as a soldier.
“I don’t see him as a symbol. In a way, it takes him away from me.”
Along with Lynn and Keith, Nathan is survived by his wife Renae, his two children Amanda and Brandon, his father Wilbur and his half-brother Kevin.
Product audio for Weekend edition by Eleanor Vassili.
StoryCorps is a national non-profit organization that gives people the opportunity to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.