Silver and Gold

There is a case in the news that should attract some notice for many readers of this column. Both readers who once wore a military uniform and those concerned with due process under law. It regards West Point grad Matthew Golsteyn, who killed a Taliban bomb maker in Afghanistan in 2010. He wears the gold oak leaf of an Army major on his shoulder. The issue is whether it was murder.

During a war that seems endless and after the atrocity against America that started it, it is strange that any death of a Taliban member at the hands of any American could be considered murder, not righteous justice. The president seems to understand this, as days ago he mentioned he’d be personally reviewing the case.

As an Army veteran myself this case has some meaning. I never served in combat. My units held the line during the Cold War. But many of my friends and associates have been under fire. And I have some knowledge of military history. That knowledge leads me to wonder about the efficacy of a military legal system that sends men to kill our enemies but then puts them on trial for their lives when they carry out their missions.

Some might say, well hold on, remember My Lai. But the “victim” here is not one of a number of unarmed villagers. And as many Vietnam vets will tell you, and have told me, in that war separating combatants from non-combatants wasn’t an easy task. This man who was killed by Major Golsteyn —the fact of that seems not to be at issue— was a known terrorist and enemy combatant. He had been captured by Golsteyn and his unit soon after two of Golsteyn’s men were killed in action by improvised explosive devices. Between the point of capture and a short time later the bomb maker wound up dead. What happened during the interim will determine the outcome of the case. The second case.

In 2011 during a job interview with CIA, Golsteyn apparently spoke of the killing. Army CID opened up an investigation but no charges were filed possibly because none of the charges were corroborated. Not one. He did receive administrative punishment of a particularly heinous sort. Golsteyn had served with distinction with the 3rd Special Forces Group in Afghanistan. He was a Green Beret. Because of his service he received the Silver Star, one of the highest awards for combat bravery our nation can bestow. I use the past tense in both mention of his decoration and qualification because the Army stripped him of them after that investigation. Then the good major unwisely opened his trap on Fox News in 2016, stating he had shot the terrorist, but not under what circumstances. The Army, in its infinite wisdom, reopened the case. Last week it charged him again with the murder of the Taliban bomb maker. When I read that my bile started to rise.

As I stated, I’m a veteran. But I wasn’t Special Forces qualified or anywhere near that. I was a battalion level intel analyst. Nothing glamorous. Just did my job in then West Germany with the Pershing Nuclear Battalion, the 56th Artillery, and subsequently with the First of the Fifth Artillery, First Infantry Division, at Fort Riley, Kansas. Was good at intel work, I think, and somewhat less glorious as a soldier. Did my four-year hitch, got an honorable discharge, spent some time in the reserves and that was mostly it. But before that, I spent part of my childhood growing up at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, the Home of the Special Forces.

My Dad taught at the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School there. My godfather is Command Sergeant Major Jesse Moss, who was CSM of the 4th Psyops. I was probably pegged for the Army in the cradle. Being Latins we were a social family and many an evening in the 1960s our living room was full of military personnel from all over the world. Later in life, serving in Germany, I knew guys stationed with the Special Forces Group at Bad Tolz. Good men, but more than a tad crazy. Disciplined as all get out, still bonkers. Some of them remembered my Dad and my godfather. So you might say, as a person from a small family who now are gone, the Army, aside from my kids, is the only family I still have.

My best friends when I served are amongst my best friends now. By the way, if any of you elderly tools I served with just read that, don’t get all sentimental on me for ****’s sake. It’s not like we’ll be taking long walks on the beach together.

So you can see why I may have some interest in this case and in associated larger questions. There’s also another reason. Every one of us who put on an Army uniform started out by saying an oath. In that pledge we swore to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” Well, I’ve gone over the domestic part of that in several previous columns. But how are men like Matt Golsteyn supposed to do their jobs against those foreign enemies, uphold that oath, while being second-guessed by people who weren’t there?

Is the JAG running the damned Army in the field or are combat leaders who bear the authority because they have proven they deserve it?

Many of us have seen films like “The Caine Mutiny” or “The Court Martial of Billy Mitchell.” In each, combat officers are put on trial for alleged misdeeds. Now, I’m not saying the major ran short of strawberries or dive-bombed a battleship to embarrass the War Department. What I am saying is that he likely took the best course of action he had at the time to ensure the security of his men and the fulfillment of his duty.

To court martial him for this tells American combat soldiers that their administrative leaders care more for the rights of enemy combatants, who are part of a group that carried out and reveled in the death of thousands of innocent Americans, than they do about carrying out the mission they sent soldiers like Golsteyn overseas to do in the first place.

It’s a hell of a way to treat a man who was awarded the Silver Star and wears Army gold on his shoulder.