I FIRST GOT TO KNOW retired Brig. Gen. Don Bolduc, the MAGA Republican candidate for Senate in New Hampshire, back when he was a soldier with a well-earned reputation for telling hard truths. I was writing a book about Operation Medusa, a hard 2006 campaign in southern Afghanistan that stopped a Taliban advance. Bolduc came across as a leader focused on his mission and men first, including spending the night on guard duty so his soldiers could sleep.
We crossed paths again in Afghanistan in 2009, and later in 2010, when I embedded with a Special Forces team near Kandahar. I spent 10 weeks slogging through the biscuit-colored villages watching American soldiers search for Taliban fighters and attempt to win over the locals. At the time, American forces were trying to push into the rural areas, a strategy I spoke to Bolduc about at length in several off-the-record chats. It was refreshing to hear a senior officer abandon the tired narrative that things were “working” in Afghanistan. Things weren’t going well, and there was a sense the war was going to end in defeat. Bolduc never pretended that U.S. forces were ever about to turn a corner to victory.
Finally, I embedded with the Special Forces teams hunting Joseph Kony in Uganda in 2016, when Bolduc commanded all special-operations forces in Africa. In my dealings with him, he seemed a man of integrity who didn’t shy away from telling the truth, from the failed strategy in Afghanistan to crimes committed by SEALs in Mali. Which is why I couldn’t reconcile the cognitive dissonance that allowed him as a candidate to support a conspiracy theory that helped create an environment for the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol.
I contacted his campaign for an interview to talk about his transformation from Special Forces officer to politician, but my request was denied. They weren’t interested in talking, but the campaign had several public events at the end of September. So I headed to New Hampshire to get a glimpse of Bolduc the candidate and try to answer a simple question: How could he see through the bullshit in Kabul but not at Mar-a-Lago?
When Bolduc arrives at a campaign stop in Hampton, New Hampshire, I am standing near the parking lot. About 20 supporters, wearing blue and olive-green “Bolduc for Senate” T-shirts and hats, wait in front of KB’s Bagels and Java. They sip coffee and nibble at muffins until they hear two short honks as Bolduc’s jet-black Subaru Outback pulls in.
“Here we go,” Bolduc says, popping open the back door for Victor, his black German shepherd service dog.
Dressed in a blue windbreaker and khakis, with a crew cut, Bolduc, 60, still looks fit enough to fight. He has Ted Lasso energy.
“I’m in charge of my own morale,” he tells a producer leading a film crew following his campaign. “So every day is a good day.”
Before going into the coffee shop, he gives me a brief hello. He seems a little surprised despite knowing I was coming. The last time we’d been in the same room, it was more than a decade ago, and I still had dark hair.
“I got old,” I say, and Bolduc smiles.
It is the first event in a day that has him on the trail from dawn to dusk. With six weeks to go, Bolduc has a lot of ground to make up. The most recent public-opinion poll from the University of New Hampshire Survey Center has Sen. Maggie Hassan up by eight points.
From the start, Democrats and his fellow Republicans painted Bolduc as an extremist who took up radical positions in addition to his belief in a stolen election, including advocating for the investigation and possible elimination of the FBI after the raid on Mar-a-Lago and accusing Bill Gates of wanting to use Covid vaccines to implant microchips in Americans.
Inside the coffee shop, Bolduc talks a few minutes about inflation with a twentysomething tradesman before making a beeline to a couple enjoying a muffin and coffee to talk about the coming winter and his concerns about folks being able to afford heating oil. He knows many by name, including John Savastano, a retired federal employee who started building airplane models during Covid. Bolduc asks him about his hobby and Savastano tells him about an F-4 Phantom model he was giving to a naval aviator who flew the aircraft in Vietnam, getting a thumbs up from Bolduc.
After Bolduc leaves, I talk with his supporters. They’re still buzzing. Savastano says he’s voting for Bolduc because of his Army record and his go-take-the-hill mentality. “It’s as American as you can get,” he says.
A native of Laconia, New Hampshire, Bolduc joined his hometown police force at 18, becoming the state’s youngest officer. He enlisted in the Army soon afterward, rising to the rank of sergeant before attending Salem State University, graduating and earning a commission as a second lieutenant. Bolduc served multiple tours in Afghanistan, deploying with some of the first Special Forces soldiers on the ground in 2001.
Watching him work the room, Bolduc shows he is a master of what the Army calls “human terrain,” the hearts-and-minds part of any military effort. Too often, people confuse Special Forces with the Rambo version, and forget that their first mission is not to destroy things but to build them, by training foreign militaries or insurgents. When they do go into combat, it is often shoulder to shoulder with their partner force. That starts with rapport building, and Bolduc does that with ease. He has a friendly energy and charisma, and glides between conversations, knowing just how long to stay before going on to the next person. I’d seen it in Afghanistan with his troops and Afghans alike, and his supporters are captivated by it.
“A good Green Beret is also a politician, a mayor, a sheriff, a social worker,” says Rusty Bradley, a former Special Forces officer who served under Bolduc, when I ask him about Bolduc the soldier and Bolduc the politician.
Dave Carney, a campaign consultant to state Sen. Chuck Morse, who lost the Republican primary to Bolduc, says one of the reasons Bolduc won was his ability to do retail politics. Morse was the more traditional conservative, but couldn’t overcome Bolduc’s three years of shaking hands and making friends across the state after losing in the 2020 GOP Senate primary. He won hearts and minds, and it was enough to get nearly 2,000 more votes than Morse.
“He never stopped running,” Carney says, “and that pays off in New Hampshire.”
The image Bolduc wants Granite Staters to see when they go to the polls in November is an American hero who served his country. Who understands the responsibility and sacrifice of leading in combat. A man who, if elected, will fight to get their country back from the Democrats, calling them the enemy at one point.
“We have domestic enemies,” he tells the crowd at his last campaign stop. “We can see it happening to us every single day. It is time for change. This is not hyperbole. … I am not trying to instill fear. I’m trying to instill hope. Together, collectively, we can come together and we can undo what has been done.”
Bolduc wants to be a general again, but this time by waging a partisan war.
BOLDUC’S CANDIDACY RESTS ON his well-founded reputation as a war hero, a fact he plays up in campaign literature and in commercials. During the stop in Hampton, a heavyset man in a black T-shirt shakes Bolduc’s hand and asks him about his service in Afghanistan, particularly the initial invasion and the movie based on Doug Stanton’s book Horse Soldiers. Bolduc corrects him, adding that he was with the team that fought with former President Hamid Karzai’s militia in southern Afghanistan.
But it is an understandable mistake.
In a recent TV commercial and in his official bio, Bolduc’s campaign alludes to, or flat-out claims, him leading “allied soldiers on horseback to kill terrorists.” The story of the Special Forces team that fought with the Northern Alliance on horseback in northern Afghanistan led to a statue in New York and the 2018 movie 12 Strong. But Bolduc didn’t serve with that team. The Washington Post gave a 2020 version of the ad two Pinocchios.
Bolduc tells the man he memorized “Take me to Hamid Karzai” in Pashto before he boarded the helicopter, but forgot the phrase and could only mutter “Hamid Karzai” to the militia fighter cradling an AK-47 at the landing zone. The fighter got the message and took him to meet the future Afghan president in a truck. The story is pure Bolduc. A harrowing setup — flying in at night, not knowing if the militia fighter was friendly — and ending with him finding a way to complete his mission.
As I listen to them talk in front of the coffee shop in New Hampshire, one of Bolduc’s supporters comes up to me and whispers in my ear.
“That guy’s a lib,” he says, referring to the man in the black T-shirt, highlighting the fact that Bolduc is among Trump’s most staunch supporters, and anyone not on the team is a liberal or a threat.
But just because you’re a Republican in New Hampshire, it doesn’t mean you’re part of Bolduc’s new army. He even called New Hampshire’s Republican Gov. Chris Sununu a “Chinese-communist sympathizer.”
Greg Marshall, a 57-year-old lobsterman with a thin gray mustache and thick frame earned by dragging in lobster pots, tells me some of his friends are undecided on Bolduc after his pivot on the 2020 election.
“None of us think it’s legit,” Marshall says about the 2020 election. “Trump was up election night, and the next morning was losing. It doesn’t make any sense.”
Up until recently, Bolduc likely agreed with Marshall’s concerns until recently.
“I signed a letter with 120 other generals and admirals saying that Trump won the election, and damn it, I stand by my letter,” he said to audience cheers during an August debate. “I’m not switching horses, baby. This is it.”
He switched horses 36 hours after winning the primary in September.
“I’ve done a lot of research on this, and I’ve spent the past couple weeks talking to Granite Staters all over the state, from every party, and I have come to the conclusion — and I want to be definitive on this — the election was not stolen,” Bolduc said on Fox News.
Days later, he went on The Mel K Show, a far-right, QAnon-leaning podcast, and said the quiet part out loud: “The narrative that the election was stolen, it does not fly up here in New Hampshire, for whatever reason.”
The whiplash back and forth on the issue earned the scorn of conservative political columnists — Bernard Goldberg said Bolduc should be on the Mount Rushmore for shameless politicians.
Yet, some of his supporters don’t think Bolduc pivoted at all. Former Lt. Col. Stuart Scheller, who was discharged from the Marine Corps after posting a video to social media criticizing the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan, made two trips to New Hampshire to campaign for Bolduc.
“My whole platform is that we need leaders with courage,” Scheller says. “He seemed like a fighter. This was somebody I could really
He dismisses any criticism of Bolduc’s pivot on the election, arguing the political discourse is too focused on pointing out hypocrisy.
“He has made some statements that he’s walked back that people can attack him for,” says the 17-year Marine Corps veteran who sacrificed his career in a viral social media rant. “In today’s day and age, people are looking for reasons to discredit people. They’re not capable of what America needs, which is courage.”
But today’s Republican candidates fall into two buckets, true believers and cynics, according to political strategist Reed Galen, a co-founder of the anti-Trump Lincoln Project. Bolduc is a cynic because true believers want purity, and Bolduc lied. “If he was a true believer, he would have never considered going back on the election wasn’t stolen,” Galen says. “He tried to have it both ways. He’s full of shit.”
IF YOU WANT TO UNDERSTAND why some are so loyal to Bolduc, you must go back to Afghanistan and the first story Rusty Bradley — my co-author of Lions of Kandahar — told me about Bolduc.
It’s 2006 in southern Afghanistan, and Bradley is wounded and exhausted. For the past 10 days, Special Forces and Afghan soldiers had been fighting a pitched battle over Sperwan Ghar, a man-made mountain west of Kandahar. The fate of Kandahar hung in the balance.
Bradley’s team and two other Special Forces teams were holding on to the high ground by a thread. Surrounded by Taliban fighters, the soldiers were strung out and under almost constant attack. Bolduc arrived to get an assessment. Normally, commanders might stay a few hours and leave, but Bolduc stuck around, telling Bradley and the others to get some sleep. Exhausted, Bradley finally got some sleep. When he woke, the sun was rising.
“I thought that someone had overslept,” Bradley tells me in a phone interview. “I went charging into the tactical-operations center and came to find out [then] Col. Bolduc and Tommy Hedges, the task force sergeant major, had assumed all the duties and responsibilities to let us sleep. He and his sergeant major were willing to stay out there and pull guard and security so that his combatant commanders and their soldiers could sleep. If you can’t elect that, then fuck you.”
Bolduc also had a reputation of trusting his men. A senior sergeant who served with Bolduc tells me a story about a 2005 operation in Afghanistan. Three teams helicoptered into a suspected Taliban-controlled valley and started to patrol, when they heard rumors that the Taliban had vacated the area, only to set up again several kilometers away. The sergeant says teams in different parts of the valley were picking up the same rumor, but there was no proof. The captain in charge of the mission finally called up to Bolduc in the headquarters and told him they were in the wrong location and needed the helicopters to come back and take them to the village. No one thought he’d redirect assets like a helicopter based on rumor, but the call came back a few minutes later.
“Chinooks are en route.”
There was no debate, just decisive action, the sergeant says. It was a refreshing change from the bureaucratic leaders who fought like they didn’t want to win the war.
“He had faith in his guys, and it was all about the mission,” the sergeant says. “All he cared about was the men and the mission.”
This commitment is evident by his campaign to destigmatize mental-health treatment. When he commanded American special-operations forces in Africa, he made treating brain injuries and mental-health problems a priority. While visiting a team under his command in 2016, Bolduc asked for a show of hands of how many of the Special Forces soldiers were near bomb blasts. Every hand went up, according to a New York Times story. Bolduc then asked how many sought treatment. Every hand went down.
Bolduc told the team how he might have been injured when an American bomb dropped near him during a 2001 offensive on Kandahar. His hip was damaged, forcing him to get hip-replacement surgery later. But at the time, he declined treatment and continued his mission. It wasn’t until he started getting headaches and had trouble sleeping years later that he sought help. The team followed his lead and got brain scans and sought treatment. Because of Bolduc’s urging, one soldier found a brain tumor.
Despite fierce loyalty from some, no one is more bewildered by Bolduc’s campaign persona than some of his former peers and subordinates in the Army. A Pentagon official familiar with the campaign says military leadership is puzzled by Bolduc’s turn toward MAGA.
“He’s misrepresenting generals and soldiers all over the world,” says the official, speaking on background because they are not authorized to talk about the campaign. “He is representing himself as an accomplished military officer, which he is, but what he is saying is crackpot.”
As one special-operations officer puts it, Bolduc joined the Trump cult, and Bolduc isn’t the only one. Retired Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn, Trump’s disgraced former national security adviser, is the most visible. Flynn went from respected general to launching a Christian nationalist movement.
James Hardaway, a retired colonel who served 27 years in the Army and wrote a paper for military-leadership development in the 21st century, served with Flynn and sees some of the same qualities in Bolduc. Both men are prone to making bombastic statements for attention, to feed their egos. But Hardaway thinks it is performative because the statements — from Flynn and Bolduc alike — keep them in the spotlight. It isn’t unique to just these two generals. “You see this in a lot of senior leaders,” Hardaway says. “You get to a certain level in the Army — one or two stars — and you quickly become the most important person in the room. It breeds a sense of narcissism.”
Hardaway says most general officers tell the truth, but both men have made blatantly unconstitutional or false statements, which has a corrosive effect on current officers looking for mentors or role models.
“These former general officers hold a lot of sway over people,” Hardaway says. “It sets a precedent for others to do the same.”
After Bolduc left battalion command, he ran afoul of his superiors and gained a reputation for being difficult. A retired colonel who served alongside Bolduc says Army politics worked to keep him from getting promoted past one star because he made too many enemies, in part because he was considered prickly and prone to outbursts when he felt disrespected. He also gained a reputation as a self-promoter, the colonel says, certain death in the special-operations community, despite the actions of the SEALs.
“I thought he was a decent guy,” one fellow officer who served with him at Fort Bragg tells me. “Personable. A bit of a self-promoter. Not my taste.”
I ask the retired colonel who the real guy is. The one taking care of his men or the MAGA Republican willing to stoke conspiracy theories to win an election? “He is somewhere in the middle,” the colonel says.
Throughout the day, I see glimpses of the general I remembered from Afghanistan. He has genuine energy and conviction to serve. He is concerned about the economy — despite never sharing a plan to fix it — and making sure people can feed their families and heat their homes this winter. But at the same time, MAGA Bolduc appears when he stokes the culture war by parroting a debunked story that the Air Force Academy banned the use of “mom” and “dad” by cadets.
“The United States military academies have announced a new policy that you can no longer call your mother ‘Mom’ and your father ‘Dad,’” Bolduc tells his supporters. “You must call them your ‘parent’ or your ‘guardian.’ Nobody is taking that title away from me. … We’re not going to allow Maggie Hassan or anybody else to ruin that for us. To tell us that we’re not a family.”
THE LAST CAMPAIGN STOP is at a vineyard in Hollis, about 45 minutes from Boston. Bolduc arrives after quickly stumping at a diner in Londonderry. He makes a beeline to a table of veterans near the front before making the rounds to supporters and then delivering the same campaign speech, only this time throwing in a reference to how Biden and Democrats were taking God out of New Hampshire’s communities.
“That is clear in the problems we have with our families, our religious institutions, our economy, our education system,” he says.
Standing behind the stage after the speeches, I watch Bolduc greet well-wishers, when Rick Wiley — his campaign adviser — offers me five minutes with him. Sitting in the vineyard’s event space, Bolduc tries to set the record straight on his election comments. After talking about his vision for America — energy independence, a strong economy, and resources to the border patrol, including finishing the wall Trump started — we get to the election.
“Let’s get to the heart of this,” he tells me after I ask him to explain the pivot. “I signed a letter with 124 general officers that there was fraud and irregularities. I maintained that position all the way through. I was at a debate. I misspoke. It was the only time I said the election was stolen, ever. I didn’t use that terminology. I said Trump won. That is the only thing I’ve come back on. I still believe there were irregularities. I believe there’s fraud.”
Bolduc tells me mail-in-voting expansion during the Covid pandemic, the lack of a strict voter ID requirement at the polls, and out-of-state college students voting in New Hampshire led to his concerns about irregularities. But he is ready to move forward, he says. It’s an issue that only MAGA Republicans want to talk about, and an issue he’s used to consolidate his voting base and win the primary.
“If we rehash the 2020 election, we will go nowhere,” he says. “It is up to me and others to get past that. We have problems. We need to make sure we fix those problems. It’s about moving forward to 2022 and 2024. That’s my position, and I’m sticking with it.”
But will this position be enough to win?
“You’ve seen me on the ground,” Bolduc says when I ask him if he could work with Democrats. “You know I can bring all different types of people together for a common goal. Let’s make the livelihood and future of our children and grandchildren our common goal. And let’s set up an economy of fiscal responsibility and safety and security as a way to do it.”
He tells me his first call would be to Jeanne Shaheen, New Hampshire’s senior Democratic senator, to talk about ways to work together for New Hampshire. This sounds like the Bolduc I used to sit with in Kandahar. The Bolduc who trusted his men and fought to make sure they had everything, from sleep to mental-health care. The Bolduc who — as one of his staff officers described him to The New York Times — was “Captain America.” Two days later, I ask Bolduc, via a texted follow-up question, if he was concerned that those undermining the election are fomenting future violence like what we witnessed on Jan. 6. He didn’t respond, but campaign adviser Wiley did.
“Don’t feed his narrative that Trump caused Jan. 6th,” Wiley wrote me — possibly by accident — likely the same language he sent Bolduc. “That’s what they want you to say. He’s clearly a liberal and will write the story that way.”
Despite our history, I was just another “liberal” reporter with an agenda. An enemy of the people in MAGA world. But asking a question isn’t an agenda. It’s the job. Bolduc deployed to Afghanistan and elsewhere multiple times to fight America’s enemies. It is intellectually dishonest not to question why a war hero would throw in with a mob that attacked the symbol of American democracy to stop a lawful election.
I’d gone looking for the Don Bolduc I met in Afghanistan. I don’t think he’d recognize the Don Bolduc I found on the trail in New Hampshire.