A group of House lawmakers is moving to strip the armed services’ civilian leaders of the power to revoke combat valor awards in response to Army Secretary John McHugh unilaterally canceling the Silver Star, one of the military’s highest honors, for a former Green Beret officer.
Mr. McHugh took the action against Maj. Mathew Golsteyn, who braved repeated enemy fire in Afghanistan, even though he has not been charged with any offenses. The Army now is seeking to release him with a less-than-honorable discharge. The officer plans to fight the move, his attorney says.
The secretary acted after the CIA informed the Army that Maj. Golsteyn, during a polygraph exam for a job application, told of killing a terrorist who was making improvised explosive devices (IEDs), the weapon that has killed more Americans in Afghanistan than any other. The Army also removed Maj. Golsteyn from the elite ranks of the Green Berets.
Rep. Duncan Hunter, the California Republican who is spearheading the restrictive legislation, says he wants to prevent service secretaries from retaliating against personnel by stripping their awards in cases where there is insufficient evidence to charge them for nonjudicial, or court-martial, punishment.
“Secretary McHugh made a political decision,” Mr. Hunter said. “He used his power as a weapon to retaliate against a soldier when the Army was unable to prove an allegation.”
The CIA disclosure prompted the Army to launch a criminal investigation. Agents fanned out to interview his combat cohorts in Marjah, Afghanistan. The report remains confidential, but sources say it could never confirm that Maj. Golsteyn did anything criminally wrong outside of his statements to the CIA.
The CIA, in turn, protects its polygraph procedures and questions as strictly as it guards other secrets. It will not let the Army use the transcript in a criminal proceeding and will give very limited access in an administrative one.
Maj. Golsteyn’s case is taking the administrative route. His lawyer, Phillip Stackhouse, a former Marine Corps judge advocate, said he has requested a board of inquiry, at which he will make the case the officer should be retained.
“They can’t prove that anything improper took place because nothing improper did take place,” Mr. Stackhouse said. “We’ll certainly stand on Matt’s combat and military service.”
A supporter on Capitol Hill said the officer believes the killing was justified under Afghanistan’s complex rules of engagement and because of the need to protect troops.
Mr. Hunter, a former Marine Corps officer who has taken up Maj. Golsteyn’s cause, had a testy exchange with Mr. McHugh via letters, copies of which were obtained by The Washington Times.
On Feb. 9, Mr. Hunter wrote to Mr. McHugh questioning the secretary’s “objectivity.”
“The Army’s case against Maj. Matt Golsteyn continues to lack clarity and consistency,” the congressman said. “Matt has yet to be charged with a crime or convicted of any wrongdoing. Yet the Army is going to great lengths to administratively punish him.”
Mr. McHugh fired back on Feb. 26: “Every step in the process of investigating Maj. Golsteyn’s actions, and reviewing and subsequently revoking his valor awards, has been thorough, objective and justified.”
“The Army investigation demonstrated that Maj. Gosteyn’s service during or after the time of the distinguished act, achievement or meritorious service was not honorable,” the Army secretary added.
He offered to have investigators brief Mr. Hunter as long as the congressman kept all information confidential. Mr. Hunter curtly declined.
“Unfortunately, I have to disagree with your characterization of the investigation,” Mr. Hunter wrote. “Can you please explain to me what evidence the Army — and agents, in particular — actually discovered, beyond the allegations relayed by CIA?”
‘With blatant disregard’
Maj. Golsteyn’s official Silver Star narrative depicts a warrior who risked his life repeatedly during a four-hour battle in Afghanistan’s Helmand province to take out multiple enemy positions.
The Silver Star ranks third in precedence of combat valor awards to the Medal of Honor and the Army Distinguished Service Cross. The officer was approved for an Army Cross, but the CIA disclosure prompted the Army not to award it and to rescind the Silver Star.
Maj. Golsteyn performed his heroics on Feb. 20, 2010, when a crow’s nest at Forward Operating Base McQueary took sniper rounds. Then a captain and leader of Special Forces A-Team, Maj. Golsteyn organized a combined 80-man Green Beret/Marine Corps/Afghan force to find and destroy the snipers.
The force quickly came under fire in a muddy poppy field. The officer ran more than the length of a football field under heavy fire to coordinate the evacuation by ground of a bullet-pierced Afghan soldier.
“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 FOB McQueary it looked like Captain Golsteyn was alone fighting 30 enemy fighters out in the poppy fields,” the narrative says.
Dodging fire, he ran to a spot from which he could unleash rifle fire to provide cover for the medical evacuation. Enemy reinforcements of about 80 Taliban arrived, increasing a barrage of small arms fire. The Green Beret again exposed himself to fire to gain positive identification of the target, which in turn allowed a Navy F-18 Hornet to hit the compound with two 500-pound satellite-guided bombs.
Next, he moved on foot to identify the next target.
“With blatant disregard for his own personal safety, Captain Golsteyn exposed himself again to heavy enemy fire and moved 200 meters from the center of the patrol to the eastern flank in order to establish a position of advantage from which to engage the enemy,” the narrative said.
He then relayed positions so a mortar team could put rounds on the second target. Next, he provided the site for a Predator drone to fire a Hellfire missile. After four hours of intense fighting, the enemy was subdued.
“His razor sharp focus and emotionless decision-making under extreme duress kept the combined patrol a step ahead of a skilled and prepared enemy,” the narrative stated.
Subsequent to the battle, Maj. Golsteyn encountered and killed the IED maker.
Back home at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, Maj. Golsteyn saw his name added to the Pentagon online roster of Silver Star recipients.
But then he did the CIA interview, and the next thing he knew, the Army had taken away the medal.
Mr. Stackhouse said no Army official in person informed the officer of the revocation. He received an email that alerted him to an unspecified change in his personnel file, a change he had to research himself.
He filed a rebuttal and asked to meet with Mr. McHugh but received no reply.
“From a leadership perspective, it is repugnant,” Mr. Stackhouse said.
Lt. Col. Benjamin Garrett, an Army spokesman at the Pentagon, said Mr. McHugh acted on sound legal ground and was supported by Army Gen. David Rodriguez, who was then the No. 2 commander of all coalition forces in Afghanistan and had approved the award.
“Although the CID [Criminal Investigation Command] investigation did not result in a prosecution, the Army has taken, and is taking, appropriate action in response to the evidence uncovered in the investigation,” Col. Garrett said. “We provided a comprehensive explanation of the CID investigation and the decision to revoke the awards to the Army’s four oversight committees.”
Mr. Hunter has gathered co-sponsors and plans to offer his bill for a vote when the House Committee on Armed Services this spring writes the 2016 defense budget/policy bill, which takes effect Oct. 1.
The bill reads: “The secretary of a military department does not have the authority to revoke any combat valor award.”