July/August 2011 The Unquiet Life of Franz Gayl

A tech-savvy Marine who made too much noise, helped save the lives of countless troops in Iraq, and paid with his career.

By James Verini

Putting Mattis in charge of the MCCDC seemed, at the time, a way to infuse a hidebound procurement agency with new energy. The problem, however, was that Mattis had spent his entire career on the operations side of the Marines. He had little experience on the support side—the world of acquisitions, contractors, and Beltway politics.

Mattis and Gayl had already had one run-in. The Marine Corps science and technology division that Gayl had officially lambasted in 2004 was part of the MCCDC, and the briefing he gave to Mattis, newly installed as its leader, was not well received, Gayl recalls. Nevertheless, in Iraq Gayl was determined to get what the Marines in Anbar wanted. Stationed at Camp Fallujah, “I’d see the helicopters coming in daily with these busted-up, blown-up kids being flown in to the field hospital,” he said. He sent report after report to Quantico. He stayed up for days developing proposals and researching contractors who could fulfill them. He worked all of his angles and contacts.

“He was one of the few guys from back at headquarters
trying to help us,” Gary Wilson, a lieutenant colonel stationed
in Anbar at the time, told me.

Yet Gayl ran into the same intransigence Zilmer had. In answer to his request for MRAPs he encountered a wall of resistance: the vehicles wouldn’t be applicable after the war; they weren’t versatile enough; industry couldn’t manufacture them en masse. Some Marines, including the general I interviewed, took Quantico at its word, and still do. Gayl didn’t, and he wasn’t alone: a colonel who worked on the MRAP requests told me, “I believed them at first, but the more I thought about it and the more I asked questions, the more the arguments didn’t make sense.”

The real problem, say some Marines I spoke with, was that the military was simply too plodding to react to an insurgency. “We never underestimated the insurgents’ capabilities, but I think people back in Washington did,” Wilson told me. “There were too many layers and too many ways to impede people like Franz.”

Some Marines point out that the MRAPs would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and the Marines are frugal by nature. Roy McGriff, a lieutenant colonel who studied the use of mines by insurgencies and had been urging the Marines to look for alternatives to Humvees for years, said, “To a man, up the command the reaction to the MRAP was ‘It’s too expensive, we’d never do it.’ Meanwhile we had Humvees with canvas doors. I could stick a pencil through the side of it and kill you.”

But others believe the problem was neither red tape nor money, but rather that the MRAPs threatened pet programs in which the Marines had already invested and on which many officers and civil servants had staked their careers. “We don’t reward managers who do the right thing by the war fighter or the American taxpayer. The ones who get promoted are the ones who get the gear out there regardless of whether it’s right,” a lieutenant colonel who worked at the MCCDC told me. “And the more expensive the gear, the more successful the manager.”

Gayl would become convinced of this view.

Upon returning from Iraq in 2007, he learned of McGriff’s work and contacted him. McGriff told Gayl, to his amazement, that the process for fielding MRAPs was supposed to have begun fully two years prior. In February 2005, as deaths from IEDs started to soar, McGriff had written what is known as an Urgent Universal Need Statement request— the military equivalent of saying “We need this now”—for a fleet of the vehicles to go to Anbar. The request included information on MRAPs manufactured by a South Carolina company; several of them had, in fact, already been sent to Iraq. The request had been signed off on, and McGriff had even briefed Mattis directly.

“I told [Mattis] we must transition as quickly as possible to a family of MRAP vehicles,” he recalled, “and we need to get them wherever we can.” Mattis then shook his hand and said, ‘That’s what we’re going to do.’ ” Yet two years later, McGriff’s request had vanished. “I don’t know what happened to it,” he told me.

What happened, it appears, is during the spring of 2005, staff from the MCCDC and other Marines met to discuss McGriff’s request. The question at hand was what effect the MRAPs would have on existing programs. A PowerPoint slideshow that Gayl would later unearth and make public showed that the money needed would eat into a number of projects dear to influential Marines, including, most notably, the long-awaited and very costly expeditionary fighting vehicle. Mattis in particular had championed it. (The lieutenant colonel who worked at the MCCDC also singled it out, telling me, “The expeditionary fighting vehicle has been such a huge resource drain. But heaven forbid anyone stand up and say cancel it, because you’ll be branded a heretic and you will not have a future” in the Marines.)

Gayl went from frustrated to incensed. “I realized that kids are getting hurt and killed on a daily basis as a direct result of delays that could be avoided.” When allies arranged for him to brief key officials in the secretary of defense’s office on his views, Mattis and other top Marine generals objected and the briefing was canceled, blocking Gayl’s last opportunity to work through the chain of command. Then he saw an Inside the Pentagon article that quoted Marines Commandant James Conway telling the Joint Chiefs of Staff that the first MRAP request hadn’t been made until 2006. Conway would later tell the Senate Armed Services Committee the same thing. “I looked at that and said, that’s a lie. The commandant of the Marine Corps told a very serious lie,” Gayl said. “Then I said to myself, the commandant wouldn’t lie. But the people who prepared him would.”

Gayl contacted Inside the Pentagon to ask for a correction to be printed. None appeared. So he e-mailed Sharon Weinberger, attaching Roy McGriff’s original MRAP request, and that afternoon, May 22, 2007, a damning headline appeared on Wired.com: “Military Dragged Feet on Bomb-Proof Vehicles.” The article, which didn’t mention Gayl by name, made its way through the military in hours. The next morning it was published in the Defense Department’s news briefing.

The rebukes started flying at the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill. An aide to Delaware Senator Joe Biden then called Gayl. During visits to Iraq, Biden and then Missouri Senator Kit Bond (each of whom has a son who served in the military in Iraq, Bond’s as a Marine) had learned about MRAPs and were trying to appropriate money for them. They’d written to President Bush and Defense Secretary Robert Gates without effect. Would Gayl be willing to brief their staffs on the MRAP affair, the aide asked—and, if need be, talk to the press?

James Verini is a writer in New York and a senior fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University.


  • Robert MacLean on June 28, 2011 12:29 PM:

    It's obvious that Colonel David Wilkinson was tasked by Generals James Conway and James Mattis to be their spokes-hole... I'm always amazed that people like Generals Conway and Mattis have the guts to send marines into harm's way, but are gutless to be accountable and face the public. At least Col. Wilkinson had the fortitude to launch his turd-pedos at Major Franz Gayl.

    Franz is a true hero and all true airmen, soldiers, sailors, and marines lucky to be living and breathing all know this.

    Thank you Franz for your unselfish bravery.

    Robert MacLean

  • Tank on June 28, 2011 8:11 PM:

    Really enjoyed the article... Mr. Verini always provides insightful, well-written pieces. More, please.

  • Rich on June 29, 2011 1:30 PM:

    Fascinating article. Whistleblowers often are not conventional, "attractive" people. Gayl certainly fits the mold. A lot of people connected to the military may share his appcolyptic vision, so I'm less impressed with that than with his doggedness. Generals, blunt spoken and otherwise, are politicians (I've even known a few), so i wouldn't be surprised at Mattis' conduct. Talking to Congress w/o going through channels happens, but doing it just asks for disciplining. In some ways, Gayl was baiting his superiors. Another problem is that civilians are seen as tools for the work of military officers, in many contexts. Gayl knew that. Either he wasn't very clever, or he really wanted to see how far he can go.

  • Sarafina on June 29, 2011 7:20 PM:

    If I had a sister, daughter, son, husband or brother who is dead because of Mattis' delaying games I'd be pissed. And I'm sure there are such victims (of the US military games) out there.

  • kelvin on July 01, 2011 2:42 PM:

    Fellow living marines, your brother, Maj. Franz Gayle is "down" for your sake. Support him morally: write to him, say a prayer, and better still, write to your congressman/woman. He is a marine BEYOND his call of duty!

  • pat b on July 06, 2011 3:12 PM:

    If you aren't crazy when you blow the whistle in a bureaucracy, then you will
    be assured they will drive you crazy. The Soviets used to use the Psychiatrists to
    lock up dissidents because it was "Insane" to dissent. Now we do the same thing.

  • one of 19 on July 09, 2011 5:45 PM:

    omg Rich. what does "attractive" have to do with doing the right thing?

    anyway, it's a great read. the guy is a hero and for it he will pay with his reputation and have to give up what he loves best, his work. another victim on the bone yard of misplaced loyalties. this is America not some fascist state. why can we not get this right?

    so all i want to ask all those involved in this tragedy is "did you order the code Red".

  • J. Steven Livacich on July 19, 2011 7:32 PM:

    Mine Resistance Armored Personnel Carriers are in fact and practice a very old idea--they are usually truck like and forward engined, with "boat-like" hulls. The idea may go as far back as the Marmon Harrington carrier before W.W.II
    and the German Army during WW II experimented with such ideas for engineers. During the Vietnam War the U.S. advanced the Cadillac Gage Co. made a series of APC's that were wheeled that appeared much like some later products--in both 4x4 and 6x6 versions. But,during the 1970's and 1980's--and beyond the Republic of South Africa produced for itself that which might be the ultimate vehicle of the type, the Kaspir (Casper), which was both rather cheap but given a production line that be left open rather one that needed to be continuously operated; and then they produced a much more sophisticated development -- after the revolution many were surplus. From my recent reading -- Kaspirs may have recently been sent to Afghanistan--as we are about to be considering leaving.

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