National Security & Defense

Why Is the Army Brass Punishing This Special Forces Hero?

(File photo: Army Sergeant First Class Kevin Doheny)
On no credible public evidence, the Army and the CIA subjected a Green Beret to a three-year witch hunt.

Recent news articles have described the disquieting case of Green Beret major Matt Golsteyn. After commanding Special Forces teams in two combat tours, his Distinguished Service Cross — the nation’s second-highest award for valor — has been revoked and he is being forced out of the Army with no pension.

Why?

In 2010, Golsteyn and his nine-man team were advising an Afghan battalion charged with seizing a portion of Marjah district in southern Afghanistan. The Marine colonel in overall command placed a Marine platoon under Golsteyn’s control; the Afghan battalion held its sector, thanks to Golsteyn’s team. Near the end of the campaign, however, two Marines were killed, blown up by an IED. Amid incoming fire, screaming, and carnage, the Green Berets cared for the wounded and the dying. 

About a year later, the CIA recruited Golsteyn for field operations. He took a polygraph that troubled CIA lawyers. Although polygraphs are not admissible in court, the CIA showed parts of the test to the Army. According to the Washington Post, the Army believed Golsteyn was guilty of “an undisclosed violation of the U.S. military’s rules of engagement in 2010 that resulted in the death of a known enemy fighter and bomb maker.”

So, after the two Marines were killed by a bomb, the Army concluded that a nameless enemy bomb-maker had died.

The Army separated Major Golsteyn from his Special Forces unit and kept him in limbo status for three years at Fort Bragg, while investigators conducted a witch hunt. They leaned heavily on every member of Golsteyn’s team. They called Bing West, looking for something. They pawed through the garbage of Captain William Swenson, a Medal of Honor recipient who stood up for his friend Golsteyn. The investigators uncovered no evidence or testimony of wrongdoing from anyone who had been on the battlefield.

We will never know what happened following the killings of the two Marines. We do know a soldier’s motivations in battle are hard to judge from the outside looking in – the world of an infantryman is unlike any other. He makes instant, difficult choices. He must keep his honor clean and resist the sin of wrath when fighting an enemy who hides among civilians. At the same time, he is trying to prevent further deaths among those entrusted to his care.

High-ranking decision makers in Washington also carry conflicting burdens: They must be just. They must also resist the sin of arch judgment, lest they act imperiously because they are removed from the gore and fog of battle. Finding nothing, Secretary of the Army John McHugh decided to revoke Golsteyn’s Distinguished Service Cross and to throw him out — without showing cause. At the same time, Mr. McHugh has been solicitous of the rights and privileges of Private Bowe Bergdahl, who sneaked away from his unit in a war zone.

In any war, there will be confusing situations where reasonable men can reach different conclusions about what happened and why. But once the CIA and the Army used a single polygraph to launch a fruitless three-year investigation, the judgment of senior officials back in Washington was called into question.

The miasma of distrust thickened when a service secretary invoked his executive privilege, without proving his case, to ruin a warrior’s career and reputation. The notion of loyalty down the chain of command was thrown into doubt. It was even more disturbing that the only senior officer to speak publicly on behalf of Major Golsteyn was the Marine colonel in command of the Marjah campaign.

Before acting as righteous zealots, the CIA and the Army should have considered what adverse effects this kind of move might have on the morale of those fighting the Islamists face-to-face. Collusion in sharing a polygraph between the CIA and the Army has set a troublesome precedent for both institutions. The resort to extra-legal steps to carry out what Mr. McHugh personally considered justice smacked of England’s medieval Star Chamber rather than our Bill of Rights. By proceeding with no evidence, the CIA and the Army have looked devious and callous.

As for Major Golsteyn, those who served with him know him, and he departs with their admiration for his leadership and courage.

— Duncan D. Hunter represents the 50th congressional district of California in the U.S. House of Representatives. Bing West is a military journalist. Both have served multiple combat tours. Full disclosure: For 18 months, Representative Hunter has sought public disclosure of all evidence and documents pertaining to the Golsteyn case. Bing West was embedded with Golsteyn’s team when the Marines were killed.

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