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

But that Defense official suggested that both NCIS investigations were probably unnecessary and may well have been politically motivated. Of the flash drive allegation, the official said, even if it is true, which is in doubt, “I’m having trouble believing that someone could lose his security clearance and his job, potentially, for using a flash drive.”

The evidence would seem to warrant skepticism. According to internal Defense Department documents, the supposedly classified material Gayl divulged in his MRAP case study was not documents but two footnotes that referenced nonpublic requests for equipment—requests that Gayl himself wrote while in Iraq. It has not escaped the inspector general’s notice, meanwhile, that the official who reported those footnotes to the NCIS was formerly General Mattis’s chief civilian aide at the MCCDC, the staffer who oversaw the 2005 briefing that Gayl claimed to the press and Congress had hobbled the original MRAP requests. However, the Defense inspector general has found that neither NCIS investigation of Gayl’s conduct technically constituted reprisal.

As for the details of the MRAP affair itself, the Pentagon’s own internal reports have borne Gayl’s claims out. Its audit of the case found that, under Mattis, the MCCDC “stopped processing the [request] for MRAP-type vehicle capability in August 2005. Specifically, MCCDC officials did not develop a course of action for the [request],” or “attempt to obtain funding for it,” and concludes that it failed to “address an immediate and apparent joint warfighter need.” (Gayl served as an expert source to the auditors, even as he was being investigated for his own research.) A Naval Audit Service report found that the MCCDC’s process for handling Urgent Universal Need Statement requests like McGriff’s was “not effective.” And this January, Robert Gates told the Marines to cancel the expeditionary fighting vehicle. By now a notorious albatross, the program has eaten up $3 billion (or about six times the budget for Roy McGriff’s original MRAP plan), with little to show for it.

Even Gayl’s staunchest critics don’t deny the justice of his cause. “Everyone’s interpretation was that Franz had nothing but the best intentions for the Marines and the Marine Corps,” Wilkinson told me. “Gayl’s answer turned out to be the one that the secretary of defense went with. History will show getting the MRAP to Iraq was the right decision.”

Gayl’s case and his fate may finally hinge not on the truth of his claims, however, but on their timing. Marines like Wilkinson say that Gayl’s disclosures only pointed up issues the Marines were already handling internally, and that the MRAPs would have gotten to Iraq with or without Gayl. His defenders counter that he was essential in saving lives. For his own part, Gayl takes no credit for agency—only amplification. “I was just the messenger,” he said. “The Marines [in Iraq] were making the requests.”

Gayl remains astonishingly loyal to the service that pushed him out. “I love the Marine Corps. It’s my identity,” he said. But “talking about brotherhood and taking care of our own, blah blah blah, all that stuff—it’s wonderful, if it’s real.”

He’s not alone in this conviction. “Anyone who actually tried to help us, like Franz, ended up getting a bloody nose from the bureaucracy. Anybody who tried to work with Franz got ostracized,” Gary Wilson, the colonel who met Gayl in Anbar, said. “The reason people take umbrage with Franz is not just over the MRAP. It’s because he made an indictment of the whole system.… He realized we’ve priced ourselves out of the defense business.”

“The organization he professes his undying loyalty to has turned its back on him,” the general whom Gayl worked for said.

The Marine Corps would not make anyone I requested to speak to available for this article, and General Conway, now retired, did not respond to an interview request. James Mattis likewise refused multiple requests for comment. As the general who took over U.S. Central Command from David Petraeus and oversees the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he is by some measures the most important uniformed official in the military. He is discussed as a possible candidate for membership in the Joint Chiefs or even as a future national security advisor. In public statements, Mattis has said that MRAPs did not arrive in Iraq sooner mainly because of lack of industrial capacity to make them. This is a contention most Marines I spoke with don’t buy, and one largely disproved by the fact that the Pentagon managed to get thousands of MRAPs built and shipped to Iraq a year after Gates gave the order.

In response to a lengthy list of questions for Mattis, his spokesman sent a three-sentence reply:

Our young troops constitute a national treasure, and we have always been committed to getting them the right equipment at the speed of war. There never has been— and never will be—anything more important than making sure our courageous young men and women in the fight are well trained, well prepared and well equipped. We fulfill our solemn obligation to our troops by never being content with how we provide the best possible training and equipment within the fastest possible time.

When Gayl and I went to Quantico in April, he pointed out his old barracks, the obstacle courses he’d trained on, the classroom he taught in. At the National Museum of the Marine Corps, he described with textbook precision each weapon and vehicle on display. It was a Thursday. Without security clearances, Gayl is all but unemployable in Washington, so he can make such weekday excursions.

Lately he’s been filling his time reading the Koran and the Talmud, and studying Chinese. He’s preparing for the likelihood that he’ll have to leave government service altogether, but his greater concern is that the brass’s story will win out. “If they say it enough, it will become the history,” he said. “They’re confronted with the fact that the blood of their fellow Marines may have been unnecessarily shed on their watch. After promenading themselves in front of widows and wives and wounded Marines organizations and all this glorious patriotic nonsense—now they have to admit, Whoops, I was negligent? I was asleep at the switch? Your son didn’t need to die? They’d never admit to that.”

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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