They were the first troops to hit the ground in Afghanistan while al Qaeda’s dirty work still smoldered back in the United States.
On foot, helicopter and horseback, Army Special Forces showed that if the U.S. was to win a long counterinsurgency war against Islamic extremists, the special skills of Green Berets would be fundamental.
Nearly 14 years later, these soldiers, some of the military’s smartest and best trained, are still creating lots of headlines, but not necessarily for heroics.
In recent months, the Army has disciplined, admonished and ended the careers of a number of Green Berets for actions that the soldiers themselves believe were part of combating an evil enemy. Pristine standards for fighting the Taliban and al Qaeda are not achievable, some in the community say.
“There is certainly a belief that upper echelons of leadership have morphed into political positions, and leaders are a lot less willing to risk their own career to support their soldiers,” Danny Quinn, a former Green Beret team leader and West Point graduate, told The Washington Times.
• Army Secretary John McHugh stripped a Green Beret of his Silver Star for summarily killing a Taliban bomb maker.
• A military investigation blamed two Green Berets for the worst U.S. friendly-fire incident in Afghanistan, when critical errors were made by the Air Force crew that dropped the bombs onto their soldiers.
• The Army fired a Green Beret from his hostage rescue post at the Pentagon and put him under criminal investigation for whistlingblowing to Congress.
• The Army is kicking out a Green Beret for pushing an Afghan police officer accused a raping a boy.
Maj. Matt Golsteyn, one of the Green Berets in the Army’s crosshairs, said the group’s motto, De Oppresso Liber (“To Free the Oppressed”), presents a “moral imperative for action against those who would use violence and injustice as means for repression.”
“It would seem the lives and careers of Green Berets who would dare to see the organization’s motto realized on foreign soil are sacrificed for politics and careerism,” the Afghanistan War veteran told The Times. “As we witness continual displays of failure after failure in military leadership, our collective failure to liberate the oppressed in Iraq and Afghanistan should confuse no longer.”
No one says the military is specifically targeting Green Berets, but there has been a rash of punishments for these soldiers for actions in warfare that they believed were justified.
Joe Kasper, chief of staff for Rep. Duncan Hunter, California Republican, said the discipline is “causing a high sense of discomfort and concern with that small community.”
“What we hear consistently is what many of these soldiers can’t say publicly, and that is Army leadership has created an environment that has soldiers second-guessing themselves and hesitating constantly, and one misstep — whether intended or not — is a career killer,” Mr. Kasper said. “All of it has had an impact on morale and retention, and it should sound alarm bells for the Army.”
A snapshot of recent cases:
• Mr. McHugh, the Army secretary, stripped Maj. Golsteyn of his Silver Star, one of the military’s highest awards for combat valor, after he acknowledged in a CIA job interview that he killed a Taliban bomb maker suspected of killing U.S. troops. The Army never charged Maj. Golsteyn after a lengthy investigation. Mr. Hunter wants Congress to strip service secretaries of such powers.
• The Army opened a criminal investigation of Lt. Col. Jason Amerine, one of the first Green Berets to land in Afghanistan in 2001, after he complained to Mr. Hunter about what he considered a broken hostage rescue program. The FBI informed on Mr. Amerine to Army headquarters, suggesting that he might have relayed classified information. The Pentagon ruled that there were no secret data in his hotline complaint of whistleblower reprisal to the inspector general.
• The military blamed two Green Berets, an A-Team commander and its top enlisted man, for friendly-fire deaths in Afghanistan. The root cause, however, was that the B-1B crew that dropped the bombs lacked basic knowledge of the targeting pod and thought it would be able to see “friendly” troops’ strobe lights when it could not. Not seeing any strobes, the crew dropped the ordnance onto the soldiers.
• Earl Plumlee was on his way to being awarded the Medal of Honor for acts of extreme bravery in Afghanistan. He won endorsements up the chain of command. Then someone made the accusation that he tried to sell a rifle online. The Army conducted a criminal investigation but filed no charges. Still, the Medal of Honor never arrived. The Army awarded him the Silver Star, two notches below the nation’s highest honor.
‘An adverse effect’
The Army is kicking out Sgt. 1st Class Charles Martland, who was reprimanded for punching and shoving to the ground a commander in the Afghan Local Police. A mother and her 12-year-old son came to the sergeant’s forward operating base and accused the commander of raping the boy and assaulting her.
An Army general reprimanded Sgt. Martland, who nevertheless wants to remain a soldier. But he learned in April that a board had selected him for involuntary separation because of the discipline notation in his service record.
News of his doomed career leaked to the press, making the 11-year Army veteran the newest rallying point for pro-military bloggers and pundits. They say the Army is destroying the careers of Green Berets for doing the right thing.
As he has in other cases, Mr. Hunter, a former Marine Corps officer who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, has gone to bat for Sgt. Martland. He wrote to Defense Secretary Ashton Carter last week, saying Sgt. Martland should be commended for what he did, not fired, because he had a “moral necessity” to intervene.
“You should expect each and every one of our warriors and military to intervene in such a situation — and especially when that ALP commander, supported by U.S. trainers and tax dollars, is raping a young child and then proceeds to beat the child’s mother, only to laugh off both incidents when confronted,” Mr. Hunter wrote.
Mr. Hunter’s office gained independent verification of the incident from a translator in Kunduz province at the time. In a signed statement, the witness, an Afghan now living in the U.S., said that an ALP chief had reached him by cellphone and asked what had happened.
He then interviewed the Green Beret A-Team’s linguist assistant, who verified that the mother brought her son to the base for medical treatment because he had been raped by the ALP commander.
The translator wrote that then-Capt. Danny Quinn, the Green Beret team commander, and his men “were well respected and admired by their Afghan colleagues. Those at the leadership level in Kunduz province respected and appreciated Captain Quinn and his team’s contributions to the stability and the rule of law in Kunduz province.”
The incident and Army discipline prompted Mr. Quinn to quit the Army, he said.
“Cases like these certainly have an adverse effect on a Special Forces soldier’s psyche,” he told The Times. “It creates a mentality of playing not to lose versus playing to win. Soldiers feel like their leadership, lieutenant colonel and above, won’t support them, regardless of what they’ve done in that career to that point and what situation they’re currently in.”
Wayne Hall, an Army spokesman at the Pentagon, said: “The Army takes allegations of wrongdoing seriously and looks into every incident and applies what ever actions are appropriate.”
Concerning Sgt. Martland, Mr. Hall said: “The Army is unable to confirm specifics of his separation due to the Privacy Act.”
Mr. McHugh has vigorously defended his stripping of Maj. Golsteyn’s Silver Star. A board of inquiry found that the officer did not violate the laws of armed conflict, yet determined that his conduct was unbecoming an officer.
Lt. Col. Stephen J. Platt, a spokesman for Mr. McHugh, issued a statement to The Times in July that said the Army secretary has no intention of changing his mind:
“As Mr. Hunter is well aware, the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division found that there was probable cause to believe that Maj. Golsteyn committed the offenses of murder and conspiracy, and Maj. Golsteyn was reprimanded for violating the law of armed conflict. The fact that the Board of Inquiry did not specifically find that Maj. Golsteyn committed a law of armed conflict violation does not negate Maj. Golsteyn’s admission that he assassinated an unarmed Afghan and conspired to dispose of the body. We consider the matter closed.”