PIKE NATIONAL FOREST, Colorado — It's a rare individual who can, in one breath, wax poetic about his bar band's adaptation of Pink Floyd's early psychedelia and, in the very next, deconstruct his Marine special operations team's quixotic foray in Afghanistan's hopeless Bala Murghab valley. But Michael Golembesky is just that sort of dude.
By his own admission, Golembesky was MSOT 8222's black sheep when he arrived in 2009 as a newly minted joint terminal attack controller, the guy on the ground responsible for coordinating close-air support and instructing pilots which targets to light up. Or as Golembesky describes in "Level Zero Heroes," his highly anticipated book detailing the experience, "the guy who could be their salvation — or damnation — in a firefight."
With his Hindu peace symbol tattoo and affinity for the Grateful Dead, Golembesky, an artillery Marine by training, was an oddity to the meat-eating operators who landed in the elite Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command by way of the service's high-speed, hard-charging reconnaissance community. That apparent contrast is not lost on Ski, as he likes to be called, and he's perfectly fine with it. "I believe you can be lethal and a gentle, laid-back person," he said. "To be a good Marine and effective in combat, you don't have to sacrifice who you are fundamentally." He viewed MARSOC as his ticket to Afghanistan, his principal objective upon enlisting at age 26. And although it took a while for his new team to embrace him, once they did their bond became unbreakable.
"Level Zero Heroes" debuted at No. 20 on the New York Times' Best Seller list. It is a revealing look into the covert missions undertaken by the U.S. military's newest special operations force, exploring this 22-man team's role in the frustrating fight for a treacherous wasteland in Afghanistan's wild west. Above all, Golembesky said, it is a tribute to the Marines, soldiers, sailors and airmen with whom he served, those who lost their lives in Bala Murghab, and the fraternal spirit that compels men to keep fighting even when they know their mission isn't worth dying for.
But the book, co-authored by John Bruning, also offers a scalding rebuke of the policies designed and advocated by Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, then the head of all coalition forces in Afghanistan. His controversial strategy sought to reduce Afghan civilian casualties by tightly regulating when and how U.S. troops could engage their enemies and employ air power. He also encouraged closer partnerships between U.S. personnel and the Afghans, part of a broader effort to smoke out anti-government operatives in positions of influence within the local political and security establishments. Commanders' interpretation and enforcement of these policies put American lives at risk in Bala Murghab, Golembesky contends, and left troops vulnerable to attack not only on the battlefield but inside their bases as well.
In August, just weeks prior to the book's Sept. 2 release, Golembesky invited Marine Corps Times to his camping sanctuary here in the Rocky Mountains. At 9,500 feet, Wilkerson Pass has arresting views of the surrounding peaks and the Milky Way. It also provides a retreat from the summer tourists who clog the roads and sidewalks surrounding his modest home in Manitou Springs, an otherwise peaceful mountain town some 45 miles to the east.
Golembesky, 38, who is married with an 8-year-old daughter, traveled light for the overnight. Some cigarettes, a cooler full of Colorado micro brew, his old Marine Corps issued tarp and a .45-caliber Taurus 24/7 Pro DS — just in case. The spot is so isolated that should trouble arise, one can't simply call the police, he explained. Thankfully, too, he brought along his central Asian shepherd, Bear, whom Golembesky took in after the Taliban abandoned him in Bala Murghab. The dog is genetically hardwired to stand watch throughout the night, obediently manning a perimeter several feet from the smoke pit.
In discussions that night and the following day, Golembesky spoke candidly about being the first to share a piece of the command's brief history, the team's biting disdain for McChrystal's man on the ground in Bala Murghab, MARSOC's lack of enthusiasm for his project, and ultimately his deep respect and adoration for the Marines he now considers brothers. "Thirty years from now," he said, "when MARSOC operators are shooting laser beams and riding jet packs, people are going to look back and wonder what it was like in the beginning. This is the beginning of MARSOC's history."
Tackling tough subjects
Having grown up north of Philadelphia, Golembesky moved to Colorado in his early 20s and took a job driving truck for a dairy. He enlisted soon after 9/11. With seven or eight years on most other recruits, he didn't suffer much at that hands of his boot camp drill instructors. That maturity paid off in other ways, too. Golembesky advanced quickly in the artillery field. And thanks to two meritorious promotions, he made staff sergeant in just four years, the rank he held upon leaving active duty in 2010.
In 2008, during the second of his two deployments to Iraq, Golembesky was assigned to a fire support platoon in Rawah, just east of the Syrian border. A team from the Army's fabled Delta Force moved in. They were members of the super-secret Task Force 16. He was impressed with their swagger and the sensitive missions they carried out. And when a MARSOC recruiting team visited the larger base in nearby al Qa'im, he inquired about opportunities. The command was looking for people to build out its stable of enablers, and Golembesky's artillery background was a good fit. Before long he was off to JTAC school.
"Level Zero Heroes" details that job's inherent complexities and risks, and how both were compounded by McChrystal's rules of engagement. A miscalculation could annihilate a team the size of MSOT 8222, a prospect horrendous enough. And under McChrystal's ROE, an errant air strike resulting in civilian casualties could have led to a court-martial, Golembesky writes.
The man who enforced those rules in Bala Murghab, an Army commander identified in the book only as PRO 6, is a persistent source of tension throughout the story. Golembesky contends that PRO 6 repeatedly put the Marines' lives in danger either by hesitating when they asked for air support, redesigning their request or denying it altogether. Perhaps more troubling, Golembesky questions the commander's relationship with local Afghan leaders widely believed to be colluding with the enemy. He even goes so far as to allege that PRO 6 leaked battlefield intelligence to individuals who could have supplied that information to the Taliban.
That commander, Marine Corps Times discovered, is Col. William Huff, then a lieutenant colonel overseeing Task Force Professional, an arm of the 82nd Airborne Division that had purview of coalition activities across three provinces in the region. When asked about Golembesky's claims, Huff told Marine Corps Times "I can see how he would have drawn those conclusions." He is adamant, though, that his actions were necessary in the light of the complex dynamic not only in Bala Murghab but throughout Afghanistan.
"For years we had created additional adversaries because we followed fairly liberal rules of engagement," Huff said. "We never intended to, obviously, but there were civilian casualties. And there's some ratio — call it eight-to-one, ten-to-one, twenty-to-one — for every civilian we killed in Afghanistan, we created a disproportionate amount of anti-U.S. forces. At the superficial level, what could be misunderstood as a risk-protection issue actually had foresight, and what it was attempting to do was prevent tomorrow's adversary."
McChrystal, Huff said, also saw a need to let the Afghans take point on determining how aggressively to target anti-government threats. The coalition wasn't fighting the Taliban solely, he said, but drug traffickers and mafia-like opportunists as well. This was key to the long-term solution, he noted. And as part of that, it was essential to expose those who could not be trusted and remove them, a lengthy, difficult process more often than not, he said, one he labeled "friends close, enemies closer."
"It pained me," Huff said. "But that was my slog." And it produced results, he added, at least for a while. After MSOT 8222 left Bala Murghab, the district governor was replaced. Later, the local police commander was ousted, Huff said — decisions made and executed by the Afghans, which senior U.S. commanders viewed as progress. He sympathized with Golembesky's frustrations, but downplayed the "what ifs and could have beens" addressed in the book.
At least 17 U.S. troops have died after deploying to Bala Murghab. Golembesky's book includes a somber tribute the fallen, including Staff Sgt. Ronald Spino, a Army medic who was murdered by an Afghan soldier aboard Forward Operating Base Todd, which Ski and his fellow Marines shared with members of the 82nd and several Afghan and Italian troops. Huff insists, however, that no American lives were lost as a result of the rules of engagement during the operations described in Golembesky's book.
"There's a time when I was a young captain in Afghanistan in 2001, and I couldn't understand why we couldn't level the whole country," he said. "But there's a perspective you gain as your responsibility increases. That's the burden of command in the contemporary environment."
Golembesky is unapologetic in his criticism of the commander. In a brief author's note introducing the book, he explains that for those "whose actions earned our contempt, I have changed their names fully for their sake. ... But the truth is the truth, and the destructive actions of some played a significant role in what [we] experienced. To delete them from the story would be offering a sanitized version of our history."
The Marines sent their command a formal complaint about Huff, who later left Bala Murghab to resume duties overseeing other hot spots within the task force's three-province area of responsibility. Golembesky claims Huff was ordered to leave, but Huff disputes that, calling it "a bit of a stretch."
It's a messy issue, to be sure, but does not appear to have influenced another sensitive spot about this project: MARSOC's decision to keep its distance. A former member of the command, who asked not to be identified so he could speak freely, said senior officials supported the book after seeing an early summary in 2012, but that interest evaporated after a new commanding general arrived later that year.
That's been a letdown for Golembesky, who maintains solid relationships within MARSOC's broader community and is a vocal proponent of the nonprofit MARSOC Foundation, which provides charitable assistance to Marines and their families. Multiple sources called it a missed opportunity. "It should have gone forward," one said. "You should want the American public to realize the Marine Corps has a special operations unit."
A spokesman for MARSOC said the command could not comment for this story.
Golembesky acknowledged that some current members of MARSOC also may be predisposed to dislike the book. He encouraged them to read it first before passing judgment. This is is the story of one team, during one deployment, he said. It's not MARSOC's definitive history, and was never intended to be.
Two Marines who were on that deployment, both of whom asked not to identified because they are still assigned to MARSOC units, said Golembesky has told an accurate story. The command should embrace what their team contributed and how they took care of one another, one said. The other said he admires Golembesky for "not sugarcoating anything."
The meaning of 'hero'
Even before MSOT 8222's deployment, Golembesky thought he might like to write about his time in MARSOC. He kept a journal while in theater and amassed an impressive library of photographs and video, much of which he has shared on the "Level Zero Heroes" website and a Facebook page, which has more than 140,000 followers. It was the loss of two friends, Gunnery Sgt. Robert Gilbert and Staff Sgt. Patrick Dolphin, that gave him renewed purpose, and forced him to buckle down and start piecing together the book's framework.
The title, he explained, riffs on the irony that came to define their deployment. In Bala Murghab, operations were categorized based on their importance and risk, Golembesky said. And from that, units would be assigned support assets.
So a Level 2 operation, for instance, might be to snatch a high-value target. That would could come with the peace of mind provided by having an AC-130 gunship on station or some other air support. Level Zero, by comparison, is routine. Think foot patrols to gather atmospherics — low risk, therefore no air support. It was the most common operation MSOT 8222 undertook, he said.
"But Bala Murghab was so hostile and unpredictable that there were never any guarantees," Golembesky said. "Higher command may look at it as 'just a Level Zero,' but we knew going outside the wire that we'd run into firefights lasting anywhere from five minutes to five hours to two days. To us, even on a Level Zero operation, the guys are packing extra rounds like they are going to get into a hell of a fight."
So on any given day, anyone in the team could be put in a position to risk his life for another. And that happened often, Golembesky said. "As much as I dislike the word hero, because it's used everywhere and to describe so many calibers of people, it meant a lot to me because of the guys I worked with," he said. "When I hear the word hero, that's who I think of. I don't think of f---ing Lebron James."
Today, Golembesky wears a pair of black metal bracelets commemorating the sacrifice his friends Gilbert and Dolphin made. They're his brothers. His heroes. And it's hard to imagine that a day goes by when he doesn't think about them and the others lost to the mission in Bala Murghab. And for what? As Huff and others concede, the gains coalition forces made there have steadily reversed. The thought of stability now is only a memory.
But Ski doesn't dwell on that. During the day, he works as a reporter and photographer for the Peterson Air Force Base newspaper, a low stress, steady job that provides him ample time to focus on his family and his music. That's what he wants from life. And he takes none of it for granted.
"When you've been in life-or-death situations and you make it through, every day after that is a celebration," he said. "Every meal you eat is a feast, regardless of what it is. I still have two legs and all my fingers. A lot of guys aren't here anymore, and I can't let that go to waste. So I have fun, and I enjoy the ride."