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A Family Remembers The 1st U.S. Soldier Killed In The War In Afghanistan

Keith and Lynn Chapman at their StoryCorps recording in Frederick, Md., on Aug. 20.
Keith and Lynn Chapman at their StoryCorps recording in Frederick, Md., on Aug. 20.

The last conversation Keith Chapman had with his younger brother Nathan Chapman was on Christmas Day 2001. Nathan had called up his family from Afghanistan.

Although the 31-year-old, a sergeant first class with the U.S. Army's 1st Special Forces Group, couldn't disclose his location, his family put it together based on what time Nathan said it was where he was calling from.

"I don't remember that we said very much," Keith said during a StoryCorps interview in Frederick, Md., last week with their mother, Lynn Chapman.

That wasn't so unusual. The brothers, just 2 1/2 years apart in age, had always had a complicated dynamic that was born from their two very different personalities.

A couple weeks after that phone call, Keith heard on his car radio that an American soldier had been killed in Afghanistan. He thought, "Well, yes, Nathan is there, but he's one of who knows how many? So, I put it out of my mind."

That is, until he got home that evening.

"My wife greets me at the door and says, 'I have bad news,' " he said.

"It was my birthday and I said, 'Oh, you burned the cake.' She says, 'No — your father called.' "

That's when it became clear to Keith: The fallen soldier was his own brother.

Nathan was killed in action near the town of Khost on Jan. 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 death in combat in the war. Johnny "Mike" Spann, a 32-year-old CIA paramilitary officer from Alabama, was killed in late November 2001 during a revolt of Taliban prisoners in northern Afghanistan.

Since then, America's longest foreign war has claimed the lives of nearly 2,500 service members in the 20-year U.S. presence in Afghanistan. This week, 13 U.S. service members were among the nearly 200 people killed in an attack outside the Kabul airport.

There were words left unsaid

Keith said that growing up with his brother, "I felt like he was too different from me to really understand what was really good about him."

Keith was studious and didn't easily make friends. Nathan was the outgoing one.

"He didn't withdraw from me," Keith said. "I think, if anything, I withdrew from him."

From left to right: Nathan, Lynn and Keith Chapman, pictured in 1981 in Contra Costa County, Calif.
/ The Chapman family
The Chapman family
From left to right: Nathan, Lynn and Keith Chapman, pictured in 1981 in Contra Costa County, Calif.

Since his death, Keith has struggled to process the relationship he had with his brother.

"All these memories now are 40-plus years old and they're all very thin in my mind," Keith said. "I haven't had the last 20 years of time when an adult might share time with his brother."

"And I think that that's probably, if not slowed down my improved understanding, it's maybe accelerated my loss of understanding."

The past two decades have given Keith time to think about what he wishes he had said to Nathan. Lynn asked her son what he would have told his brother, if given the chance.

"There was an opportunity at his funeral to provide words to be spoken," Keith told her. "But I wasn't able to come up with what was really important.

"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."

He was more than a symbol

Nathan Chapman took to the Army right away. By 1989 he participated in his first combat mission, in Panama, and he would go on to deploy in Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Storm. In September 1991, he volunteered for Special Forces training.

"The fact that he was in Special Forces was a natural fit for him," Lynn said. As a "very, very social guy," she said, he developed a close bond with his small unit in which it was crucial to have each other's backs.

He also served in Haiti in 1995 before spending three years in Okinawa, Japan.

Nathan was highly decorated, with honors including the Bronze Star with "V" device, denoting "Valor" for his heroism in combat, and a posthumous Purple Heart. It later emerged that Chapman had also been working for the CIA and was honored on the CIA's memorial wall.

But to Lynn, her son is far more than a celebrated example of American sacrifice and heroism.

"People take on larger than life quality when things like this happen," she said. "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."

Along with Lynn and Keith, Nathan is survived by his wife, Renae, his two kids Amanda and Brandon, his father Wilbur, and his half-brother Kevin.

Audio produced for Weekend Edition by Eleanor Vassili.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance 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, atStoryCorps.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eleanor Vassili