In the largest battle in the history of the U.S. war in Afghanistan, Mathew L. Golsteyn watched to see if the man he believed was responsible for killing two U.S. Marines was coming his way.
Golsteyn, a captain and Green Beret soldier at the time, said he had taken up an ambush position in the Taliban stronghold of Marja when U.S. forces released the man, a suspected Taliban bombmaker known as Rasoul.
What happened next is at the center of an Army investigation that has stretched years, resulting in a murder charge against Golsteyn in December.
Golsteyn didn’t know whether the suspected insurgent, who was unarmed at the time, would walk in his direction. But if he did, to Golsteyn it meant he was going back to insurgent activities and could be legally targeted.
“If [he goes] any other direction of the 360 that you have available to you but mine, and he doesn’t meet me,” Golsteyn said. “He had been released, and are you going to go back to what you were doing? Or are you going to go somewhere else? If it had been me, this guy’s a-- would have beaten feet in a completely different direction.”
The incident first came under scrutiny by the Army in October 2011, the same year Golsteyn was awarded a Silver Star for valor in different actions. Golsteyn said he had planned to join the CIA and go to Iraq in 2012, and in a polygraph test for the CIA he said he had killed an unarmed man and burned the body.
The case has become a cause celebre among some conservative and veterans groups, and caught the attention of President Trump late last year after Golsteyn’s wife, Julie, appeared on Fox News. In a Dec. 16 tweet, the president pledged to review the case “at the request of many” and called Golsteyn a “a U.S. Military hero.”
The case also has re-energized long-running arguments about how U.S. troops should behave in combat while guided by rules that their enemies often do not follow, and how the military should treat a war hero if he is suspected of war crimes.
Golsteyn, 38, has rarely discussed the case in public, leaving it to his wife, civilian attorney Phillip Stackhouse and other supporters. But in a two-hour interview with The Washington Post, he defended his actions and lambasted Army investigators for how they characterized his actions in official reports. Golsteyn said he is grateful for the president’s attention and would welcome a pardon but cannot expect it.
“It’s not an insignificant thing living every day knowing that you’re an enemy of the state,” said Golsteyn, who was recalled to active duty as a major to face the charge. “We are playing for a court-martial. It would be pretty dangerous to be playing for a pardon, and then there is no pardon and we have to go to court-martial.”
The Army has declined to comment on how it has handled Golsteyn’s case. A spokesman, Lt. Col. Loren Bymer, said Golsteyn was charged after new evidence emerged, and an Article 32 hearing is scheduled for March 14 at Fort Bragg in North Carolina to assess whether the case should proceed to a trial.
“As an active law enforcement matter, the U.S. Army cannot comment on or release information related to the case,” Bymer said.
Golsteyn met with The Post in Washington at the headquarters of the International Association of Fire Fighters, a union for which Golsteyn serves as chief of operations. He took the job while preparing to move on from Army life, settling in Northern Virginia in August 2016, marrying Julie in May 2017 and having a son with her last year. He also has a 12-year-old-son from a previous marriage.
In Golsteyn’s office at work hangs military memorabilia from his career and a photo of him shaking President George W. Bush’s hand in 2002 as a new graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. Golsteyn deployed to Iraq in 2003 and Afghanistan in 2009 after undergoing heart surgery in 2006 stemming from an accident at the Special Forces Underwater Operations School near Key West, Fla.
In January 2010, Golsteyn was deployed to Afghanistan with the 3rd Special Forces Group. As commander of Operational Detachment Alpha 3121, he would lead not only his unit but also about 30 Marines and 300 Afghan soldiers in a major offensive against the Taliban involving a total of 15,000 coalition and Afghan troops.
The Battle of Marja would prove to be far more violent than other missions.
For days, Golsteyn and his troops faced hours of gunfights. Explosives laced the city, and he and other service members were frustrated with rules of engagement that were designed to prevent civilian casualties but limited how aggressively they could target the Taliban.
On Feb. 18, a booby-trapped garage door exploded, killing Sgt. Jeremy McQueary, 27, and Lance Cpl. Larry M. Johnson, 19, Marine combat engineers deployed alongside Golsteyn’s unit. After a search, Afghan forces detained a man with bombmaking material. But Golsteyn said U.S. forces were told they could not keep any detainees because of the amount of resources doing so would require.
Golsteyn targeted the suspected bombmaker in circumstances that are still mysterious and central to the case. With a criminal charge pending, he declined to answer some questions, including how long the man had been free before he was killed, whether anyone else was with Golsteyn at the time and whether he reported the killing to anyone afterward.
“He probably had anywhere from between . . .” Golsteyn said of Rasoul, before stopping mid-sentence.
“To be honest, I don’t know because I was out [away from the base]. He had a long walk,” Golsteyn continued. “He had a long time to figure out where he was going in life.”
Rachel E. VanLandingham, a military justice expert at Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles, said the specifics of how Golsteyn targeted the man are central to the case. If Rasoul showed hostile intent and Golsteyn used authorized tactics to target him, it would appear he committed no wrongdoing, she said. However, if he “was in actuality lying in wait for this guy,” she said, the situation is different.
“In other words, we may have a legitimate killing based on individual self-defense in response to conduct that demonstrates hostile intent, or we could have premeditated murder,” said VanLandingham, who once served as the chief of international law for U.S. Central Command. “Context of the ambush is everything.”
Golsteyn acknowledged disposing of the man’s body after the shooting and said it was not uncommon for U.S. troops to burn remains that went unclaimed in the war. In his earlier statements to the CIA, he said a couple of other soldiers were involved.
“We had bodies everywhere from aircraft fire, sitting in pools of water and we had to, when we came on the, dispose of them,” Golsteyn said. “There is no one to claim them. There was disease and pestilence, and on top of that it’s a source of booby traps and a huge hazard to our force.”
The case has been clouded by characterizations of Golsteyn’s actions in Army investigative reports.
An agent with U.S. Criminal Investigation Command who watched a recording of Golsteyn’s polygraph test wrote in one early report that Golsteyn told his interviewers that he and one other U.S. soldier had taken the deceased Afghan “back to his residence and assassinated him.” But Army officials conceded at a 2015 administrative hearing known as a Board of Inquiry that Golsteyn did not say that, Golsteyn said. The Army declined to comment.
The Army has declined to release the transcript of Golsteyn’s job interview that spawned the investigation or the 2015 hearing. A panel of three officers voted 2 to 1 that the service had not substantiated that Golsteyn violated the law of armed conflict, but it found he had demonstrated conduct unbecoming of an officer.
The Army initially closed its investigation in November 2013 without finding enough evidence to prosecute Golsteyn, even when offering immunity to his fellow soldiers. It pursued a number of administrative punishments instead, including the suspension of his security clearance, the revocation of his Silver Star and Special Forces tab, and the issuing of a career-ending memorandum of reprimand.
The Silver Star was awarded in 2011 for repeatedly braving enemy fire on Feb. 20, 2010, two days after the Marines were killed. Golsteyn was credited with braving fire during a four-hour battle in which he trudged through mud, returned fire, helped an Afghan soldier who had been shot and coordinated airstrikes.
The Army reopened its investigation in 2016, after Golsteyn appeared on Fox News and acknowledged killing a bombmaker in an interview with Bret Baier.
“There’s limits on how long you can hold guys, Golsteyn said at the time. “You realize quickly that you make things worse. It is an inevitable outcome that people who are cooperating with coalition forces, when identified, will suffer some terrible torture or be killed.”
Golsteyn told The Post that he has found the Army’s investigation dishonest, and he can no longer stay silent about it.
“I spent half of this hell quiet, and if there is anything I know, it’s that I will not get any semblance of due process — any ability to defend myself — if it’s not in public,” he said. “Because it’s the only thing these guys respond to. They do not obey their own rules.”