By February 20th, 2010, the Battle of Marjah had been underway for a week. In order to seize the Afghan district—an IED-infested, Taliban-dominated collection of villages and crisscrossing canals and tree lines that were a defending fighter’s dream—the U.S. military had divided its force into thirds. A task force of more than a thousand U.S. Marines, accompanied by Afghan soldiers, assaulted the northern portion of Marjah. Ditto for the central portion of the district.
And the southern third? It had been attacked by a single U.S. Army Special Forces team consisting of nine men, accompanied by a handful of Marine engineers tasked with clearing bombs from the roads and a few hundred Afghan troops that were more of a babysitting case than true partners. Such a light American footprint on at least part of the battlefield would "put an Afghan face" on the operation, as the lingo went at the time.
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As the Special Forces soldiers wore Afghan Army uniforms, the Taliban concluded that there were virtually no Americans on their southern flank. The fighting there was intense.
Having secured a defensive position in the heart of the Balakino Bazaar (picture the Bakara market in the film Black Hawk Down, but more impoverished) the Special Forces team, led by a captain named Matt Golsteyn, repeatedly attempted to expand their footprint, but regularly met fierce resistance. On the 20th, one of the team’s assaults into Taliban territory took a turn for the worse. An Afghan soldier was wounded and a vehicle got stuck in the mud as insurgents raked the coalition formation with gunfire.
Under heavy fire, Golsteyn, as Dan Lamothe of the Washington Post summarized this week, "ran about 150 meters to the trapped MRAP to retrieve a powerful 84mm Carl Gustav recoilless rifle, an anti-tank weapon. While moving under gunfire, he coordinated a medical evacuation for the wounded Afghan soldier and then opened fire with the Carl Gustav."
Running through the open despite the fact that the Taliban had successfully pinned down the rest of his men, Golsteyn looked like he "was alone fighting 30 enemy fighters out in the poppy fields." He then coordinated airstrikes from F/A-18 Hornets and a drone, silencing the enemy. The battle lasted four hours.
For his actions, Golsteyn was awarded the Silver Star, and was told that the medal would likely be upgraded to the Distinguished Service Cross (the Army’s equivalent of the Navy Cross, and second only to the Medal of Honor) after review by the Secretary of the Army. I can confirm that this was true because I was present at the ceremony where Golsteyn received his Silver Star, and personally overheard Lieutenant General John Mulholland, then the commander of the Army’s Special Operation’s Command, say that an upgrade was under consideration.
In fact, I know Golsteyn—now a major—well. I served alongside him in Marjah for months (though not on the 20th of February—I was among the thousands of Marines fighting elsewhere in the district that day) and can attest that he is one of the most courageous, dedicated, and honorable officers I encountered during my service in the military. He would give his life for the men he led without a moment’s thought—and he very nearly did, on several occasions. When we returned from our deployments and honors began to roll in for Golsteyn, I reflected that it is nice to see the good guys get recognized.
It didn’t last long. In 2011, shortly after a book by author and Marine Bing West came out that detailed Golsteyn’s heroism and quoted him making critical remarks about the American strategy in Afghanistan, I learned that the Army had launched a criminal investigation into his actions during the battle. (Again, full disclosure: I was also interviewed for that book, The Wrong War, and make a brief appearance in it.)
The investigation, apparently, had nothing to do with the acts of bravery that earned Golsteyn his medal. Instead, according to the Washington Post, which cited officials familiar with the case, it concerned "an undisclosed violation of the military’s rules of engagement in combat for killing a known enemy fighter and bomb maker." The investigation stretched on for nearly two years, during which time the Army effectively put Golsteyn’s career on ice. In 2014, Golsteyn and his lawyer were informed that the investigation was finally complete. No charges were filed, but Golsteyn still wasn’t released from administrative limbo.
Alerted about the controversy by another Army officer, Captain Will Swenson, Congressman Duncan Hunter wrote last year to John McHugh, the secretary of the Army, asking about the status of Golsteyn’s seemingly endless career freeze. Apparently the secretary did not take kindly to the inquiry, as he responded in a letter last November that not only would he not be upgrading Golsteyn’s Silver Star to a Distinguished Service Cross, but would be revoking Golsteyn’s Silver Star entirely, a fact that Hunter revealed publicly in an article for the Daily Beast published on Tuesday.
The revocation of an award such as the Silver Star is extraordinarily rare, and typically would happen in the case of the recipient being convicted of a serious crime that in some way dishonored his service. But not only has Golsteyn not been convicted of a crime—he hasn’t even been charged with one.
McHugh would not reveal to Hunter specifically why he was taking his action beyond submitting the innuendo that he was privy to "derogatory information" regarding Golsteyn’s record. What could this information be? Who knows? Having, according to Hunter, spent years threatening Golsteyn’s men, searching for and failing "to find one piece of evidence to corroborate the allegation" that launched the investigation, the Army clearly decided to punish Golsteyn anyway, through publicly dishonoring him in a manner that allows him effectively no recourse or due process.
Such institutional cravenness is even more extraordinary when one considers the circumstances of Golsteyn’s service. Commissioned in 2002 out of West Point, he has served combat tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and was already the recipient of valor awards by the time he fought in Marjah. There, he and his handful of American soldiers succeeded in securing a big chunk of one of the deadliest places on earth at the time, under constant and intense opposition from the Taliban. Working with the local tribes, Golsteyn came to be recognized as one of the most successful officers in Helmand Province. The Taliban tried to kill him and his men again and again, and found themselves driven back every time. What success there was in Marjah was in no small part due to him.
Such is the quality of American military leadership that generals and political appointees like McHugh will send courageous soldiers like Golsteyn into incredibly difficult (some would suggest impossible) circumstances, then invest years in second-guessing their actions after the fact—and then, finding no evidence of wrongdoing, still publicly dishonor the man without giving him a chance to defend himself. Never mind the fact that if a Taliban bombmaker did in fact die in a violation of the rules of engagement, then in what topsy-turvy universe is that a bad thing? The veterans who had to risk their lives because of these ROEs have almost universally criticized them. Established and enforced by men sitting safely in Kabul and Washington who never shared the daily risks of Golsteyn and his soldiers, the rules were wrong and self-serving to begin with, a politicized effort that has, without question, caused the needless deaths of many young Americans.
In any event, if the Army truly does believe that Golsteyn violated the Uniform Code of Military Justice, then they should charge him with a crime. If they can’t do that, then we must conclude that insufficient evidence of a crime exists, in which case Secretary McHugh should give him the Distinguished Service Cross he deserves.
Congressman Hunter pointed out in his article that a recent survey conducted by the Military Times revealed only 27 percent of the military felt that their leaders were looking out for the best interests of the troops. Golsteyn’s situation illustrates why this is the case, and is of a piece with the case of Will Swenson, whose Medal of Honor package was "lost" after he bitterly criticized his chain of command over the ROEs, or of Jim Gant, one of the most successful special operators of the last decade, who was nonetheless drummed out of the Army after running afoul of his superiors.
Golsteyn, Swenson, Gant, and others like them are led by men who interrupt their political intrigues and email flirtations with wealthy socialites only to crucify the troops actually doing the fighting when, for whatever reason, they become politically inconvenient—preferably, as with Golsteyn, in a manner that allows for no response or appeal.
Most Americans would take one look at Golsteyn’s record of service and call him a hero. The men who will not share Golsteyn’s risks, but who will hurl innuendoes at him after the fact and publicly dishonor him in a manner that allows him to mount no case on his own behalf? There’s a word for them too: cowards.