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As he had every morning for years, on October 4, 2010, Franz Gayl woke up at five, fed his two Rhodesian Ridgebacks, and then walked down the street from his modest home at the end of a cul-de-sac in northern Virginia to wait for the bus to the Pentagon. Once there, Gayl swiped his badge, thanked the security guards, and proceeded down the vast corridors to an office of the B Ring and the Marine Corps’ Department of Plans, Policies and Operations. At almost exactly seven thirty, Gayl, a science adviser to the Marines, walked into his Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility, a secured office in which military employees with high-level security clearances spend their days, and sat down at his desk, eager to get to work. Though Gayl had followed this routine for more than a decade, he still loved the exact minutia of it.

Then the day went sideways. His supervisor walked in and said, “Come with me, we’re going to see the general,” referring to the head of the department. With the general when Gayl arrived was a representative from human resources. He handed Gayl a letter. The subject heading: “SUSPENSION OF ACCESS TO CLASSIFIED INFORMATION.” As the others watched him, Gayl began reading.

“Credible information exists which raises serious questions as to your ability or intent to protect classified information,” the letter, from Marine headquarters, read. The Naval Criminal Investigative Service, or NCIS, had been investigating Gayl, and, “[b]ased on the forensic analysis contained within the report, it appears that on multiple occasions you used an unauthorized USB media flash device within the Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility (SCIF), in violation of SCIF security requirements.” The letter didn’t specify what, if anything, was put on or taken off the flash drive. It concluded, “The culmination of the above demonstrates a disregard for regulations, a pattern of poor judgment, and intentional misconduct.”

Gayl was asked if he understood the charges. He said he did. He was led back to his SCIF, where he was given a few minutes to collect his belongings. He was brought down to the parking lot, where a car was already waiting. He was driven to Marine headquarters, where another general was waiting. Gayl was “read out” of the cascade of clearances he’d accrued over the years—top secret/SCI, top secret, secret, confidential.

Back in the car, his supervisor handed Gayl a letter notifying him that he was now on administrative leave, pending review. He was driven to the bus stop. He thanked the driver, and, as he was getting out of the car, the supervisor said, “One more thing, Gayl—I need your Pentagon badge.” Gayl handed it to him.

With that, Franz Gayl’s thirty-five-year career working for the Marines came to an abrupt halt—and, more than likely, ended for good.

“It was a disgrace, a public humiliation. I think it was designed that way,” Gayl (pronounced guile) told me ruefully about that morning, whose details he remembers down to the minute. But he couldn’t help but admire its efficiency. “It was beautifully choreographed! It was so well organized, even for the Marines.”

Nor could Gayl claim to be surprised. “I’d been expecting something like this for years, but they finally found a way to make it happen,” he said. The flash drive is a red herring, he believes—another in a series of reprisals against him by the Marines for revealing what he calls unconscionable mismanagement in the high command. After returning from a tour in Iraq, Gayl went public with an account of how Pentagon delays in sending protective equipment there may have cost troops their lives. He appeared on PBS’s NewsHour and testified before Congress, and in doing so crossed many people more powerful than himself, including General James Mattis, now the chief of U.S. Central Command and one of the most important men in the military.

Many Marines have personally thanked Gayl for his outspokenness. He’s been called a hero by senators and a “super-star” by the former commandant of the Marine Corps. But according to other Marines, Gayl was long a dangerously untraditional thinker in an organization that values tradition above all. “Just by virtue of his ideas, he made enemies,” said a general for whom Gayl once worked.

This is not the first federal investigation of Gayl, nor the first time the military has tried to dismiss him. His former supervisor, who urged his firing years ago, said Gayl had a history of insubordination and inappropriate behavior. “He had four or five projects he felt committed to, and when it came to them he wasn’t too interested in what the leadership or regulations required him to do,” he said.

Oddly, it’s a characterization that Gayl himself doesn’t entirely refute: “I was always a contentious figure,” he told me. “Everyone who has associated with me, they all think I’m a little … well, wack.” But “everything I’d complained about before going to Iraq was a theoretical exercise. Iraq was the first time that there was a real correlation between the problems I knew about in the Marines and the actual human impact.” So he broke ranks. “It struck me that if I didn’t go outside of command, there’d be no change. I also knew it would be career suicide.”

Gayl enlisted in the Marines the day after his seventeenth birthday, and at fifty-three he still looks the part. At six feet tall and 220 pounds, he has gone soft around the middle, but he has a Marine’s at-the-ready bearing, massive arms, and a Robert Duvall-intense balding pattern. He calls to mind the actor until he opens his mouth, at which point a fusillade of figures and acronyms and jargon comes at you in a Minnesota accent.

“But what was special about this LAV was it had a 25mm Gatling gun on it, and it was just awesome! It would tear up the targets!” he explained as we drove out of Washington, D.C., in his wife’s cherry-red Volkswagen bug on a recent April morning. Gayl, wearing jeans, a sweatshirt, and very clean white sneakers, was describing in minute detail a day fifteen years prior that he spent blowing up things in the Mojave Desert. My question hadn’t been about light assault vehicles—I’d asked how he met his wife—but he stores most memories according to what he was doing, or, more specifically, shooting, for the Marines at the time. (He met his wife on the flight to California.)

We were on our way to Quantico, which elicited more fond recollection (“When I was on an antitank assault team there I used to fire flamethrowers!”) and then got Gayl onto the subject of the famous Quantico brig. At the moment it was home to Bradley Manning. Gayl had surprisingly little sympathy for him. “He apparently acted on his conscience, and I have great respect for that,” he said of the WikiLeaks source, but “there was no way he could have read all that material and educated himself on the issues.… I would have more respect for him if he’d stayed in the chain of command.”

“Isn’t that a little ironic, coming from you?” I asked.

“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.”

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 “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?

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 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.”

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.”

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