WASHINGTON — Capt. Mathew L. Golsteyn was leading a Special Forces team in Afghanistan in 2010 when an 80-man mission he assembled to hunt insurgent snipers went awry. One of their five vehicles sunk into mud, a gunshot incapacitated an Afghan soldier fighting alongside the Americans, and insurgents maneuvered around them to rake the soggy fields with machine-gun fire.
Golsteyn, already a decorated Green Beret officer, responded with calm resolve and braved enemy fire repeatedly that day, according to an Army summary of his actions. He received the Silver Star for valor for his actions on Feb. 20, 2010, during a 2011 ceremony at Fort Bragg, N.C. Top Army officials later approved him for an upgrade to the prestigious Distinguished Service Cross, second only to the Medal of Honor in honoring heroism in combat by U.S. soldiers.
In a rare reversal, however, Golsteyn, now a major, no longer has either award. The Special Forces officer was later investigated for an undisclosed violation of the military’s rules of engagement in combat for killing a known enemy fighter and bombmaker, according to officials familiar with the case. The investigation closed last year without Golsteyn being charged with any crime, but Army Secretary John McHugh decided to not only deny him the Distinguished Service Cross, but to revoke his Silver Star, too.
McHugh cited a provision in Army regulations that state that if facts become known that would have prevented a medal from being awarded, it can be revoked. The Silver Star was approved by a top commander in Afghanistan — Gen. David Rodriguez, then the three-star deputy commander of U.S. Forces-Afghanistan — according to Golsteyn’s lawyer, Phil Stackhouse.
“I firmly believe that had he known about the derogatory information that was founded by the aforementioned investigation, he would have never awarded Major Golsteyn the Silver Star,” McHugh said in a Nov. 17 letter to Rep. Duncan D. Hunter, R.-Calif., who has advocated on Golsteyn’s behalf. “Accordingly, I have decided to revoke the interim Silver Star that Major Golsteyn received for this action.”
The decision is still shrouded in mystery due to the secretive nature of the Army’s investigation into Golsteyn, who spent extensive time working with U.S. Marines in and around Marja in Helmand province. An online Defense Department database of top valor awards still included Golsteyn’s Silver Star as of Wednesday afternoon and said the information was current as of Jan. 30.
A spokesman for McHugh’s office declined to comment on Wednesday, and said the Army was preparing a response to questions posed by The Post on Tuesday.
Hunter, a former Marine officer and veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, alleged in the Daily Beast on Tuesday that the Army “went to extraordinary lengths” to investigate Golsteyn, threatening his fellow soldiers and offering them immunity. In a Dec. 4 letter to Army Human Resources Command, Hunter said the decision appears to be “retaliatory and vindictive.”
“The Army has been unable to present substantive evidence while an overwhelming number of first-person accounts provided to Army investigators uphold Matt’s record as a top-level operator,” said Hunter’s letter, which was released by the congressman’s office to The Post.
Golsteyn’s lawyer said the investigation into the Army officer’s actions was launched in 2011, less than a year after he received the Silver Star. He remains assigned to Army Special Forces Command at Fort Bragg, and is in the process of determining what to do with his future.
“In the summer of 2014, we were certainly under the impression that everything was done and complete,” said Stackhouse. “The revocation of his valor awards came out of left field to us.”
The decision also raises the question whether the military should strip troops of awards they have earned if they are found to do something wrong later.
On the day in question, Golsteyn assembled his unit after his base had come under sniper fire from a Dragunov rifle, according to an Army narrative of his actions. He directed his troops to launch an assault across 700 meters of open fields, but an armored truck known as a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicle sank into mud under gunfire after about 175 meters.
Under heavy machine-gun and sniper fire, Golsteyn 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, said the Army narrative, obtained by The Post.
“Captain Golsteyn was alone running in the open through enemy gun fire that had over 80 men pinned down, and from the crow’s nest on top of [Forward Operating Base] McQueary, it looked like Captain Golsteyn was alone fighting 30 enemy fighters out in the poppy fields,” the award narrative said.
Enemy reinforcements continued to arrive on the battlefield, so Golsteyn organized airstrikes by both a F/A-18 Hornet fighter jets and a Predator drone. No American or coalition troops were killed in the battle despite a barrage of enemy fire that lasted four hours, the narrative said.
Golsteyn has been critical of the mission he was assigned in the past. In the 2011 Bing West book “The Wrong War: Grit, Strategy and the Way Out of Afghanistan,” he is quoted as saying that the Americans were considered insurgents in Afghanistan who were “selling a poor product called the Kabul government.”
West later wrote in a review of a book about another Special Force soldier, Maj. Jim Gant, that the careers of Gant, Golsteyn and a third Green Beret, Dan McKone, were “terminated,” assessing that the Army failed them without elaborating on Golsteyn’s case. West could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Golsteyn wrote about his assignment in Afghanistan in a June 2014 academic paper for a class at Fayetteville State University. The paper, published online, covers his 2010 deployment and says that his team — known as a Special Forces Operational Detachment Alpha, or A-Team — operated in multiple two- and three-man teams across the area they were assigned. Over time, local tribesmen grew to trust them, especially after three weeks of fighting in Marja, he added.
“We enjoyed repeated interactions with the local populace because we lived with them, fighting for them as well as alongside them,” Golsteyn wrote. “In a 60 day period, our medical clinic run by Green Berets with several Marine medics treated approximately 1,000 local Afghans. We executed multiple helicopter casualty evacuations for civilian victims of [improvised explosive devices] in addition to being the first responders to the scene in nearly every case.”