By February 20th, 2010, the Battle of Marjah had been underway for a week. In order to seize the Afghan district—an IED-infested, Taliban-dominated collection of villages and crisscrossing canals and tree lines that were a defending fighter’s dream—the U.S. military had divided its force into thirds. A task force of more than a thousand U.S. Marines, accompanied by Afghan soldiers, assaulted the northern portion of Marjah. Ditto for the central portion of the district.
And the southern third? It had been attacked by a single U.S. Army Special Forces team consisting of nine men, accompanied by a handful of Marine engineers tasked with clearing bombs from the roads and a few hundred Afghan troops that were more of a babysitting case than true partners. Such a light American footprint on at least part of the battlefield would “put an Afghan face” on the operation, as the lingo went at the time.
As the Special Forces soldiers wore Afghan Army uniforms, the Taliban concluded that there were virtually no Americans on their southern flank. The fighting there was intense. Having secured a defensive position in the heart of the Balakino Bazaar (picture the Bakara market in the film Black Hawk Down, but more impoverished) the Special Forces team, led by a captain named Matt Golsteyn, repeatedly attempted to expand their footprint, but regularly met fierce resistance. On the 20th, one of the team’s assaults into Taliban territory took a turn for the worse. An Afghan soldier was wounded and a vehicle got stuck in the mud as insurgents raked the coalition formation with gunfire.
Under heavy fire, Golsteyn, as Dan Lamothe of the Washington Post summarized this week, “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.”
Running through the open despite the fact that the Taliban had successfully pinned down the rest of his men, Golsteyn looked like he “was alone fighting 30 enemy fighters out in the poppy fields.” He then coordinated airstrikes from F/A-18 Hornets and a drone, silencing the enemy. The battle lasted four hours. For his actions, Golsteyn was awarded the Silver Star, and was told that the medal would likely be upgraded to the Distinguished Service Cross (the Army’s equivalent of the Navy Cross, and second only to the Medal of Honor) after review by the Secretary of the Army. I can confirm that this was true because I was present at the ceremony where Golsteyn received his Silver Star, and personally overheard Lieutenant General John Mulholland, then the commander of the Army’s Special Operation’s Command, say that an upgrade was under consideration. More