Edition 28 June 2019, by Johannes Visser
A heroic troublemaker or decorated yet delusional blowhard?
The jury is not out on the Dutch ex-commando who can no longer wear his uniform because of his bad behavior, even as he is still considered a battlefield hero who saved many a life. The reality might be sadder, as former colleagues point to possible traumas he may have experienced during the war in Afghanistan.
In April this year, Kroon was yet again in the news when the Ministry of Defense decided to suspend its rebel war hero. The reason was the Public Prosecutor’s (OM) decision to press charges against Kroon, following alleged public misbehavior on Carnival Sunday in Den Bosch last March. When two police officers gave him a warning for urinating in public, he supposedly insulted them, flipped them off and showed a female officer his private parts. When the cops tried to arrest him, Kroon allegedly head-butted a third officer.
From hero to zero
Now somewhat of a tragic case, Marco Kroon has certainly seen better days. In 2009, he received the Military Order of William, the highest award a Dutch soldier can receive, for his unprecedented courage during various combat operations in Afghanistan in 2006. When Queen Beatrix pinned the royal decoration on Kroon’s uniform, she stated that ‘he does not receive this award for one single action, but for his actions as a leader, a soldier and a human being throughout the mission’. But back in civilian life, Kroon soon had a number of negative experiences with the Dutch law and media. In 2011 he was convicted for owning electroshock weapons, though he was acquitted of hard drug possession. The biggest bombshell came in 2018, when Kroon reached out to the media and spoke about an undercover mission that he had commanded in Kabul, Afghanistan. His former green beret colleagues were incensed that one of their own had betrayed a secret mission, potentially endangering others’ lives.
A clandestine operation
In late 2007 Marco Kroon and seven marines under his command were operating from a small villa in the Kabul ‘green zone’ Wazir Akbar Khan, a posh neighborhood home to many diplomats, entrepreneurs and aid workers. The team of Dutch marines took part in dangerous and clandestine missions in the Afghan capital, protecting Dutch Military Intelligence and Security Service (MIVD) agents who were gathering crucial intelligence about Taliban leadership, imminent attacks and roadside bomb factories. These agents would set up, maintain and often pay off local contacts in order to find out where the next threat would come from. During these extremely sensitive missions, both the intelligence and military personnel would move around Kabul in inconspicuous cars, wearing plainclothes instead of the uniform. Formally speaking, all this is prohibited under the Geneva Conventions, which forbids soldiers to operate as civilians in another country because of the risk of putting innocent civilians in danger. The state secret mission was formally unknown to Dutch parliamentarians and the Department of Defense would never publicly acknowledge its involvement. As a ‘standalone unit’ not under the command of Defense and the MIVD, Kroon’s team operated more or less autonomously. Their weapons were delivered to them through a local contact from the Afghan arms market. The team would stake hide-outs, plan meetings with intelligence sources and organize quick getaways. When a batch of weapons was found in the back of their car at one of the many police checkpoints across the city, the team successfully claimed they were part of the Dutch embassy security team. The commandos always moved in pairs, never alone. Only during free hours they were allowed to leave their safe house by themselves, but always for a maximum of thirty minutes.
In 2017 Kroon unexpectedly reported to newspaper Algemeen Dagblad that during the mission he had been taken prisoner by the enemy. He stated that: ‘during this short period of captivity, I was interrogated in an extremely harsh manner, abused, and above all, severely humiliated’. He also said that he was released shortly thereafter, but doesn’t know why. In that same statement he recounted how he unexpectedly met his captor again in a different location, armed with an AK-47. When Kroon got out of the car to arrest the man, he was recognized and they both reached for their weapons. Kroon told AD: ‘it was him or me’, and said he was quicker and emptied his gun on the Afghan and killing him. Stating that he wanted to protect the mission and save people’s lives, he kept the incident secret for ten years, until he felt he no longer could. During the talk show Pauw, in 2018, Kroon elaborated on the story, in anticipation of his upcoming biography Danger Close. He recounted that he was not only kidnapped and abused, but also raped at an undisclosed location: “I felt humiliated, emasculated. At times I thought I was going to be executed. I still find it very hard to talk about what happened to me then.”
The investigation and pushback
Kroon reported the event to the Ministry of Defense just before he went public with his story. To prevent casualties, minister of Defense Ank Bijleveld ended the mission in Afghanistan and recalled all marines from Kabul. The Public Prosecutor investigated the events, but found no proof that they actually happened and closed the investigation. After a ‘constructive meeting’ between Bijleveld and Kroon, the Ministry of Defense said it was ready to move on. But the case created turmoil inside the department, especially with Kroon’s former colleagues, who do not believe his story and are outraged that he blew his cover and theirs. In an interview with the Volkskrant, the marines (anonymously) expressed their doubts about the story. Some reiterated that there is no information about a westerner killing a local Afghani in Kabul, an event that would have attracted a lot of attention in the intelligence world. They also doubted Kroon’s story about his kidnapping. A search mission would have immediately been initiated if any team member were away for more than 30 minutes. Kroon once was away for 40 minutes. Upon his return, he angrily spoke of a collision with a fruit stall. In the skirmish that followed, he took a few punches from people in the rowdy crowd and then had to buy his freedom for about $700. Kroon was particularly furious with one Afghan man in the crowd and said he wanted to kill him the next time he saw him. But Kroon had not incurred any visible wounds during the incident. The former platoon leader’s colleagues strongly believe that this was the only instant in ten years, that they could recall, which might have come close to his statement that he was ‘briefly detained’, ‘mistreated’ and ‘humiliated’.
High-ranking officials at the Ministry of Defense take into serious consideration that the war hero made up the story of the abduction, torture and his consecutive killing of the abductor. There simply is no evidence of the event. One former colleague says he thinks that Kroon suffers from delusions of grandeur, which worsened after his military decoration. Other ex-marines under Kroon’s command mention that he has exaggerated his role during combat situations in multiple passages in his book. All of them say it was wrong not to have reported the incident straight away, if it even happened in the first place. It would have been up to his superiors to decide whether the mission were to continue or not. It is an open guess at the Defense Department whether Kroon is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), where traumatic memories get mixed up and change the facts in one’s mind. Considering the days-long, extreme battlefield violence that Kroon and his unit experienced in the Afghan province of Uruzgan in 2006, this possibility cannot be ruled out. Eimert van Middelkoop, the Minister of Defense at the time of the mission, acknowledged as much when he said last year that Kroon should seek professional help. Psychologists are investigating the former commander’s state of mind, but have not (yet) diagnosed the disorder.
As to why Kroon would have made up these shocking stories, nobody knows. Some of his former colleagues think that he was strongly impacted by the negative media stories about his alleged drugs and weapons possession in 2011. Falling from grace after being a national war hero might have been too much for him; he may have simply wanted to restore his reputation, although in the end he only made things worse for himself. At the end of May, when the Ministry of Defense disallowed Kroon from wearing his uniform following the prosecutor’s charge of public misbehavior at the Carnival, Kroon spoke out for the first time this year, saying his character was being assassinated. During a political party congress of the young liberals (JOVD), Kroon admitted he is not a choir boy or saint, but that he has been unfairly treated by the media. He said that he was especially impacted by people’s loss of trust in him. He then repeated the story of his abduction, abuse and rape. His employer, the Ministry of Defense, awaits the court ruling on the Carnival incident to decide whether Kroon gets to keep his medal.