A tech-savvy Marine who made too much noise, helped save the lives of countless troops in Iraq, and paid with his career.
“I guess it is!” he said. “But the last thing I ever wanted to do was become what we call a whistle-blower. Whistle-blower—in the Marine Corps? Snitch. Narc. Traitor. It’s as counter to the Marine ethos as you can imagine. It is going outside the family. Never embarrass the Marine Corps— that’s what I grew up with.”
Gayl grew up in a military family, of sorts. His father, Franz Joseph Ferdinand Gayl, was raised in Berlin and in the 1930s joined the Hitler Youth. When he tried to enter the Wehrmacht officer corps, a records search revealed that his mother was Jewish by birth; undeterred, he became a Luftwaffe paratrooper instead, and was captured in North Africa. He spent the remainder of the war in American prison camps in Texas and Maryland; he was sufficiently impressed with the country that he returned after the war to finish his architecture degree, and met Gayl’s mother, a computer scientist and amateur historian.
Gayl described his father as both a visionary and a man with a “strong distrust for the capitalist view of technological progress.” In the 1970s he became increasingly pessimistic about society and moved the family from Minneapolis to an uninhabited island in Lake Minnetonka. There he taught Franz to drive a World War II-era amphibious landing craft and an engine-propelled sled for traveling on ice that he’d built, among other machines (though he didn’t allow him to shoot guns or even play with toy guns).
He also descended into a crippling depression that Gayl believes came from self-hatred: though he had Jewish ancestors, he remained to his death a casual conspiracy theorist about Judaism and a virulent opponent of Israel. “You know how there are some people who seem to want to kill themselves slowly? My dad became like that,” he said. Gayl’s parents divorced when he was in his early teens, but not before his father passed on to him an awe for the Marines— the heirs, as he saw them, to the Prussian military tradition.
After flirting with juvenile delinquency, Gayl dropped out of high school and enlisted. His transformation was instantaneous. “It gave me a purpose, an identity, a shared identity,” he said of the Marines. “The basic principles of self-disciple, the will to see things through, endurance, a sense of civility. It’s a pattern for life.” He was assigned to the infantry, then officer candidate school, then Ranger school, then jump school, along the way designing equipment that would be used in the first Gulf War. He was made a war tactics instructor at Quantico and sent to the Naval Postgraduate School, where he earned a degree in space systems operation. Michelle Shinn, a physicist at the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility in Newport News, where Gayl worked on a free electron laser project for her, said that he had a natural gift for seeing the practical potential in abstract science. “I had a healthy skepticism about his ideas,” she said. “But we tried them, and they worked.”
Based on their research, he built, in his living room, a weapon for immobilizing people without injuring them (and tested it, on himself). When he was awarded a patent, what had been known in military labs as the Gayl Blaster became the “high intensity directed light and sound crowd dispersion device.” Popular Science chronicled his work, as did Wired writer Sharon Weinberger in her book Imaginary Weapons. When he left the Corps in 2002, after twenty-two years of active duty, the Marine commandant wrote him a note: “You have been a super-star for the Marine Corps for your entire career; if I had a chance to vote you would be our first one-star space general!” That year, he was hired as a science adviser to the Marine Corps at the Pentagon.
But Gayl had an equally pronounced talent for making waves. In 2004, he wrote a report exposing the dysfunction of the Marines’ science and technology division. Unsatisfied with the attention it got among the brass, he published an article in the Marine Corps Gazette suggesting that the service risked irrelevance if it didn’t change. The report was right, the general whom Gayl worked for told me, as was Gayl, usually, but he was also incapable of subtlety and indifferent to hierarchy.
“He’s very smart and gifted and very passionate about what he does. He would do anything for the Marines,” the general said, but he was not particularly well liked in the high command. “I think people resented his intellect.”
In 2006, Gayl accepted an offer to deploy to Iraq to join the staff of General Richard Zilmer, his former commander at the Pentagon. Zilmer was leading the Marines in Al-Anbar Province. Anbar would later become known as a cornerstone of the surge, but when Zilmer arrived it was, he liked to joke, the “ugly stepchild” of Iraq’s provinces. Neglected by the Provisional Authority and at the heart of the insurgency, troops there were dying at a rate of nearly one a day, mostly because of improvised explosive devices, or IEDs.
For months, Zilmer had been requesting equipment to combat insurgents, including laser dazzlers—nonlethal devices similar to what Gayl had designed that can disorient drivers of oncoming vehicles to avoid violent encounters at checkpoints—and a surveillance system to seek out bomb planters. Most importantly, he wanted mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles, known as MRAPs, trucks with raised armored V-shaped hulls that provide exponentially better protection against mines than standard Humvees. Indeed, a growing chorus of generals had already been asking for the vehicles. But they had found the Pentagon in no rush to field them. So Zilmer called in Gayl.
“Franz knew how to get money, he knew how the Hill operated, how the Pentagon operated. His understanding of those processes was superior to a lot of the people he was working for at Quantico,” the general said, and thus, “Quantico never fully trusted him.”
Particularly distrustful was the Marine Corps Combat Development Command, the Quantico-based department responsible for taking equipment requests from commanders like Zilmer and deciding what should and should not be delivered. “Franz has always had a bad reputation with the people at MCCDC,” the general said. When Gayl was ordered to deploy, its head was General James Mattis.
Also known as Mad Dog Mattis, Warrior Monk, and Chaos, Mattis was, and is, a legend in the Marines. An immensely capable war fighter, he had commanded troops in the first Gulf War, in Afghanistan, and in Iraq, where he led the 1st Marine Division’s famous charge into Baghdad, a campaign chronicled in the HBO miniseries Generation Kill (Mattis’s character was played by actor Robert John Burke). A soldier-scholar, he helped General David Petraeus rewrite the Army’s counterinsurgency field manual. He also had a reputation for blunt, Patton-like utterances. In 2003, for instance, he told Iraqi military leaders, “I come in peace. I didn’t bring artillery. But I’m pleading with you, with tears in my eyes: If you fuck with me, I’ll kill you all.”
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