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

Gayl came home that night and spoke to his wife. If he went public, he told her, all of their plans—their retirement, their kids’ educations—would be at stake. “I said, ‘Honey, I have to do this. I’m sorry our lives aren’t going to turn out the way we thought they would,’ ” he recalled. “I felt, whatever the cost, we could not allow another Marine or soldier to ride outside the wire in anything but an MRAP. That was my goal.”

Characteristically, he did not start at a low volume. At once he briefed not just Biden’s and Bond’s staffs, but anyone in Congress who would listen. He e-mailed David Petraeus. He became an on-the-record source for USA Today. He went on the NewsHour and on National Public Radio, and testified before the House of Representatives.

And in July, just two months after the Wired.com article, Robert Gates announced the creation of a new MRAP task force to ensure that the vehicles got to Iraq as fast as possible. He asked Congress for an additional $750 million just to fly them there. By the next year they were being manufactured in the thousands.

“We have yet to have a Marine killed in the Al-Anbar Province who is riding inside an MRAP,” General Conway admitted at a press conference. “So with that knowledge, how do you not see it as a moral imperative to get as many of those vehicles to theater as rapidly as you can?”

Two weeks after Gates’s announcement, Gayl received his first formal letter of reprimand in thirty years working in or for the military. That fall his first proposed suspension notice came, and for the next three years, Gayl says, he saw his duties diminished and was subjected to needless counseling, name-calling, and attempts at intimidation. According to notes he kept, he was threatened with demotion and told he should resign.

He, in turn, filed a complaint with the Office of Special Counsel alleging illegal reprisals for his whistle-blowing and hired the Government Accountability Project, a nonprofit law firm that represents whistle-blowers. Gayl’s defenders in Congress also rallied around him. Biden and Bond wrote a letter to Conway calling Gayl a “hero,” and during Senate hearings Claire McCaskill asked Conway to ensure that the Marines didn’t persecute him. Conway responded, “We are making every overture to ensure that we don’t violate any aspect of his whistle-blower status. But if it’s determined that Mr. Gayl has done something other than what his leadership and his bosses have instructed him to do, then that outcome will have to be determined as to what happens to Mr. Gayl.”

Gayl’s critics say that he did indeed contravene orders and that it was only a matter of time before he met with disciplinary action. His former Pentagon supervisor told me he believes Gayl is exaggerating or even fabricating his claims of reprisal, and that Gayl has a history of inappropriate behavior and insubordination that justified his dismissal.

“I think he was treated exceptionally fairly. I think we bent over backwards for him. If it was anyone else it would have happened much differently,” the supervisor, Retired Colonel David Wilkinson, said. “He had a deep-seated feeling that he had the answer. Everyone else was wrong, and he had it right. God bless him for it. We want guys like that in the Marines. But there are ways to go about doing things and ways not to.”

Gayl could certainly act eccentrically. Last summer, he mounted a campaign to advocate sealing the Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico with a particular kind of high explosive (though not a nuclear bomb, as some were proposing); the White House had to publicly disown Gayl’s idea. This was not the first time an administration had responded awkwardly to something he had said: in 2005, Gayl wrote a report, Realism and Realpolitik, whose chapters include “The Logical Absurdity of a ‘Global War on Terrorism,’ ” “Gracefully Accepting America’s Decline as a Step Towards 21 Century Survival,” and, most significantly for those who know of Gayl’s family history, “Planning for Israel’s Evacuation.” He sent the report to George W. Bush with a letter attached that said, “I am a loyal supporter of your determined vision. But I also believe in signs, and perhaps the unexpected aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is a sign that we should consider modifying our national course for a time.”

In 2006, the NCIS and the FBI first began looking into Gayl. The investigation is still classified, but it seems to have been incited by communications he had with Chinese diplomats while writing Realism and Realpolitik. The NCIS would say only that it was eventually “resolved in Gayl’s favor.” But in 2008 it opened another investigation after learning that Gayl may have divulged classified documents in the case study he wrote on the MRAP affair. During that investigation, the NCIS found out about the flash drive.

It wasn’t just these investigations that raised questions. By his own account, Gayl skipped meetings he was ordered to attend and informed the Marines he would continue to talk to Congress, without going through the congressional liaison, whenever he liked. At Plans, Policies and Operations, Wilkinson says, Gayl openly discussed his depression, and in the midst of the financial crisis he took to warning about the possibility of widespread social collapse. He wrote a letter to his neighborhood association that predicted a future without electricity, clean water, or adequate law enforcement, started stocking up on canned food and purchasing shotguns— and kept his coworkers abreast, in detail, of all of it.

“I’m not a psychologist, and I don’t know what to look for in guys who may be ready to go over the edge,” Wilkinson said. “When he started expressing his concerns about the stock market crash and the state of the country I asked, ‘When do I need to worry about things like this?’ ” Gayl’s worries and fears of reprisal eventually left him incapable of doing his job, Wilkinson said. “He wasn’t doing what needed to get done. Everything else was becoming a distraction to him.”

Gayl, who can’t help being candid, at times uncomfortably so, discussed all of this openly with me. He showed me the gun safe in his living room, and the letter he sent to his neighbors. He even volunteered the exact daily dosage of his Prozac prescription. Such exactitude and bluntness define him. His attorney told me he’s never had a client do so much of the work of building a case. Gayl corrals witnesses and prepares them, digs up years-old e-mail exchanges, writes arguments. He responds to the NCIS’s queries with meticulous briefs, and has buried the Department of Defense inspector general’s office, which is investigating his case, in documentation.

“Franz has got incredible survivor instincts and is very smart,” a Defense official involved with the case said. So much so, indeed, that “Franz sometimes makes life more difficult for Franz.”

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".

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    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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