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Green Beret charged with murder says he killed Afghan man in by-the-book ambush

Mathew Golsteyn told "NBC Nightly News" anchor Lester Holt he has no regrets over the fatal encounter in Helmand Province in 2010.
Mathew Golsteyn
U.S. Army Captain Mathew Golsteyn is congratulated by fellow soldiers following the Valor Awards ceremony at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, on Jan 4., 2011.James Robinson / The Fayetteville Observer via AP file

A Green Beret accused of murdering an unarmed Afghan man, who was alleged to be a Taliban bomb maker, is revealing new details about why he set up an ambush that led to the fatal shooting and the developments that resulted in the charge he now faces.

Maj. Mathew Golsteyn told "NBC Nightly News" anchor Lester Holt in an interview set to air Friday night that U.S. forces found the man with bomb components after two Marines were killed in Marjah, Afghanistan in 2010. The man was taken into custody, but Golsteyn said he later directed the suspect's release.

After releasing the man, Golsteyn told Holt, "I set an ambush."

"You've had a lot of time to play this over in your mind. Is there anything that you regret, any decision that you wish you had not made?" Holt asked.

"Not at all," Golsteyn said.

The Army alleges that Golsteyn murdered the suspected bomb maker when he was deployed in Helmand Province in 2010.

Golsteyn first admitted to killing the Afghan man during a CIA job interview in 2011. The Army Criminal Investigation Command launched an investigation into the killing, but did not charge him due to a lack of physical evidence, according to army officials. Instead, Golsteyn was issued a formal letter of reprimand and stripped of his Silver Star, the military's third highest award for valor, and Special Forces patch.

In 2016, Golsteyn appeared on FOX News and admitted to killing the Afghan man. The interview brought new attention to the case.

Golsteyn was charged with premeditated murder in December. President Donald Trump at the time tweeted that he would review the case, referring to Golsteyn as a "U.S. military hero."

In his interview with Holt, Golsteyn said he hasn't heard from Trump but was heartened by his comment. While he and his wife, Julie, would welcome a pardon, he said he's not holding out for one.

"It would be amazing," Golsteyn said. "We would welcome it. It would put finality to this for us. But we are preparing to take the Army head on."

Golsteyn said that there was no doubt in his mind the Afghan man was a bomb maker and that setting an ambush to engage him if he returned to join the Taliban fighters was in line with the rules of engagement on the battlefield. The charges made against him by Army investigators could be applied to many other U.S. troops, he said, given the actions he took.

"What they have endeavored to do is to describe what I would say is a fairly routine combat action as murder," Golsteyn said. "Anyone who's participated in the global war on terror over the last 15 years is likely subject to be accused of murder under this rubric."

Image: Mathew Golsteyn
Maj. Mathew Golsteyn, who is charged with murdering an unarmed Afghan man, speaks to NBC News' Lester Holt.Kim Cornett / NBC

The fighting in Marjah in early 2010 was so fierce that civilians had largely vacated the area, Golsteyn said. He described the Afghan man as a bomb maker "going back to his combat unit" and "a member of a declared hostile force." He said he staged the ambush only to intercept the Afghan man if he walked in the direction of a base of Taliban fighters, not if he'd walked in a different direction.

"He could've gone any direction in Marjah. And if he went back to rejoin his unit, that's when he met me in an ambush. Had he gone any other direction, we don't meet," Golsteyn said. He declined to say whether he conducted the ambush alone.

He said he believes the Afghan man saw him, but that the two did not exchange any words. No one ordered him to do it, he said, because he had the authority to stage the ambush and his actions were consistent with the rules of engagement.

"Our standing rules of engagement, not just say I can make that engagement," he said, "they order me to make that engagement."

His immediate commander, he said, has testified "that had I not made that decision, he would've fired me." NBC News was not present at the board of inquiry when Golsteyn's commander allegedly made the comment and could not confirm it.

After the ambush, Golsteyn said he went back to his base. He wouldn't discuss his disposal of the body, which was burned.

He did say burning bodies was not uncommon given the area was clear of civilians who would claim them, and there were concerns about battlefield hygiene and the Taliban booby trapping them with explosives.

Golsteyn said he didn't tell anyone back at the base at the time, not because he was trying to conceal his actions, but because it was something that didn't stand out as extraordinary given the battles American forces were in on a daily basis. He said it was not unusual for U.S. troops to set ambushes and described the incident as "not an extraordinary moment in a situation where every day was extraordinary."

"We were in combat from sun up to sun down," he said. "We were in these types of engagements all day. Sometimes with just a smoke or with people. We didn't come back and go, "Hey, I was out there and got shot at today or shot the — …That wasn't the thing of what we talked about."

Lt. Col. Loren Bymer, a spokesman for the U.S. Special Operations Command, noted that Golsteyn has waived his right to a preliminary hearing in military court. "Since recalled to active duty, Maj. Golsteyn has been afforded the respect his rank commands and received the same privileges as all soldiers assigned to United States Army Special Operations Command," Bymer added. "The date of next step in Maj. Golsteyn's case is undetermined at this time. As an active law enforcement matter, it would be inappropriate to comment further on the case."

The case has taken a toll on Golsteyn and his wife.

Julie Golsteyn said it has so affected her views of the Army that she would not allow her infant son to serve in the military when he grew up.

"Would you wanna see your son join the military?"

"I would be open to it," Golsteyn said.

But Julie Golsteyn quickly chimed in: "Absolutely not."

"Over my dead body," she said, "which makes me very sad and that breaks my heart to say."