A legendary Special Forces commander was quietly forced to leave the U.S. Army after he admitted to a love affair with a Washington Post war correspondent, who quit her job to secretly live with him for almost a year in one of the most dangerous combat outposts in Afghanistan.
U.S. Army Special Operations Command never publicly disclosed that highly-decorated Green Beret Major Jim Gant was relieved of command at the end of a harrowing 22 months in combat in March 2012.
His commanders charged in confidential files that he had "indulged in a self-created fantasy world" of booze, pain pills and sex in a tribal village deep in Taliban and al Qaeda country with his "wife," journalist Ann Scott Tyson.
"We did fall in love, I would say over the course of about a week," Tyson told ABC News in an interview, recalling that Gant asked her to marry him within a few days of meeting each other in 2010. She laughed him off at first, but eventually he won her over.
By the time he was yanked out of Afghanistan two years later because of his relationship with Tyson, Gant also had won over three Pashtun tribes with substantial influence throughout Kunar province. Top commanders had tasked him with turning the tide of a conflict America was losing, and in his corner of the war, Gant was winning.
Despite being stripped of his Special Forces honors, busted down to captain and forced to retire in a case hushed up by the Army for two years, Gant said everything he achieved in waging an unconventional fight against the Taliban -- which Tyson says she helped him to do -- was worth the punishment and professional blows.
"We both knew that there was a lot of risk in doing what we did. And I would do it again," Gant told ABC News this month in his first television interview. "It was extremely unconventional, yes, to say the least."
As to the wrongdoing he has since admitted to, he said the results he got were proof that breaking the rules worked.
"I never left the battlefield defeated. I never lost a man. Well over 20 awards for valor for the men that I fought alongside. We went after 'em every single day. I brought all my men home. That's it," Gant said.
But it was a long, hard fall for a visionary still called "Lawrence of Afghanistan" by two of the war's now retired top commanders, Army Gen. David Petraeus and Navy SEAL Adm. Eric Olson, in honor of the British officer T.E. Lawrence who led the Arab Revolt a century ago. Gant, who idolizes Lawrence, said he's honored by the comparison.
Ann Scott Tyson and Jim Gant, who married last year, have come forward to tell their tale in her new book, "American Spartan: The Promise, The Mission And The Betrayal of Special Forces Major Jim Gant."
One Tribe At a Time
Four years ago, some influential, high-level military officers believed that Gant held the key to winning the war in Afghanistan, but as the book lays out in excruciating detail, his heroism and vision were all but forgotten by the commanders who once praised him, save for Olsen and Petraeus.
"He clearly had grit. He had guts. He had intelligence," Petraeus, who became the Afghan war's commander in 2010, told ABC News in a rare on-camera interview. "He is one to whom we owe a debt of gratitude, even recognizing how things ended for him. Folks make mistakes, obviously."
Few others have defended Gant's war record.
Amid his 50 months of credited time in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan –- an unusual duration –- Gant received the Silver Star Medal in Iraq. It is the third-highest award for valor and has only been given to 703 others since 2001, often posthumously.
Both Gant and Tyson, one of America's most experienced war correspondents, were in troubled marriages when they decided to live out their battlefield romance for nine months in a hotly contested Afghan mountain range along the bucolic Kunar River. They now enjoy a considerably calmer life in her hometown Seattle, where Gant still struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder as he watches both his former warzones collapsing into chaos.
He still suffers from combat injuries, the effects of the physical beating his body withstood over 20 years of special operations, traumatic brain injury from a roadside bomb in Afghanistan and the PTSD that makes him flinch noticeably at the sound of any bang.
Gant's shaggy hair, long and bristly grey beard and blue jeans seamlessly blend into the city's laid back coffee and music culture, hardly betraying his incredible role as an operator so bold and imaginative in waging counterinsurgency for Petraeus that Tyson's book claims he was targeted for death by Osama bin Laden.
A seasoned ground commander once put on alert in 2004 to kill the al Qaeda leader when there was a suspected sighting, Gant wrote a startlingly blunt 45-page pamphlet, "One Tribe At A time" in 2009. He declared the U.S. was "losing the war in Afghanistan" and could only succeed there by earning the loyalty of the country's Pashtun tribes -– which meant troops had to go native.
"All the Taliban has to do is not lose," Gant wrote, accurately predicting the inevitability of U.S. public support for the war cratering with a hasty military withdrawal to follow. He proposed "tribal engagement teams" who would live inside villages and allowed to be "American tribesmen."
Rather than hammer Gant for his impertinence, Petraeus, Olson and other top commanders were so impressed that they changed Gant's orders to return to Iraq and brought him back to Afghanistan in 2010 to help supervise "village stability operations." As Gant had urged, small teams of operators would leverage the tribal honor code, Pashtunwali, by living with, eating with, fighting with and even dying with tribesmen willing to take on the insurgents.
Olson considered Gant one of the few in special operations who understood that progress required more than just kill/capture missions and viewed him as an antidote to an unconventional war that had taken the wrong direction with a surge of conventional troops.
Petraeus became Gant's biggest supporter when he unexpectedly took command in Kabul in July 2010.
"There was no question that the Taliban was on the march," Petraeus said. His solution was to send thinly-stretched Special Operations forces into villages, "thickened" by conventional U.S. Army infantry squads, in order to win the loyalty of Pashtun and wreck the Taliban momentum. Gant was superb at "going native," Petraeus said.
Gant also fell hard for a reporter at the Washington Post who took up his case for tribal engagement. Each was in a marriage on the ropes and each had four kids.
"I used to tell her, 'just jump.' You know, just, 'Come on, just jump.' And she did. And so did I. So here we are," Gant said.
Going Native: 'I Am Trying to Win. Not Sure Everyone Is'
Once back in Afghanistan, Gant returned to Kunar province along the Pakistan border, an al Qaeda and Taliban haven that was the scene of the Navy SEALs' 2005 disaster portrayed in the hit film "Lone Survivor," as well as the location of the 2010 documentary "Restrepo," by war correspondent Sebastian Junger and the late photographer Tim Hetherington. In 2003, Gant's Green Beret team ODA 316 had fought with the Mohmand tribe in Mangwel village and he was still regarded as family by the tribal chief, Malik Noor Afzhal, nicknamed Sitting Bull.
But Gant was still skeptical of America's resolve in halting the enemy's momentum when he arrived at Sitting Bull's doorstep in early 2011.
"I am living in a qalat back in Mangwel, with my tribe in the Konar," Gant emailed a journalist, who later joined ABC News. "I am trying to win. Not sure everyone is."
For one thing, instead of handpicked special operators, Gant got a dozen infantrymen from a Kansas unit who were untested and in some cases barely knew how to use their weapons.
"I was absolutely shocked at how unprepared they were for the mission. But they had heart," Gant said.
He trained them literally overnight and they soon grew full beards and adopted tribal appearance, voluntarily shedding uniforms and body armor for shalwar kameez clothing, pokol caps and scarves. They had to show Sitting Bull's tribe that they did not fear being killed by their Afghan friends, Gant argued. Their Afghan clothing, therefore, was their protection.
"It wasn't about our weapons or our body armor... it was gonna be about how we treated them. And it worked. It worked in a big way," he said.
But Gant painted Spartan lambdas on his humvee guntrucks to let Taliban observers know they were his, which helped him avoid ambushes by intimidated insurgents, he says. Commanders later accused him of destroying government property with the spay-painted symbols.
He didn't fear a fight, taunting the enemy into attacking and often riding on the hood of his Humvee to use his uncanny ability at spotting and defusing roadside bombs -- though one finally hit him in early 2012, launching him from the hood of his vehicle. Gant reported the incident but refused to be medevaced. On another occasion, Tyson was in a guntruck hit by an IED but no one was injured.
"Tell everyone you come into contact with, I did not come here to fight. I came here to help the people," Gant told dozens of tribal police in one 2012 video Tyson shot. "But if someone wants to f***in' fight, they know where I am."
Gant said his challenge intimidated the Taliban and impressed the tribes, whose honor code demands violence for violence.
"You cannot let violence go unanswered and you have to be prepared to be more violent than they are," Gant said. Otherwise, he said, "they'll kill you."
When the Taliban did attack, villagers helped the Americans fight back ferociously -- and Tyson videotaped much of it with her steady hand.
"I'll never forget the courage to fight alongside the Americans, side by side. That was what we needed to win in Afghanistan," she said.
In 2011, Petraeus visited Mangwel, which by then had been dubbed the "petting zoo" by Special Forces commanders because so many VIPs such as Sens. John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Joseph Lieberman and Carl Levin and the leadership of U.S. Special Operations wanted to see Gant's success up close. Gant and his men greeted visitors in full tribal attire.
"[Gant] did go native. You go native so that the natives feel that you respect them and are comfortable with them and trust them, above all. And he really was adopted as a son by Sitting Bull... there was no question about the relationship between these two individuals. And that's what you want," Petraeus said.
Petraeus decorated Gant with a Joint Service Commendation Medal -- which Gant pinned on Sitting Bull the next day, telling his friend, "Without you, there is no me."
"Jim had become more Pashtun than the Pashtuns," Tyson wrote in her book.
Tyson too dressed in tribal clothing made for her by local seamstresses. To show the tribe how much he trusted them, the American couple took walks together into Mangwel, where Tyson became friendly with the tribe's women and children, invited into private areas where men did not go. Sitting Bull treated Tyson like a daughter, she wrote.
Gant taught Tyson how to fire all of the weapons used by Special Forces and kept a spare pistol in his guntruck in case she needed it in a fight.
Tyson knew most of the visiting VIPs well from her long stint at the Washington Post, a job she quit to join Gant and write the book, and said she had to keep her presence in Gant's combat "qalat" secret. News media "embeds" in Afghanistan with Special Operations forces rarely exceed a few days and she was not authorized by any task force to be in the Mangwel operation – much less for nine months.
"I stayed out of the picture," she said in the ABC News interview with Gant in Seattle. "We didn't want my presence there to be widely known, but at the same time a lot of people knew about it... I was glad for the opportunity to help the man I had fallen in love with, as well as to write about a potential solution to the incredible suffering I had witnessed over a decade almost."
His commanders, who rotated in and out of Afghanistan while Gant stayed, have insisted that they were unaware Tyson was living in Mangwel for almost a year, military sources said. Other Special Forces sources in Afghanistan noted that drones were over Gant's team during firefights or key leader engagements with the tribes and that it was well known "Gant was living with someone out there he called his wife," one of the sources told ABC News.
As Tyson mingled with tribes in several villages, the Taliban discussed her presence in radio chatter, the couple claims. It is unlikely Pashtun villagers would have kept it a secret from the insurgents in the area.
Gant's young soldiers apparently had no objection to their commander sharing his conex hut with his lover. Six from his team, all active-duty soldiers, regularly attend reunions near Seattle with Gant and Tyson and several told ABC News they wouldn't hesitate to return to Afghanistan with their dishonored leader, who they still idolize.
As good as he was at juggling tribal politics, Gant wasn't as talented with his "SF" brethren, who had become increasingly cautious and risk-averse over the course of the long war.
Fall of Jim Gant: Lawrence of Arabia Or Col. Kurtz?
The more successful Gant was at fighting unconventionally, the more he became a threat not only to the Taliban and al Qaeda but to a military bureaucracy on the defensive by February 2012. That month U.S. troops had mistakenly burned Qurans at Bagram prison, sparking violence and "green on blue" attacks that killed several American troopers. The precarious U.S. role in Afghanistan took another hard blow days later when Staff Sgt. Robert Bales slipped out of his village stability base one night and slaughtered 16 Afghan villagers.
Some thought Gant was going "too native" and whispered that he was becoming a "Colonel Kurtz," a reference to the fictional Green Beret in the Vietnam War classic "Apocalypse Now," who is marked for death by the command when he goes native and then goes insane.
"I think he wanted to start some inter-tribal war over in Pakistan, that's where you get the Colonel Kurtz nickname. It might have been a good idea, but we didn't have those authorities," said an officer who served with Gant. Gant admits he had made such a proposition at one point as part of a larger plan.
The arrival in early 2012 of Army 1st Lt. Thomas Roberts, a by-the-book officer fresh out of West Point, sealed Gant's fate just as he was pulling out of Mangwel and moving to a new qalat in nearby Chowkay where he'd made significant inroads with the Safi tribe.
Roberts told ABC News that he thought reading "One Tribe At A Time" and watching David Lean's classic film "Lawrence of Arabia" was a "strange indoctrination" that Gant put new arrivals through. The young officer said he also resented Gant's disdain for Army rules and proper paperwork, and for instructing the combat-inexperienced lieutenant to leave Tyson out of daily situation reports to hide her presence from senior brass.
"None of his bosses knew that Ann was there," Roberts said in a recent interview. "He didn't follow any [rules]. He was definitely erratic. He did not act in a stable manner."
Team members and Special Forces commanders who spoke to Gant or saw him in early 2012, however, told ABC News he seemed tired after two years in combat but was otherwise mentally fit for command. Special Operations deployments typically were under eight months because of the intensity of their missions, but Gant stayed in harm's way so long for fear his gains in Kunar would be squandered if he took any leave.
"I didn't sense he was untrustworthy or unstable," said a senior Special Forces officer who saw Gant in early 2012. "I trusted his judgment."
On March 11, 2012, Roberts filed a sworn statement accusing Gant of "immoral and illegal activities and actions," and declared that he suspected the hard-charging operator was often "intoxicated and under the influence of pain medications." He wrote that Gant once was "walking abnormally" and smelled of alcohol, according to a copy of Roberts' statement provided to ABC News.
But Gant had also just hiked 2,500 feet up and over a mountain to capture alive the Taliban commander of Wardak province, sources said. He admits he was "self-medicating" afterward because of his age, then 44, and old combat injuries. He was wounded seven times in his career -- but always declined a Purple Heart Medal because his injuries were minor, he said.
'I Would Have Rather Been in the Hands of the Taliban'
Other times, he was drinking privately because of his PTSD, sleeping disorder and war wounds. His combat stress came to a head one night when he sleep-walked into his team house and put an unloaded AK-47 in his mouth and pulled the trigger in front of several startled team members, the book recounts.
"I was drinking alcohol, I was taking sleeping medication. I was taking pain medication," Gant explained in the ABC News interview. "I admitted to that. And they came in. They came in and got me out of there."
Blindsided by Roberts' accusations, Special Forces commanders arrived unannounced by helicopter to relieve Gant of command and toss the camp, finding empty liquor bottles in Gant's room -- but they did not find Tyson, who got away.
"That was the end," Gant said. "They had to do something, and I know that. They didn't have any choice. It should've been handled differently."
After beating back five harrowing Taliban attacks in broad daylight on his compound in Chowkay in the days leading up to the showdown with his own commanders -- all videotaped by Tyson and provided to ABC News -- Gant was flown away by a Special Forces team from Kunar.
"If he was going off the reservation, they should have evaluated his operation. It seemed to go from flash to bang pretty quickly," a skeptical senior commander who once visited Gant and Sitting Bull told ABC News.
Gant was ordered to shave off his long beard and put on a uniform -- while under armed guard -- as the Army launched an investigation and threatened a court-martial.
"I would have rather been in the hands of the Taliban at that point," he said. "It was crushing. It was absolutely crushing."
The local Afghans in Kunar -- who had fought so bravely alongside their new American brothers -- were enraged and upset, and a contingent of Pashtun elders traveled to Asadabad to protest to U.S. and Afghan government officials the removal of their beloved "Commander Jim."
He was brought back to Fort Bragg, N.C., where his Green Beret status was taken away and he was busted to captain even though he'd made the promotion list for lieutenant colonel. He accepted a career-killing reprimand, obtained by ABC News, from Lt. Gen. John Mulholland, who called Gant a "disgrace" absent of "moral character," having "indulged in a self-created fantasy world."
"While fully acknowledging your record of honorable and valorous service to the Regiment, our Army and our country, the simple truth is that your subsequent conduct was inexcusable and brought disrepute and shame to the Special Forces Regiment and Army Special Operations," says the letter of reprimand signed by Mulholland, Deputy Commander of U.S. Special Operations Command. "In short, your actions disgraced you as an officer and seriously compromised your character as a gentleman."
Gant admits that he's not innocent.
"I did break the rules. And I have never said that I didn't," he said.
But seven of Gant's young troopers also received reprimands for looking the other way and, in one instance, drinking a single beer in violation of a U.S. military prohibition for troopers serving in the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.
"I'm the commander. I made those decisions. My men followed my orders," Gant said, his voice filled with heartbreak. "They took part of my soul. Yeah, they did."
Dozens of sources throughout the senior enlisted and officer ranks of Fort Bragg told ABC News alcohol was prevalent at most Special Forces camps throughout Afghanistan in 2012.
None of the senior officers named in Tyson's book who served with her husband, other than Petraeus, agreed to on-the-record interviews for this story.
"It's a regrettable event I wish I wasn't involved in," Col. William Linn, who commanded Gant and ordered the search of Gant's compound, said in a brief phone call.
'We Live in Grey Areas'
ABC News requested comment from the Army and also filed a Freedom of Information Act request on May 5 at the urging of U.S. Army Special Operations Command's public affairs office. But a FOIA officer there said on Friday that copies of the investigation and Mulholland's reprimand could not be located -- even though copies are in USASOC's possession, according to one official who read them there.
ORIGINAL DOCUMENT: Army Special Operation Command's Full Response
In two dozen interviews with confidential sources among the "quiet professionals" who served alongside Gant or were familiar with his rise and fall, many were critical of his screw-ups but none quibbled with his incredible success at winning the tribes' loyalty and neutralizing Taliban. Most said keeping a lover in a tiny combat outpost was a flagrant violation of rules –- and virtually unheard of –- but one officer who served with Gant said it was inconsequential compared to his successes.
"I have no problem with anything he was doing out there. Having his girlfriend out there was a grey area. But we live in grey areas," the senior Special Forces officer told ABC News.
Another senior officer, who had criticized Gant four years ago when speaking to a reporter in Afghanistan, recently dismissed his fellow Green Beret as "damaged" and with a "blood lust" that led him to go rogue.
But only 250 miles away from Mangwel in Abbottabad, Pakistan, Navy SEALs who killed Osama bin Laden in May 2011 found a copy of Gant's "One Tribe" pamphlet in the al Qaeda leader's house along with an order by the al Qaeda kingpin to assassinate Jim Gant, according to Tyson's book. A CIA spokeswoman said the bin Laden documents are still classified and she would not confirm the book's claim.
Petraeus, who resigned as CIA director amid his own personal scandal in late 2012, was targeted by bin Laden. While he could not confirm that Gant was too, he told ABC News that if true, it validated Gant's success in Kunar province and the threat he posed to al Qaeda's plans in Afghanistan.
As the U.S. pulls out of another war that has not been won, there are a lot of hard feelings. But not for Jim Gant. When he and his wife Ann went back to Mangwel last fall, as civilians with no U.S. military protection, they were welcomed like blood kin.
"My heart just wanted to burst. I was so happy to see them again. They're my family, my family," Gant said, his voice full of raw emotion and his face wet with tears.
Their surprise visit to Mangwel began when the Afghan Local Police's Niq Mohammed – a onetime Taliban commander Gant had tapped to be the ALP chief -- met them on the road. The former Taliban hugged the former Green Beret. And then, as is tradition, the Afghans began firing bursts of automatic fire from their Kalashnikovs into the air -- the gunfire this time in celebration.
"Music to my ears, yes... and it was saying, 'I love you and I miss you'," Gant said, smiling. "Happy gunfire. Happy gunfire. Yeah."