The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Inside the stunning fall and war-crimes investigation of an Army Green Beret war hero

Then-Army Capt. Mathew L. Golsteyn is shown here in Afghanistan in 2010. (Photo released by the office of Rep. Duncan Hunter)
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When President Obama draped the nation’s highest award for combat valor around the neck of an Afghan war hero at the White House in October 2013, a highly decorated Green Beret officer who sat nearby faced an ugly reality: The Army was investigating him on charges of murder and conspiracy.

Maj. Mathew L. Golsteyn was invited to the ceremony by William D. Swenson, who received the Medal of Honor for his actions in Afghanistan four years earlier. Like Swenson, Golsteyn had braved enemy fire repeatedly, seen fellow soldiers die and voiced deep frustration with the ways he saw U.S. troops restricted in combat. But Golsteyn, a friend of Swenson’s, also may have had a darker chapter to his service.

According to Army documents, the young officer disclosed to CIA personnel during a 2011 job interview that he had killed an unarmed Taliban fighter he suspected of being a bombmaker. The documents, obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, also suggest an elaborate cover-up that, if true, could amount to serious war crimes involving not only Golsteyn but fellow Green Beret soldiers.

[See document excerpts in the Army’s war-crimes case against Maj. Mathew Golsteyn]

However, the service closed a lengthy criminal investigation into the case last year without finding any evidence to charge Golsteyn. His lawyer and other supporters say that the service has exaggerated the claims and selectively released details from the case.

The case underscores a stunning fall for a highly regarded officer who has been lauded for his leadership and graduated from the prestigious U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., in 2002. It has also pitted the Army against a war hero.

The Army has defended its actions, saying it had conducted its investigation without bias or outside influence. Phillip Stackhouse, Golsteyn’s lawyer, said the narratives laid out in documents from the Army’s Criminal Investigations Command “are taken out of context and are biased.”

“It’s fantasy to say he confessed to shooting an unarmed detainee,” he said.

The alleged killing of the Taliban fighter in question took place during the iconic Battle of Marja, during which more than 15,000 coalition troops assaulted a Taliban stronghold of mud compounds, canals and poppy fields in Afghanistan’s Helmand province. Dozens of Americans were killed there in following months, with hundreds more wounded.

At the height of the battle, an explosion rocked a Marine unit working alongside Golsteyn’s soldiers in Marja. Two Marines — Sgt. Jeremy R. McQueary, 27, and Lance Cpl. Larry M. Johnson, 19 — were killed in the Feb. 18, 2010, blast, in which explosives were rigged to detonate when a sliding metal door was opened. Three more Marines were evacuated by helicopter with serious injuries.

Two days later, Golsteyn braved enemy fire repeatedly after watching a Taliban sniper round nearly hit another Marine who was manning a rooftop observation post on their base. Golsteyn was credited with launching a mission to find the enemy marksmen, slogging through muddy fields under fire to help an Afghan soldier who had been wounded, returning fire with a powerful anti-tank weapon, and coordinating repeated airstrikes by F/A-18 Hornet fighter jets and a Predator drone. For those actions, he was awarded the Silver Star, the Army’s third-highest award for valor.

[Army revokes Silver Star for Green Beret officer, citing investigation]

Army Secretary John McHugh later agreed to upgrade Golsteyn’s award to the Distinguished Service Cross, one step below the Medal of Honor. But the secretary decided last fall that Golsteyn would get neither, citing the investigation. The specifics of the allegations against him were unclear at the time, and officials said only that he faced investigation for an undisclosed violation of the rules of engagement in combat.

Golsteyn’s Special Forces tab, a qualification awarded to anyone who has completed Green Beret training, was also revoked by Army Special Forces Command. He was reassigned as an regularly infantry officer, effectively removing him from the Special Forces.

The newly obtained documents include a three-page report filed in October 2011 by Special Agent Zachary Jackson, an Army investigator, that allege Golsteyn recounted to the CIA that, after the Marines were killed in the Feb. 18 blast, he and his units began clearing homes nearby. They eventually found materials required to make complicated improvised explosive devices similar to the one that had killed the Marines. They brought the suspected bombmaker back to their base, Golsteyn said, according to Army documents.

On base, a tribal leader working with the Americans identified the suspected bombmaker as a member of the Taliban — and then the two crossed paths before Golsteyn could prevent it, the soldier said, according to the documents. The tribal leader “immediately became frightened and stated [the suspected Taliban member] was going to kill him and his family,” the Army documents said.

Golsteyn, then a member of 3rd Special Force Group, told the CIA during a polygraph test that he trusted the tribal leader working with his unit, and that information he had provided previously saved lives and prevented attacks, according to Army documents. The suspected bombmaker was not on a list of targets U.S. forces had been cleared to kill without following the rules of engagement, but Golsteyn told the CIA he was concerned that if he let the man go, he would have the opportunity to kill American troops, the documents said.

“CPT Golsteyn related there had been countless times when he detained someone and sent that person to a detention facility only to see that same person shooting at his unit weeks later,” the Army investigator’s summary of Golsteyn’s polygraph test said. “CPT Golsteyn stated he had no qualms about what he did because he couldn’t have lived with himself if [the suspected bomb maker] killed another Soldier or Marine.”

[CIA job interview leads to criminal investigation of Green Beret]

According to the documents, Golsteyn recalled to CIA interviewers that he and one other unidentified U.S. soldier took the suspected bombmaker off the base, shot him to death and buried his remains in a shallow grave. He told the CIA that, later that night, he and two other soldiers dug up the remains, brought them back to their base and burned them in a pit used to dispose of trash, according to the documents. The names of the soldiers have been redacted in the documents released to The Post.

Virtually all of the U.S. service members interviewed by investigators expressed disbelief that Golsteyn would have killed an unarmed insurgent or covered up his actions. He is described by most of them as an inspiring, decisive leader who saved lives. In Marja, he led not only his Special Forces team, known as Operational Detachment Alpha 3121, but about 30 Marine combat engineers and more than 300 Afghan commandos who fought alongside it.

“I have a hard time believing that such an incident ever occurred,” a senior medic in his unit told investigators in December 2011. “I further find it hard to believe that Matt Golsteyn would do that. The only reason I could possibly conceive him doing something like that is if he felt his men’s lives were at direct risk.”

There was at least one exception. A Green Beret lieutenant colonel interviewed in April 2012 told investigators that while Golsteyn was a top captain in Special Forces, he also could be insubordinate and act with a sense of impunity, according to a report filed by an Army investigator at Fort Bragg, N.C.

“When asked… whether he believed CPT GOLSTEYN committed the offense of Murder, [the lieutenant colonel] stated he would hope not but would not doubt it either because of CPT GOLSTEYN’S attitude,” the report said.

Among officers, Golsteyn could be a polarizing figure, former Marine Capt. Michael Barry, who served alongside Golsteyn in Marja, said in an interview. But he was loved by those he commanded in the field.

“I was one of the people who loved him, and I still do just because of the way he led,” Barry said. “He was someone who said what he meant, and there was no backstabbing with him. If you asked him a question, he was going to tell you the truth. He wasn’t going to flower it up.”

[Army secretary defends stripping Special Forces officer of awards]

Barry, now a law student at Louisiana State University, recalled returning to their base in Marja the day that McQueary and Johnson were killed. While looking for insurgents and weapons in a bazaar with a series of stalls, they asked two suspicious-looking men to open storage units that were locked. The explosion killed the two Afghans along with the Marines.

Golsteyn was not at the scene of the explosion that killed them, but was overseeing the mission from their nearby operations center and waiting for troops who survived the blast when they returned.

“He was pretty shaken up, and I was pretty shaken up, too,” Barry said. “It meant the world to me that he was there waiting for us when we got back.”

Afterward, Golsteyn pulled out a bottle of whiskey on the base so they all could toast the fallen Marines, according to the 2011 book “The Wrong War,” by Bing West, who was embedded with Golsteyn’s unit at the time. The move may have brought those under fire that day closer, but it also drew the attention of commanders when West’s book was published, according to Army documents. Drinking alcohol in the field is a violation of a general order.

Investigators keyed in on a remark Golsteyn allegedly made at the time — that his team was going to “get” the man responsible for killing McQueary and Johnson. The conversation ended there, however, Barry said, and wasn’t an uncommon pledge for an officer to make in such circumstances.

The Army offered immunity to at least two soldiers in exchange for their testimony against Golsteyn, but they refused to talk, according to the documents. It also tested numerous burn pits in southern Marja for human remains, but did not find any evidence of a corpse. Photographs of several of the pits appear in documents released to The Post.

Investigators appeared at Swenson’s home in Seattle in May 2012, looking for information about Golsteyn. Swenson’s name is redacted from the documents, but the incident was outlined February in an article by the Daily Beast.

Swenson eventually wrote a letter in support of Golsteyn that was circulated around Capitol Hill. He noted that he had completed training with Golsteyn early in their careers and would “gladly stand with him on any battlefield against enemy.”

[For Medal of Honor recipient William Swenson, a rocky path to the White House]

The Army’s handling of Golsteyn’s case has come under heavy criticism from Rep. Duncan D. Hunter Jr. (R.Calif.), a Marine veteran and frequent critic of the Army secretary. Hunter has repeatedly questioned why the Army stripped Golsteyn of awards and moved more recently to remove him from the service. A board of higher-ranking officers will determine Golsteyn’s future in an administrative hearing tentatively scheduled for next week, although his lawyer said it could be moved to June due to a scheduling conflict.

McHugh has stood by his decisions, saying in a letter in February that Golsteyn had “demonstrated a lack of honorable conduct.”

Although no charges were filed, investigators found that there was probable cause that Golsteyn “committed the offenses of Murder, Conspiracy and War Crimes, when he conspired with multiple Special Forces team members to commit premeditated murder and desecration of the body afterwards.”

Army Criminal Investigation Command defended its actions and conclusions.

“Findings of our investigations are thoroughly reviewed by legal authorities,” said a spokesman, Chris Grey. “We stand by the investigative findings of our agents. Due to the upcoming proceedings, it would be inappropriate for us to comment further.”

Ashley Johnson, the older sister of Larry Johnson, one of the Marines killed, expressed dismay with the way the military has treated Golsteyn. She has never met the Army officer once in charge of her brother in Afghanistan, but she would like to someday, she said.

“He, from what I read, is a hero and did what he had to do. I believe at a time like that, you wear your heart on your sleeve and I think it’s what anyone with a heart would do,” she said.

Johnson added that the suspected insurgent Golsteyn is accused of killing “was the enemy that he believed killed his Marines.

“It brings a tear to my eye to know he cared so much,” she said. “He deserves his medals for everything he went through.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the year in which Maj. Mathew L. Golsteyn graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. It was in 2002, not 2006.