Class of 2026 makes history with first enlisted Exemplar
Photos and memorabilia from Master Sgt. John Chapman are displayed at the U.S. Air Force Academy Class of 2026 Exemplar Dining-In at Mitchell Hall Sept. 14, 2023. Chapman remains the only U.S. Air Force Medal of Honor recipient since the Vietnam War. He is the first enlisted Airman named an Exemplar for any Academy class. (U.S. Air Force photo by Justin Pacheco)
By Randy Roughton
U.S. Air Force Academy Strategic Communications
U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo.- The U.S. Air Force Academy Class of 2026 hosted Medal of Honor recipient Master Sgt. John Chapman’s family and 24th Special Operations Wing members at their Exemplar Dining-In at Mitchell Hall Sept. 14.
The sophomore class became the first Academy class to select an enlisted Airman as its Exemplar when it chose U.S. Air Force Medal of Honor recipient Master Sgt. John Chapman. The Class of 2026 Exemplar Committee encountered some resistance with their classmates’ overwhelming desire to name the Academy’s first enlisted Exemplar. The committee members provided documentation that showed Chapman’s “significant contribution to airpower,” and the class’s choice was approved.
“It was a huge sense of pride and accomplishment for our committee’s hard work and the effort to get us there and for our class’s desire to inspire change and standing firm in our belief that Master Sergeant Chapman reflected the values as a class that were important to us,” Mirande said.
Each class chooses an aerospace leader the cadets wish to emulate as their Exemplar. The process begins when the class president selects the Exemplar committee chairperson just a few weeks after the cadets finish Basic Cadet Training and join the Cadet Wing. The Class of 2026 committee announced its selection to the rest of the class in early spring.
Lori Longfritz, the sister of Class of 2026 Exemplar Master Sgt. John Chapman, greets U.S. Air Force Academy Cadet 3rd Class Christian Jetter at the Class of 2026 Exemplar Dining-In at Mitchell Hall Sept. 14, 2023. Chapman is the first enlisted Airman named an Exemplar for any Academy class. (U.S. Air Force photo by Justin Pacheco)
Making exemplar history
More than 80 percent of the class voted for Chapman, said class Exemplar chairperson Cadet 3rd Class Lauren Mirande. Either way, the class intended a historical selection.
“It was evident early on that [Chapman] was who our class wanted,” Mirande said. “Service before self was hugely represented by Master Sgt. Chapman, and I think that was a huge part of the decision for our class. One of the things I’m really proud of is that we fought very hard as a committee to ensure that our class’s desires were represented in the best way possible.”
The Air Force’s first Medal of Honor recipient since Vietnam
Chapman was an Air Force special tactics combat controller posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor 16 years after he was killed while protecting his teammates in Afghanistan on March 4, 2002. Then-Tech. Sgt. Chapman charged into al-Qaeda bunkers on the snowy 10,000-foot peak atop Takur Ghar. He was credited with saving the lives of an entire rescue team. The surveillance video from an MQ-1 Predator captured Chapman’s heroics, eventually leading to his Air Force Cross upgrade to the Medal of Honor in 2018. Chapman is the only Air Force Medal of Honor recipient since the Vietnam War.
Maj. Gen. Matthew Wolfe Davidson, deputy director of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, speaks at the U.S. Air Force Academy Class of 2026 Exemplar Dining-In at Mitchell Hall Sept. 14, 2023. Davidson was previously commander of the Air Force Special Operations Command at Hurlburt Field, Florida. The Class of 2026 selected Medal of Honor recipient Master Sgt. John Chapman the first enlisted Airman Exemplar for any Academy class. (U.S. Air Force photo by Justin Pacheco)
The enlisted Exemplar selection made friends with the special tactics community in the 24th Special Operations Wing at Hurlburt Field, Florida, where the wing headquarters is now the John A. Chapman Building. Many made the trip for the Class of 2026 Exemplar Dining-In, along with Chapman’s widow, brother and other family members. The class Exemplar decision meant that the stories of Chapman’s exploits would reach a new, younger audience, said Bruce Dixon, who was Chapman’s team chief.
“In special tactics, it’s very important to us that we keep that connection and always keep that memory strong,” Dixon said. “There’s an old saying that a person dies twice. He dies initially and then again when people don’t remember him anymore. Years from now, when all of us who knew Chappy are gone, we will have a group of young Airmen who can continue to tell those stories.”
The prior-enlisted influence
Prior-enlisted cadets such as Cadet 3rd Class Nicholas Gierach and Cadet 3rd Class Andrew Patterson played a major role in selling the first enlisted Exemplar to the rest of the class. Gierach sang Chapman’s praises before he joined the Cadet Wing with fellow cadet candidates at the U.S. Air Force Academy Preparatory School.
“He had compassion, but he was a real warrior,” Gierach said. “Warriors never want to fight and will avoid fighting at all costs. But when push comes to shove, they’re willing to go into that fight with everything they have. That’s what Master Sgt. Chapman did.”
U.S. Air Force Academy Cadet 3rd Class Lauren Mirande, Class of 2026 Exemplar committee chairperson, and Cadet 3rd Class Jocelynn Stevenson, Exemplar Dinner Committee head, greet Valerie Nessel, the widow of the class’s Exemplar Master Sgt. John Chapman before the dining-in at Mitchell Hall Sept. 14, 2023. (Photo courtesy of Cadet 3rd Class Lauren Mirande)
For more photos of the Class of 2026 Exemplar Dining-In, see Flickr.