Keeping his oath: Medal of Honor recipient Britt Slabinski comes home to Northampton

  • Britt Slabinski, a Northampton native and graduate from Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School talks about his career as a Navy SEAL and receiving the Medal of Honor. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Britt Slabinski, a Northampton native and graduate from Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School talks about his career as a Navy SEAL and receiving the Medal of Honor. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Britt Slabinski, a Northampton native and graduate from Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School, talks about his career as a Navy SEAL and receiving the Medal of Honor. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Britt Slabinski, a Northampton native and graduate from Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School talks about his career as a Navy SEAL and receiving the Medal of Honor. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Britt Slabinski, a Northampton native and graduate from Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School talks about his career as a Navy SEAL and receiving the Medal of Honor. —STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Britt Slabinski, a Northampton native and graduate from Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School, talks about his career as a Navy SEAL and receiving the Medal of Honor. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 9/21/2018 10:51:10 PM

The lessons we learn as children can echo throughout our lifetime, sometimes emerging in crucial, defining moments.

This was certainly the case for Britt Slabinski, as he sat on the ramp of a helicopter in Afghanistan in 2002, contemplating ordering the action that would lead to him becoming the first Northampton native in history to receive the United States’ highest military award, the Medal of Honor.

“I remember the rivets of the helicopter just rubbing into me,” Slabinski said Monday during an interview in the Gazette newsroom. “One thought just keeps coming back to me, and it’s the opening line of the Boy Scout Oath: ‘On my honor, I’ll do my best. On my honor, I’ll do my best.’ ”

“I literally remember sitting up and (saying), ‘I’m going,’ ” he said. “It all came back to that Boy Scout Oath.”

Slabinski learned the oath growing up in Northampton, where he was a member of Troop 109. Slabinski made Eagle Scout at the age of 14, and he says that the Boy Scout Oath and Law helped form his identity.

“It really became the foundation of my life,” said Slabinski, of scouting, who now has a son in college, and who  visited Troop 109 on his most recent trip to Northampton. (He currently lives in Virginia Beach, Virginia.)

Slabinski grew up on Fruit Street, not far from the Daily Hampshire Gazette. In fact, as a paper boy, he had a 120-paper route for the newspaper.

“Two big bags,” said Slabinski, who recalled how kids would compete for who could have the biggest  paper route.

Slabinski said he visits the Valley two to three times a year to visit his family. His sister lives in Westfield, while his mother recently moved from Slabinski’s childhood home to Westfield.

“There’s still always that good hometown feeling,” Slabinski said of getting off the highway and driving into Northampton.

Slabinski spent much of his youth on his bike, riding with friends. “We rode all over this place,” he said.

 One time, they even rode all the way up to the overlook on Mount Holyoke, although Slabinski said that they had no desire to repeat that experience.

“I don’t remember whose idea it was,” Slabinski said, noting that he and his friends made the ascent on single-speed bikes.

He also recalled jumping the loading dock at the Daily Hampshire Gazette.

“I didn’t land every single one of them,” he said.

Slabinski graduated from Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School and promptly enlisted in the United States Navy. His ambition was to join the Navy SEALs, the Navy’s elite special forces unit, a desire he also expressed when he was 14 in an article published in the Gazette about his Eagle Scout award.

Speaking today, Slabinski said his early interest in the Navy probably stemmed from when he went with his father to a reunion of Navy frogmen, who were precursors to the SEALs. Slabinski’s father was a frogman.

Slabinski made it through the grueling SEAL training, which most entrants fail to complete, graduating in 1990. Particularly grueling was “hell week,” a five-day period during which time, he said, he got only 4 to 6 hours of sleep.

“That’s a big crucible,” he said.  

Slabinski also said that at the end of hell week, he and the rest of the trainees were asked to do an about-face, and that he saw his father standing on the beach when he did so.

“That was pretty cool,” he said.

He said that, fundamentally, SEAL training focuses on building mental strength.

“It’s really about who you are on the inside,” Slabinski said, adding that there’s a term for being able to mentally push through adversity.

“We call it mastering the switch,” he said.

Slabinski retired from the U.S. Navy in 2014 after 25 years of service. His last rank was Master Chief Special Warfare Operator. But he said that he never intended to make the Navy his career.

“I really enjoyed it,” he said, adding that he wouldn’t trade any moment of his Navy career. “What an absolute privilege.”

Another factor in the length of Slabinski’s service has been the Global War on Terrorism, which started after the 9/11 attacks. He said he didn’t want the rest of the citizenry to physically inherit the war, and that’s what drove him to keep going back.

“This has got to be on my time that it’s going to end,” he said. “Some generation will know peace.”

Prior to the beginning of the war in 2001, Slabinski never had a combat deployment. By the time he completed his service, he had 15.

“There’s people with more,” said Slabinski, adding that his deployments were what the nation required.

Asked if he could have predicted at the time that the mission in Afghanistan would still be ongoing today, Slabinski said that he didn’t foresee it.

“I don’t think anybody did,” he said.

However, he also noted that the United States went to war against Japan and Germany in World War II and still has troops stationed in those countries.

“It just takes time,” he said.

Slabinski said that the War on Terror is about fighting an idea, and not a group of people.

Speaking of his time spent in Afghanistan and Iraq, he said, “They’re magnificent people there.”

While he was in Afghanistan, new wells were dug for civilians, long oppressed by the Taliban, and children hugged him and his troops.

“You help that village basically come back alive,” he said.

Then there’s Roberts Ridge.

The Battle of Roberts Ridge occurred in 2002. Slabinski and his team were ordered to land in a helicopter on top of a mountain and came under heavy fire from Al-Qaeda forces. During this time, one of Slabinski’s team members, Neil Roberts, fell out of the helicopter. After the helicopter containing Slabinski’s team landed safely on the valley floor, Slabinski made the decision to go back for Roberts, for whom the battle came to be named. He and his team were then re-inserted into the area, and came under fire from three directions once more. After engaging with the enemy, Slabinski ordered a retreat to another position, where he called in close-proximity air strikes. Later on, Slabinski and his team moved to another position, and he carried a wounded teammate through the snow. He and his team would fight on for the next 14 hours until the mountain top was secured and they were extracted.

All told, seven people died in the battle, including Roberts.

Slabinski received the Medal of Honor from President Donald J. Trump during a White House ceremony this past May for his service in the March 2002 battle, part of Operation Enduring Freedom.  Slabinski is the 12th living service member to receive the Medal of Honor for service in Afghanistan. 

On receiving the medal, Slabinski expressed some discomfort: “It’s a very uncomfortable spot to be in.”

He said that the honor is for everyone who fought on Roberts Ridge, and that the battle left a lasting impact on himself and the others.

“Everyone left a certain piece of themselves up there,” he said.

He added that the medal represents “everything that’s great about us, as a people,” as Americans, and talked about attending a convention with other Medal of Honor recipients.

“They did it all out of love,” he said. “Love for complete strangers.”

Another person in the Battle of Roberts Ridge, Air Force Technical Sgt. Johnathan Chapman, was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in August, after drone footage provided evidence that Chapman regained consciousness and continued fighting the enemy after Slabinski had ordered a retreat. The events of the battle have drawn controversy, but Slabinski maintains that Chapman died before the retreat was ordered.

“That’s not what I saw, not what I experienced,” Slabinski said when asked whether the new information changed his conception of the battle.

He praised Chapman, as well as the other service members who died in the battle. “John’s a great man,” he said.

As an adult, Slabinski has become an avid motorcyclist, having taken two cross-country trips on his BMW motorcycle with his partner Christina since retiring from the Navy.

“She’s my lifesaver, by the way,” he said.

Slabinski said their motorcycle trip, with stops in the Rockies and at the Redwoods, included no highways.

The “human landscape” of America was equally stunning, he said, recalling how people would come up to him and Christina and ask about what they were doing. 

“I couldn’t open myself up to it when I began the trip,” Slabinski said, adding that the experience of traveling cross-country helped him connect with others. 

Slabinski now describes their cross-country trip as his “worth it” tour. “Is this place really worth what we all gave for it?” he explained. The trip confirmed it was.

Bera Dunau can be reached at bdunau@gazettenet.com.




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