The family of a general killed in an insider attack doesn't accept the Army's investigation
The family gathered for a private briefing at the Pentagon, intent on learning the details of how an Afghan soldier had fatally shot their loved one, Maj. Gen. Harold J. Greene, the highest-ranking American officer killed in a combat zone since the Vietnam War.
Above: From left to right, the father, son and widow of Major Gen. Harold J. Greene, who was the highest-ranking officer killed in a combat zone since Vietnam. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
They were all there — Harry Greene’s widow, herself a retired Army colonel; his two children, one a first lieutenant educated at West Point; his father, who’d served as an enlisted soldier at the end of World War II; and his two brothers — and they were all furious. The Afghan soldier, perched in an unsecured military police barracks, opened fire Aug. 5, 2014, on senior U.S. military leaders and Afghan troops at the country’s premiere military academy near Kabul. The insider attack wounded 18 coalition and Afghan soldiers and killed Greene, 55, a two-star general who’d made the Army his life for 34 years.
Two months after the attack, the Greenes wanted to know how it could have taken place and who was responsible for the breach of security.
Sitting before the family in a Pentagon conference room were two generals, including Brig. Gen. Donald E. Jackson Jr., the investigating officer. Greene’s widow, Sue Myers, who holds a top-level security clearance, had already read an unredacted version of his 500-plus-page report. Her son, 1st Lt. Matthew Greene, based at Fort Hood, Tex., participated in the briefing via video, listening as Jackson presented a synopsis of his findings.
Among the conclusions: The shooting could not have been foreseen or prevented, and there was no negligence on the part of any military leader.
“There are many things we may learn from this experience that may help us prevent making ourselves an easy target to the next would-be shooter,” wrote Jackson, who declined to be interviewed for this story. “The outcome of this case illustrates what can happen when we combine a determined shooter with a target of opportunity. . . . This incident does, however, bring into question a fundamental problem set in how we must balance the need for maintaining an environment of trust and confidence with our Afghan partners while providing adequate force protection for our advisory team members and leaders.”
Myers, five months shy of celebrating what would have been her 30th wedding anniversary, was not satisfied. She and her family had a litany of questions about how so many military commanders got so close to an unsecured building and why U.S. investigators couldn’t pry more information out of the Afghan military about the slain shooter’s motives.
Jackson couldn’t offer many answers, recalled Myers, in her first interview since her husband’s death.
“When I asked Jackson about all this missing information, he kind of shrugged his shoulders, saying that’s the way it is,” said Myers, 57. “They made a big deal about how the Afghans weren’t cooperating, and we were fortunate to have anything from them at all. I was like, ‘What the hell? Why don’t we pull some [aid] money?’ We’ve got all these guys over there, and we can’t convince them to cooperate?”
Of the 2,351 U.S. service members killed in the longest war in U.S. history, only a small fraction have been at the hands of Afghan allies-turned-traitors. Insider attacks have killed 147 coalition service members and wounded hundreds of others since 2007, when U.S. officials first began tracking them.
But the treachery of “green-on-blue” attacks — the phrase used to describe assaults on NATO forces by members of the Afghan security forces — has had an outsize effect, undermining trust between the two sides and raising questions about whether Afghans will ever be ready to function on their own.
The Greenes are not the only family who say the U.S. military’s investigations into these deaths are flawed or incomplete, a consequence, they say, of the politically awkward dynamics of these shootings.
Asked to respond to those accusations, Maj. Genieve David, a spokeswoman for U.S. Central Command, said: “The U.S. military is known for having a great support system in place and if any of our military families reached out to CENTCOM for support, we’d absolutely assist them any way we can and refer them to any resources and people they needed.”
The Greene family’s three-hour briefing at the Pentagon did little to soothe Matthew Greene, 26.
“It feels,” he said later, “like we’ve been not only betrayed by the Afghans — a select few, who think it’s a good idea to gun down the people trying to help them — but also by our Army, completely betrayed.”
In 2010, retired Col. Sue Myers (left) and then-Brigadier Gen. Harold J. Greene (right) attend an Association of the United States Army dinner. (Courtesy of Sue Myers)
They met as captains.
Myers, who’d joined the military after graduating from Penn State, was stationed in Germany for the Army Corps of Engineers. Greene, who’d gotten his degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, was working as a project engineer in Istanbul.
It was the early 1980s, and Greene was summoned to Frankfurt for an officers’ meeting, where Myers delivered a presentation on the Army Corps’ rising number of women. The two began a long-distance romance that prompted Greene to ask to be assigned to Frankfurt. They married at Frankfurt’s city hall on Jan. 10, 1985, two young officers with big ambitions, working side by side in Cold War-era Europe.
What followed were two children, Matthew and Amelia, and repeated promotions. The couple’s careers were soaring as the family bounced from Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., to Fort Monmouth, N.J., to Carlisle, Pa. Myers made colonel in 2003, taught at the Army War College, and retired in 2010. Greene had risen to brigadier general, a one-star, serving as the deputy commanding general of the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command in Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland.
First Lt. Matthew Greene, now 26, visits Section 60 in Arlington National Cemetery, where his father, Maj. Gen. Harold J. Greene, was buried alongside enlisted soldiers a year ago. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)
By then, Matthew Greene was following his parents’ path. He’d grown up surrounded by soldiers and was determined to go to West Point. After an initial rejection, he applied a second time and got in.
Matthew Greene graduated in 2012, the same year his father was promoted to major general.
A big crowd of friends and colleagues turned out to watch Harry Greene earn his second star. He was an easygoing commander, comrades said, generous with his time and careful not to come off as arrogant.
But the following year, Greene lost out on a promotion to lieutenant general to someone more junior, Myers said. She tried persuading her husband to retire, and he nearly did. He was attracting interest from defense contractors, along with the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., where he could teach.
Instead, Greene stayed because he’d been asked to serve as the deputy commanding general, Combined Security Transition Command in Afghanistan, the unit in charge of distributing billions of dollars in aid to Afghan security forces. Greene would spend 12 months in the war zone, starting in January 2014. Though he’d been to Afghanistan and Iraq on short visits, this was his first combat deployment in his long career.
“Harry told me that he sent all these people to Afghanistan, and that he ethically couldn’t retire without doing his assignment over there,” Myers said. “I couldn’t talk him out of it. But his intent was to be home by January 2015, our 30th anniversary.”
They’d already planned and paid for a trip to South America, where they were going to visit Argentina, take a cruise to Peru and hike Machu Picchu.
In Kabul, he was excited by the work he was doing but let Myers know there was one thing missing: her.
“If I could have been there with him,” she said he told her, “it would have been perfect.”
The remains of Maj. Gen. Harold J. Greene are transferred from a C-17 aircraft by an Army carry team at Dover Air Force Base on Aug. 7, 2014. (Michael Reynolds/EPA)
‘That building was clear’
At close to noon on Aug. 5, 2014, Greene and other military leaders from Britain, Germany, Denmark and other coalition countries were finishing a tour of Marshal Fahim National Defense University, Afghanistan’s West Point.
The military academy was trying to expand, but it was facing a serious water shortage. Greene wanted to make sure the water supply could be fixed before awarding $70 million in U.S. aid for a new assembly hall, training ranges and classroom spaces.
After Greene and others examined an underground water tank and other facilities, the route back to their convoy required everyone to walk past an Afghan military police barracks.
The tour’s organizers were already nervous about the building because it was located at the edge of campus and bordered a major road. Fearing insurgents could fire rockets at the VIPs, coalition troops had been positioned on the barracks’ roof.
Capt. David Stone, an Army reservist who organized the tour, said he was given assurances on the way there that the building was safe. “I was told that building was clear, that there were no armed Afghan soldiers in the barracks,” he said.
As the officers walked past the barracks, an American contractor pulled out an easel to deliver an impromptu presentation on the campus’s water problems, according to the military investigation. Greene and the others stopped to listen. In an interview, Greene’s personal security detail said he was standing several feet away from his boss, scanning the barracks, but reassured by the sight of the snipers on the roof. He, too, presumed the building was safe.
Suddenly, as the presentation ended, gunfire rattled out. Greene was shot in the head, chest and right thigh. He crumpled.
None of the senior officers were wearing helmets or Kevlar vests, a standard way to show trust with the Afghans.
Greene’s aides carried him to one of the up-armored vehicles so they could take him to a medevac site. On the way, one of his aides checked for his vitals. He couldn’t find a pulse. The military report said he probably died immediately.
Coalition forces quickly realized that the enemy was shooting an M-16 rifle from a bathroom window in the barracks — the very building the snipers were standing on. The whole group was floored. How could that be? Hadn’t the building been cleared?
“You don’t put guys on the roof of the building unless it’s clear,” said Greene’s bodyguard, who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity. “If I had just one second, I could have dodged General Greene out of the way, and I would have been hit, and he’d still be here, rather than have this national tragedy.”
Coalition forces returned fire, killing the gunman, Rafiqulla Tashkera, a 22-year-old Pashtun apparently upset that he’d been denied leave for Eid al-Fitr, the Muslim holiday marking Ramadan’s conclusion, the investigation found.
The firefight was over in about a minute. The gunman got off as many as 30 rounds, the investigation showed.
Stone and others entered the barracks and saw Tashkera surrounded by Afghan soldiers in a pool of blood. He’d been shot, but also stabbed, Stone said.
Afghan military police told Stone’s translator that they had knifed his body because they were so ashamed of what he’d done. “They didn’t want us to think they were like him,” Stone said.
In Northern Virginia, Myers was at her office at ManTech, where she worked at the time as an accounts manager, when her boss asked her to come with him to his office.
There, she was greeted by the Army’s chief of chaplains and two other generals. “We regret to inform you that Harry was killed,” one of them told her. “I asked them ‘How?’ but they didn’t have a lot of information, other than that it was at this Afghan training base.”
She’d been looking forward to seeing her husband later that week. Greene had been planning to fly back to Washington on Aug. 7 for a short leave and to celebrate her birthday. Instead, his body arrived at Dover Air Force Base on Aug. 7, and he was buried at Arlington National Cemetery on Aug. 14, the day before Myers turned 56.
Susan Myers, center, places a rose on the casket of her late husband during the burial service for Maj. Gen. Harold J. Greene at Arlington National Cemetery. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)
‘We were exposed’
She longed for details. But the military wanted to complete its investigation first.
So Myers, who’s had experience investigating soldiers’ misconduct or ethics violations, relied on scraps of information from newspapers, Pentagon friends, even the soldiers wounded in the shooting who were being treated at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.
Her big questions: How was an armed Afghan able to enter a barracks despite coalition snipers on the roof? Why wasn’t her husband wearing his safety gear? Why weren’t the shooter’s comrades interviewed without the presence of their Afghan superiors? And why was the tour’s security plan so fragmented among different coalition nationalities?
Jackson’s report acknowledged that a group of Danish military leaders had become the default security lead and that there had been a lack of coordination, compounded by incompatible communications systems. His report also said that those in charge of security knew the barracks could potentially be occupied by armed Afghan soldiers but chose not to clear it simply because “there had been no indication of a potential threat from there in the past.”
Still, Jackson found no one at fault.
“I got very frustrated with General Jackson because he said this was an inevitable situation,” Matthew Greene said. “But no one swept the barracks. I took great offense at that. He was like, ‘We’re not going to blame ourselves or blame our allies. We’re just going to let it be.’ I could have gone all day with the guy.”
Stone said the unscheduled meeting should have never taken place, but that two American colonels gave the contractor permission to make the presentation.
“When we deviated like that,” he said, “we really left ourselves open to an unknown area that was supposed to be a 25-second pass-through. We were exposed.”
In November, Myers wrote to President Obama, then-Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, Secretary of the Army John McHugh, and Gen. Raymond Odierno, the Army’s chief of staff, seeking another investigation.
Maj. Gen. Michael X. Garrett wrote two follow-up letters to Myers in January and May, expressing his sorrow for Greene’s death and trying to reassure her that the military had done everything possible.
“I believe that the investigation was thorough and the findings and recommendations are correct,” he wrote. “I can appreciate that you feel that someone specifically should be culpable for the security compromise based upon negligence in planning and leadership. It needs to be pointed out that the investigation recognizes many layers of leadership were responsible for the planning, deviations in activities, and execution of security regarding this event.”
Garrett, who declined to comment for this story, revealed that the Afghan company commander in charge of Marshal Fahim’s security had been found derelict and sentenced to one year in prison. He also outlined several new measures to prevent future green-on-blue attacks, including beefing up the program for “Guardian Angels,” designated soldiers whose sole job is to protect fellow troops during meetings with Afghans. And Garrett said that all VIP events had to have a “clear chain of command” responsible for the security.
But Myers still believes a top Army official should have been held accountable for her husband’s death. And all the condolences and expressions of confidence in the investigation haven’t changed her mind.
Afghan National Army soldiers standing guard on a roadside in Kabul, Afghanistan last year. Security was intensified after an Afghan soldier opened fire at the country's premiere military academy, killing Maj. Gen. Harold J. Greene and wounded 18 others on Aug. 5, 2014. (Hedayatullah Amid/EPA)
Widows of other green-on-blue attack victims echo Myers’s complaints that these shootings could have been prevented in the first place and that the military’s handling of the investigations has been flawed.
Eight members of the U.S. Air Force and one American contractor were killed in 2011 inside the military-controlled portion of the Kabul International Airport by an aging Afghan pilot who took everyone by surprise with a pistol.
Suzanna Ausborn, 51, of Albuquerque, N.M., a retired Air Force captain who specialized in anti-terrorism, lost her husband, Maj. Jeffrey Ausborn, in the airport attack. She is skeptical that one man was able to kill so many American officers.
“I believe some of the other Afghans assisted the shooter in some way,” Ausborn said. “The shooter wasn’t a special forces trained guy. He was this old helicopter pilot. Yet suddenly he’s this expert killing machine?”
Linda Ambard, a community support coordinator for an Air Force base in Massachusetts, lost her husband, Maj. Philip Ambard, at the airport. She also thinks the account of the attack is incomplete.
“My husband’s gun is still missing. His trigger finger was almost severed,” she said. “And the military can’t explain to me why.”
Peggy Marchanti, 51, who lives in Baltimore, lost her husband, Robert Marchanti II, 48, when an Afghan security official shot him and another NATO soldier in February 2012 at the ministry of interior in Kabul.
When two military officials knocked on her door to break the news, they didn’t tell her Robert died in a green-on-blue attack, she said. She had to file a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain the investigation, receiving it more than a year after the shooting.
Marchanti is mystified how the gunman, whose weapons were equipped with silencers, was able to escape. She has no idea whether he was ever captured.
“They only found out it was him after he didn’t show up for work the next day,” Marchanti said. “Why was there no lockdown?”
Hundreds gathered last month in Natick, Mass., to pay tribute to Maj. Gen. Harold J. Greene at a street renaming ceremony. The town renamed Kansas Street, which leads into the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Systems Center where Greene once served, after the general. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
Last month, the entire Greene family gathered once again, this time at the entrance to the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Systems Center in Natick, Mass.
It was here, at a base that designs new technologies for soldiers, where Greene once served as a popular senior commander. Hundreds of the center’s employees joined together to celebrate the general’s life.
Dressed in a dark blazer and red dress, Myers took the podium to thank everyone for coming. She had never publicly hinted at her anger with the military. But, in this moment, she felt she had to say something.
“We believe that this kind of tragedy can be prevented by more proactive planning and leadership oversight,” Myers told the crowd. “We can do better — like Harry did — by taking responsibility, accountability, and leading by example.”
A minute later, the general’s son climbed a blue ladder to the top of a street sign draped in black cloth. Matthew Greene slipped off the cover to reveal the green street sign honoring his dad: General Greene Avenue.