It was a deeply emotional moment for Valerie Nessel, when President Donald Trump gave her the Medal of Honor for her husband, John Chapman, who heroically fought and died 16 years ago atop a remote mountain in Afghanistan.
For Valerie, the White House moment on Wednesday culminated a long journey marked by devotion — to John, and to the Air Force special operations community she calls family.
“I’m as proud as can be,” Valerie told PEOPLE prior to attending the afternoon ceremony that brought bittersweet reunion with her beloved Air Commandos. “It’s very humbling that he is finally being recognized for what he did.”
The recognition is for actions both chilling and inspiring.
In March 2002, John, an Air Force Technical Sergeant, embarked on a treacherous mission to rescue a teammate who was thrown from a helicopter when it was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. The teammate, Navy SEAL Neil Roberts, was stranded amid the enemy. During the mission to recover Roberts, who died, John and others in the rescue squad encountered fierce resistance.
“Sergeant Chapman charged into enemy fire through harrowing conditions, seized an enemy bunker, and killed its enemy occupants,” the White House wrote in a statement. “He then moved from cover to engage a machine gun firing on his team from a second bunker.”
John was wounded. In the chaos of combat, he was left for dead atop snow covered Takur Ghar mountain.
Earlier this year, though, the Air Force confirmed via surveillance footage that after John’s teammates first left the mountain, the lone combat controller – an elite warfighting specialist – rallied from apparent unconsciousness. Despite being severely wounded, John fought relentlessly. He is believed to have engaged in hand to hand combat before being felled.
Initially awarded a posthumous Air Force Cross for his actions on Roberts Ridge, John is the first airman since the Vietnam War to receive the military’s highest recognition for heroism.
For those who knew John, the honor stems from the quality he himself referenced while in high school. In a phrase accompanying his 1983 yearbook photo, the Varsity sportsman wrote: “Give of yourself before taking of someone else.”
Even as a small child, John sensed when others needed help, the fallen airman’s mother, Terry Chapman, tells PEOPLE.
“When he was a toddler, he knew when I was upset,” Terry says. “He would come up and put his hands on my face and say, ‘Its going to be okay, Mommy.’ “
To Valerie, the Medal of Honor reflects what she always has known about her “vivacious,” blue-eyed sweetheart.
“John was an extraordinary man,” Valerie tells PEOPLE. He fully embodied the Air Commando ethos, she says.
“They are a special breed of quiet professionals cut from a completely different cloth,” Valerie says. “Walking down the street you would never know what they are trained to do. They are very humble and quiet and all about serving their country and their team.”
The couple met in the summer of 1990, when John and a military friend visited Valerie’s home town in Pennsylvania. The young nurse and the dashing special operator hit it off. They continued their relationship after John returned to his duty station in Fayetteville, North Carolina.
Enthralled with John’s eyes, Valerie realized after a few months of long distance dating: “This guy is the real deal.”
During an outing to a stretch of Pennsylvania road that seems to defy gravity, John pushed through nerves and vertigo, and offered Valerie an engagement ring. The couple married in 1992, and soon began a family.
A skilled carpenter, John built beautiful furniture, including a memorable swing set, a dresser, and crib.
John adored the couple’s young daughters, Madison and Brianna, who were 5 and 3 when they lost their father.
“John would come home from a mission, and the minute he came home, he was Dad,” Valerie tells PEOPLE. “He’d be the one bathing the girls and reading them stories. He’d be out in the pool playing Barbies.”
Losing John was a cruel blow; but also one that spurred Valerie to invaluable service of her own.
“When I went to tell Val that John wasn’t coming home, I thought, this woman will never want to see me again,” says retired Colonel Ken Rodriguez, who was John’s commander. Instead, Rodriguez says, the grief-stricken Valerie insisted on helping Rodriguez and other Gold Star spouses.
“She would go to widows and comfort them and give them something no one else could,” Rodriguez says. “She could tell them, ‘I’ve been there; you can get through this.’ No one else could do that.”
Community members came to view Valerie as a hero in her own right.
“Everyone in our career field has that respect for her,” Rodriguez says. “They’ve seen her do this over and over again.”
Valerie offers the help because that’s what family does, she says.
“Blood doesn’t define family,” Valerie says. “This is my family forever.”
To the Air Force special operations community, the feeling works both ways – and includes great pride for the man Rodriguez describes as a courageous, selfless, “rock solid teammate.”
“Technical Sergeant John Chapman personified the Air Commando spirit while fighting boldly to preserve the lives of his teammates,” wrote Lieutenant General Brad Webb, commander of U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command, in a statement to PEOPLE. John’s “heroism and gallantry will now forever be enshrined among our nation’s most courageous warriors.
“To the Chapman family, a grateful nation honors his service and rightfully recognizes your family’s sacrifices,” Webb wrote.
For her part, Valerie has a specific request for PEOPLE.
“Let people know, our men and women are still at war,” Valerie says. “Hopefully people wont forget all the Gold Star families, anyone who has lost someone killed in action or in a training accident, or suicide from PTSD if the treatment is not available to them.”
John’s award has been a long time coming, Valerie says. She is profoundly honored to accept it on his behalf.
“I wish he would be here to receive it in person.”