How does the Army reward heroism? Not well, as this story shows.

Summary: This series about the US military’s senior officers concludes with a shameful but true story showing their dysfunctionality. We entrust them with so much of our money, we esteem them so highly, and we get so little in return. It’s long past time for us to hit the reform button on our Department of Defense.  {2nd of 2 posts today.}

Reform button


We open with an account of heroism on 20 February 2010 during Operation Moshtarak in Afghanistan. Then we see how America rewards its heroes.

Capt. Mathew {sic} L. Golsteyn was leading a Special Forces team … when an 80-man mission he assembled to hunt insurgent snipers went awry. One of the unit’s five vehicles sank in mud, a gunshot incapacitated an Afghan soldier fighting alongside the Americans, and insurgents maneuvered on 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.

… The major earned a Bronze Star and Army Commendation medal with “V” devices for heroism in earlier actions, Kasker said. Golsteyn joined the Army in 2002. {source: WaPo}

On 25 February 2011 he received an interim award of the Silver Star, and DoD later “approved him for an upgrade to the prestigious Distinguished Service Cross, second only to the Medal of Honor in recognizing combat heroism by U.S. soldiers.” Golsteyn, a graduate of West Point, was later promoted to Major. Now for the rest of the story.

Military Review is “the U.S. Army’s cutting edge forum for original thought and debate on the art and science of land warfare”. Major Golsteyn was quoted in its March-April 2011 issue:


Mathew l. Golsteyn
Mathew l. Golsteyn (Major, US Army). Photo: James Robinson/The Fayetteville Observer.

This war will be decided between the Afghan forces and the Taliban, not by a switch in sides by the tribes. Afghan soldiers, however, lack the motivation to challenge the Taliban.

“Afghan forces will never take a lead role in fighting,” Special Forces Captain Matt Golsteyn said, “as long as the coalition is willing to bear the brunt.” In the 2010 battle for Marja, Golsteyn was advising a battalion of 400 Afghan soldiers. But he had only ten mature Special Forces sergeants, too small a team for sustained combat. So the Marines placed under his command a rifle platoon, engineers, and fire support specialists. Thus, a captain commanded an advisor task force rather than a team, but his force enabled the Afghan battalion to perform credibly on its own.

That model deserves emulation.

Bing West also quoted Major Golsteyn in his 2011 book The Wrong War: Grit, Strategy, and the Way Out of Afghanistan:

“We’re the insurgents here and we’re selling a poor product called the Kabul government. The district governor has been Taliban for years. The people believe Kabul’s the enemy.”

In a 2014 paper he gave some lessons from Special Forces.  The Army found his ideas “too cutting edge and original”. The Major had dared to criticize DoD’s strategy, however lightly. The backlash came quickly.


{He} was investigated by the Army for more than a year and a half under the suspicion that he violated the rules of engagement and illegally killed a known enemy fighter and bomb maker in Afghanistan. The allegation was presented through informal channels to the Army, which went to extraordinary lengths to investigate Golsteyn. {Daily Beast}

The investigation was secret, but we now know the conclusion. The Major is no longer with the Special Forces.  Secretary John McHugh explains his decision to revoke the Major’s awards:

In accordance to 10 U.S.C. Section 3744(c) and Department of Defense Manual 1348.33, Volume 1, paragraph 4.e.(7), the medal will not be awarded to anyone whose entire service during or after the time of the distinguished act, achievement, or meritorious service has not been honorable. Due to the findings in a recently finalized investigation, I disapproved the nomination for a Distinguished Service Cross to Major Golsteyn.

Moreover, AR 600-8-22 states that an award” … may be revoked by the awarding authority if facts subsequently determined would have prevented original approval of the award had they been known at the time.” The USFOR-A Commander awarded the interim Silver Star to Major Golsteyn using award authority delegated from me. I firmly believe that had he known about the derogatory information that was founded by the aforementioned investigation, he would not have awarded Major Golsteyn the Silver Star. Accordingly, I have decided to revoke the interim Silver Star that Major Golsteyn received for this action.


The invasions and occupations after 9/11 hid the rot in our military. The winding down of those wars, the reductions-in-force and benefit cuts, and the slow realization that we didn’t win and won’t win, have brought the rot to view again.

A Military Times survey of 2,300 active-duty troops asks them if “senior military leadership has my best interests at heart”.  In 2009: 53% agreed. In 2014: 27% agreed. Stories like that of Major Golsteyn prove the truth of this belief.

We spend almost a trillion dollars per year on national defense (broadly defined). We get astonishingly little for that in terms of security, and even less in the ability to win wars. DoD has proven that it has little interest in reform. Only our pressure will force change. That’s rightly our responsibility, for they act in our service in our name.

Flag Officers Network

The Attritionist Letters

For a deep view of the US military’s dysfunctional leadership read the “Attritionist Letters”, originally published anonymously in the Marine Corps Gazette by several company-grade Marine Officers. Cynical, brutally harsh insights gained by hard experience.

  1. An introduction to the Attritionist Letters, volleys in the long war for control of US military doctrine.
  2. Attritionist Letter #1 – the tides turn, turning the USMC back from the future?.
  3. Attritionist Letter #2 — our military seeks to retreat from the future into the past.
  4. Attritionist Letter #3:  Do as you are told  (moving the USMC into the past).
  5. Attritionist Letter #4:  using technology to make the USMC slower to learn and less effective.
  6. Attritionist Letter #5: we prize simple concepts (even if they haven’t work since WWII).
  7. Attritionist Letter #6:  train our Marines like robots, to better fight our adaptive & decentralized foes.
  8. Attritionist Letter #7 — “Trust one another”.
  9. Attritionist Letter #8 – Resist the temptation to make every soldier a knower and decider.  Cherish the hierarchy!.
  10. Attritionist Letter #9:  the hidden reason behind DoD’s organization (it makes sense once you understand).
  11. Attritionist Letter #10 – Commanders today are too busy to develop subordinates!.
  12. Attritionist Letter #11:  Artillery leads the way – to the past!.
  13. Attritionist Letter #12:  Succumbing to enticements (career advice for the successful).
  14. Attritionist Letter #13: Thinkers need not apply.

The other posts in this series.

  1. How officers adapt to life in the Pentagon: they choose the blue pill.
  2. Why does the military continue to grow? Because the tail wags the dog. — By Danny Hundley (Colonel, USMC, retired).
  3. Overhauling The Officer Corps. — By David Evans (Lt. Colonel, USMC, retired).
  4. The cost of too many generals: paying more to get a less effective military.
  5. William Lind looks at our generals, sees “rank incompetence”.


5 thoughts on “How does the Army reward heroism? Not well, as this story shows.”

  1. re: “The customer is always right.”
    There are presumably lots of cultural factors at play, But there is also a lot of social conditioning to see the military through the lens of social myths.

    1. Stefan,

      Yes. It is interesting and little remarked how DoD has become more aggressive towards senior ranks. Relieved for corruption, even (rare) prosecution.

      The Navy has become far more aggressive about relieving commanders for cause.

      Good news. I would like to know what caused this.

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