“Lost Trust and Confidence” — How the Military Covers Up Officer Misconduct and Why That’s Harmful to Democracy

On a warm summer day, as Capt. Paul Gainey drove home from a weekend camping trip to the Grand Canyon, his cell phone chimed.

“You can’t tell anyone,” Gainey said a U.S. Marine wrote in a text message. “The battalion commander of 1st Reconnaissance Battalion is being relieved because of domestic violence.”

The following morning, May 7, 2019, Gainey drove to his office on Camp Margarita, a small section of Camp Pendleton, a sprawling Marine Corps base in southern California. He met privately with one of the most senior officers in the 1st Marine Division. An investigation had found “credible” evidence that the senior leader of one of the Corps’ most decorated infantry units had physically assaulted his wife for years, the colonel told Gainey. The commanding general had endorsed the investigation days earlier.

Gainey immediately advocated for transparency. He said he argued that the Corps had an obligation to share why commanders had relieved the decorated Marine officer, supported by internal emails shared with The War Horse.

“My leaders stressed the importance of protecting [Lt. Col. Francisco] Zavala’s privacy,” Gainey wrote in an email to The War Horse. He told the colonel a press release could be written that protected due process while also being transparent, he said. Still, he was told that only a few people knew about the case and that he was to keep it quiet, he said.

 Lt. Col. Francisco Zavala, relieved for domestic violence, walks the flight deck aboard the USS Somerset, Nov. 11, 2018. US Marine Corps/Cpl. Joseph Prado

Lt. Col. Francisco Zavala, relieved for domestic violence, walks the flight deck aboard the USS Somerset, Nov. 11, 2018. US Marine Corps/Cpl. Joseph Prado

Over the next day, Gainey was unwavering in his advocacy for government transparency, he said, but his leaders ordered him to limit his press release to “no more & no less than [the standard operating procedure] response of ‘lost trust and confidence,’” according to internal emails shared with The War Horse. Gainey recommended that strong messaging should be used to help combat domestic and gender violence in uniform during a meeting with his superiors to discuss the press release, he said. In response, an officer laughed and made a dismissive comment about the #MeToo movement, Gainey said.

But Gainey said he pushed back, telling his superiors that concealing evidence of domestic violence would exacerbate public perception of the Corps as “a good ol’ boys’ club.” The officer offered another joke in response, Gainey said.

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By the end of the week, Gainey would see both his career and his reputation destroyed. He would watch as a totem of Marine secrecy—“loss of trust and confidence”—would be paraded out by men Gainey respected to protect a man accused of domestic violence. He would be involuntarily committed to a mental health ward. And months later, when he believed he had already lived through the trial of a lifetime, he would learn that a spokesperson for the Marine Corps told The War Horse they had concerns with Gainey’s credibility and mental stability.

“Marine Corps public affairs is a vipers’ nest,” Gainey said to The War Horse in response to the Corps’ unlawful disclosures.

Worse still, his beloved Corps squandered an opportunity to stand up for the values he believed in as a Marine—an opportunity to spearhead progress and awareness for all Marines, as well as to show enlisted Marines that their officers received the same treatment as they did.

“Go Ugly Early”

As Gainey argued to showcase the Marine Corps’ willingness to address domestic violence, some of the Corps’ most senior leaders—all men—worked to protect the Marine officer facing domestic violence charges. Generals ignored repeated guidance from Gainey and ordered a watered-down press release to protect the disgraced Marine, according to internal emails. It was “standard” to restrict information from the taxpayers, they said.

The Corps, including Gainey, also proactively removed multiple photographs that were published on its official websites that were identified as “potentially damaging” to the Corps and the relieved officer if they were discovered by journalists, the emails show.

Zavala, center, briefs Marines aboard the amphibious transport dock ship USS Somerset in San Diego, Nov. 11, 2018.

Zavala, center, briefs Marines aboard the amphibious transport dock ship USS Somerset in San Diego, Nov. 11, 2018. Photo by Cpl. Joseph Prado, courtesy of U.S. Marine Corps.

The decision to delete the photos directly violates Department of Defense policy, which states that “information will not be classified or otherwise withheld to protect the Government from criticism or embarrassment.” In layman’s terms, Gainey wrote in a text message to The War Horse, “Instruction states the need to provide more info about personnel when they have higher responsibility.” The Corps declined to comment on the activities.

“I am particularly concerned about his ‘M[a]cArthur’ shots; the ones where [Lt. Col. Zavala] is clearly staging himself to look important,” Gainey wrote about the photos to his superiors. “Again, the media, domestic, and international trolls will use these photos to damage the Marine Corps’ credibility. … With all the reporting on the Me Too movement over the last two years, reporters will be foaming at the mouth to get this story.”

Even as he argued for removing the damning photos, Gainey pushed, in his final recommendation to his leaders, for transparency: “Sir, this won’t be perfect, and we will both read things that infuriate us,” he wrote, “but I was always taught: ‘Go ugly early—if you have an ugly baby, call it ugly.’”

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When he continued to meet roadblocks, Gainey pushed the issue up the chain: He sent an email to Headquarters Marine Corps later the same day. “Gen. Castellvi ordered me to publish the press release,” he wrote, adding that the release had been stripped of any explanation for the relief of command and offered only “lost trust and confidence”—a term all too common to reporters who cover the military. It’s often used as a catchall when a top commander has been removed from a post as a way to avoid details, even if those details are publicly reportable, as is the case with domestic violence.

The next morning, May 8, Gainey refused to continue serving as the spokesman for the case and redirected multiple reporters to his superiors at the Pentagon, internal emails to senior officials show. Gainey’s command immediately placed him on administrative leave for a week.

On the day of his return, May 15, his Marine leaders ordered Gainey to undergo a psychological evaluation. They committed him involuntarily for five days. His mental health declined as he watched his career disappear, Gainey told The War Horse. Following his discharge from the hospital, at the recommendation of his mental health team, Gainey was swiftly transferred to the Wounded Warrior Battalion where he was medically retired months later.

Marines conduct a fire and maneuver exercise to locate and destroy the enemy. US Marine Corps/Lance Cpl. Brian Bolin Jr.

Marines conduct a fire and maneuver exercise to locate and destroy the enemy. Photo by Lance Cpl. Brian Bolin Jr., courtesy of U.S. Marine Corps.

A dozen active-duty Marines involved—public affairs officials, commanding generals, attorneys, senior officers, and enlisted leaders—each declined to comment through Marine public affairs about their participation in the case. Additionally, public affairs officials with Headquarters Marine Corps declined to comment on the violations of policy uncovered during this investigation and did not provide basic service information to The War Horse about the Marines involved, as required by law.

But that didn’t prevent a senior public affairs officer from telling The War Horse during a phone interview that Gainey came “unraveled” and saying there were “serious concerns about his credibility.” The active-duty spokesperson spoke on the condition of anonymity, relying on a long tradition of discrediting and intimidating sources. The spokesperson, a field grade officer, further criticized the Marine veteran for allegedly leaking information to the press. Officials with Headquarters Marine Corps did not comment on the behavior.

For decades, the Corps and Defense Department have established a strong track record of hiding officer misconduct from public scrutiny and retaliating against whistleblowers. The War Horse identified nearly four dozen cases since 2015 involving Marine officers where the military released no information about why the commander was relieved. The Corps confirmed in an email statement that at least 13 other officers, previously removed for “lost trust and confidence,” have been retained and are still on active duty.

Marines deploy a smoke grenade to obscure movements from opposing forces. US Marine Corps/Lance Cpl. Chase Drayer

Marines deploy a smoke grenade to obscure movements from opposing forces. Photo by Lance Cpl. Chase Drayer, courtesy of U.S. Marine Corps.

The lack of transparency is not limited to the Marine Corps and extends across all branches. In the Army, since 2015, more than a dozen senior officers have been relieved for “lost trust and confidence” following myriad unauthorized or illegal behaviors. Six were generals. In the Air Force, at least 29 relieved commanders were identified. Five were generals. Ten others were colonels. In the Navy, at least 41 commanders were also identified by The War Horse. Twelve were captains and five were admirals. In nearly 130 known cases across the armed forces, the military released no information about why the senior officers were relieved.

This lack of accountability stifles positive cultural change and, in many cases, like Gainey’s, people’s careers have been ruined to maintain the privacy of true criminals. Gainey isn’t alone in his criticisms. Two veterans of Marine Corps public affairs, one who worked alongside three commandants and another, who taught at the Defense Information School and spoke on background, told The War Horse about how the majority of the Corps’ most senior officers are more concerned with restricting public access to information and skirting accountability than publicly addressing the systemic issues that plague not only the Marine Corps but the Defense Department as a whole.

For Gainey, now working for a top defense contractor, jeopardizing his military career to tell the truth was a war he said he knew he would lose but a battle he felt compelled to fight.

“I do believe that the Marine Corps is an exemplary institution that has a lot of bad people in it,” Gainey told The War Horse during a phone interview. “I didn’t want to become someone who made the Marine Corps worse. I wasn’t willing to lie, because I couldn’t look my mother in the face again if I protected a perpetrator of domestic violence.”

“This Behavior Is Corrosive to Democracy”

Ten years before he stood up to his bosses, in 2009, Gainey left Spearfish, South Dakota, to attend the Naval Academy, where he was commissioned as a Marine officer. Upon graduation, in 2013, he was selected for the Corps’ Immediate Graduate Education Program—the Marine Corps’ most competitive immediate-graduate level program—and studied in Austin at the LBJ School of Public Affairs. Two years later, in 2015, he attended the Basic School at Quantico, Virginia. During his training, Gainey marched hundreds of miles and navigated difficult terrain. Like his fellow classmates, he also spent countless hours writing operational orders and memorizing the military standards intended to maintain good order and discipline in uniform.

Following his commissioning ceremony, 2nd Lt. Gainey shakes the hand of then-President Barack Obama. Photograph courtesy of Paul Gainey.

Following his commissioning ceremony, 2nd Lt. Gainey shakes the hand of then-President Barack Obama. Photo courtesy of Paul Gainey.

Over the next five years, Gainey served in increasingly challenging roles, working his way up from organizing community events to representing an embassy. Throughout his seven-year career, Gainey was the recipient of commendations and personal awards, and was hand-selected by a board of superiors to serve as a communications liaison for the State Department in the Philippines. In 2018, Gainey was assigned to Camp Pendleton where he worked as the senior public affairs officer for Major Gen. Robert Castellvi, then the commanding general of 1st Marine Division and now serving as the inspector general of the Marine Corps.

By the summer of 2019, when Gainey first began working on the press release for the relieved commander, he had worked alongside the general for a year. In performance reviews provided to The War Horse, Castellvi described Gainey as a disciplined and resourceful leader—consistent with the performance reviews he’d received throughout his career. Castellvi even recognized Gainey’s leadership and the proficiency of his Marines, personally nominating Gainey’s communications team for an excellence award.

“I can always rely on COMMSTRAT [communications strategy] section to tell the story of our Marines,” Castellvi wrote, according to internal documents.

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Like all military operations, the public affairs work Gainey did in the Corps is rooted in doctrine and military law. When a public affairs officer, like Gainey, begins to plan their communications guidance, internal emails given to The War Horse reveal that deliberate efforts are often made to restrict public access to information.

For decades, the Corps and Defense Department have established a strong track record of retaliation against whistleblowers, like Gainey, by weaponizing their state of mental health against them for speaking out or leaking documents to the media.

The most notable was Marine veteran Daniel Ellsberg, who 50 years ago leaked the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times and disclosed to the world the lies and deceit driving the Vietnam War. Until Ellsberg was identified as the leak and earned the moniker “the most dangerous man in the world,” he was trusted with some of the country’s most top-secret government documents. Upon publication, according to the Smithsonian Magazine, the government broke into the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist to find information that could discredit him.

“Military transparency is, of course, an oxymoron,” Ellsberg, now 90 years old and living in Berkeley, California, wrote in an email to The War Horse. “Zero accountability.”

Decades later, experts say the military is still “wag[ing] a war” on both whistleblowers and freedom of information. In recent years, Marine leaders have forced subordinates to lie about war crimes, and in 2012, the then-commandant of the Marine Corps unlawfully interfered in the investigations or courts-martial of Marines who urinated on Taliban corpses, felony cases that jeopardized the Marines’ military retirements and lifelong access to veterans’ benefits. After the Marine general overseeing the case spoke out against the commandant, he was swiftly fired. And in 2019—during a human trafficking case involving 16 enlisted Marines who were unlawfully arrested and publicly humiliated on camera by senior officers also overseen by Gen. Castellvi, the current inspector general—the public affairs officer “was not truthful” during her legal testimony.

The Marine Corps is not the only branch lacking integrity. More broadly, in 2019, The Washington Post published the Afghanistan Papers, proving that, for years, military leaders and public figures were “at war with the truth” and lied to the American public about the global war on terror.

“Several of those interviewed described explicit and sustained efforts by the U.S. government to deliberately mislead the public,” wrote investigative reporter Craig Whitlock. “They said it was common at military headquarters in Kabul—and at the White House—to distort statistics to make it appear the United States was winning the war when that was not the case.” Whitlock’s reporting uncovered that in Afghanistan, “‘Every data point was altered to present the best picture possible,’ as an Army colonel who served as a senior counterinsurgency adviser to U.S. military commanders in 2013 and 2014, told government interviewers. ‘Surveys, for instance, were totally unreliable but reinforced that everything we were doing was right and we became a self-licking ice cream cone.’”

Lt. Col. Francisco Zavala looks out over the Pacific Ocean as he flies in a UH-1Y Venom, Nov. 17, 2018. US Marine Corps/Cpl. Joseph Prado

Lt. Col. Francisco Zavala looks out over the Pacific Ocean as he flies in a UH-1Y Venom, Nov. 17, 2018. Photo by Cpl. Joseph Prado, courtesy of U.S. Marine Corps.

But more often, as in the case of Lt. Col. Zavala, the reasons for a senior officer’s firing are less transparent. The blanket statement “loss of trust and confidence” has long been used by public affairs officials to withhold information about senior officers relieved of command. They say it enables them to protect the privacy of the service members, as well as preventing the perception of unlawful command influence. But explaining why a commander is fired is not unauthorized and not legally jeopardizing since senior officers are the military equivalent of a public figure, in many cases, responsible for thousands of employees and tens of millions of dollars in taxpayer money, according to defense policy. Public affairs officers choose or are ordered not to do so.

The military has hidden officer misconduct from public scrutiny for decades. Between 2005 and 2013, an Associated Press report found that “At least 30 percent of military commanders fired over the past eight years lost their jobs because of sexually related offenses, including harassment, adultery, and improper relationships.” But just like unlawful behavior and sex crimes, the ambiguous “lost trust and confidence” is the same statement used for commanders relieved for more mundane reasons like leadership failures. In doing so, criminal behavior is indistinguishable from poor performance.

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In more recent data collected during this investigation, The War Horse found that, since 2015, at least 45 field grade officers, one general, and a sergeant major have been relieved from leading Marines, and, in each of the cases, the Corps was tight-lipped, citing the firing as a result of a “loss of trust and confidence.” In 2017 alone, a Military.com report found that 70% of commander firings were due to bias and disrespect. Many of the Marines appear to have been relieved for poor job performance or leadership and oversight failures, but in many cases, wrongdoing was uncovered by journalists at multiple newsrooms long after the military’s press release was published.

One Marine, a major general, faced allegations that he used racial slurs in front of subordinates. More than 20 lieutenant colonels faced allegations that ranged from fraternization to “hostile” leadership and antisemitism, racism, sexual assault, or domestic violence. Ten were colonels, three of whom were arrested for drunk driving. A Naval officer, a chaplain assigned to a Marine base, was exposed by USA Today after being caught having extramarital sex in public. One case involved a colonel with three decades of service who pleaded guilty to abusing children. The Corps overlooked troubling behaviors with a subordinate Marine in 2016. Then, the colonel showed up drunk to his arraignment, had a subordinate “acquire testosterone” for him, and violated a military protective order. During court proceedings, the colonel’s defense attorney described his client as “a Marine officer who is so broken that he can’t get out of his own way.”

Maj. Gen. Robert F. Castellvi speaks during a change of command ceremony held at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California, Sept. 22, 2020. U.S. Marine Corps/Cpl. Jailine L. Alicea Santiago

Maj. Gen. Robert F. Castellvi speaks during a change of command ceremony held at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California, Sept. 22, 2020. Photo by Cpl. Jailine L. Alicea Santiago, courtesy of U.S. Marine Corps.

In July 2020, a Marine officer was relieved for “lost trust and confidence” following the deaths of eight Marines and one sailor in one of the deadliest training accidents in the Corps’ history. The Corps conducted an eight-month investigation that found the Marines had been deployed with a defective amphibious assault vehicle and the deaths were preventable. But failures extended beyond local unit commanders. Documents cited in The Washington Post suggest that other Marines involved may “face criminal charges of dereliction of duty or negligence, but no charges have been announced.” At least 120 Marines have died during the last 10 years in similar training accidents. Gainey’s former commander, Maj. Gen. Castellvi, “bears some responsibility” for the training failures, according to investigators. But the general’s senior leaders did not discipline him: They instead selected him for the prized duty of inspector general of the Marine Corps.

“I am deeply concerned that someone who was in charge of overseeing possibly the most egregious training disaster in modern Marine Corps history was made the inspector general of the Marine Corps and whose job, according to him, is to show ‘what right looks like,’” Congresswoman Jackie Speier told The War Horse. She pointed to recent failures by an Army inspector general. “Servicemembers and all Americans must be able to rely on independent, qualified, experienced, and effective inspectors general to hold the military accountable for a high standard of excellence.”

Congresswoman Jackie Speier visits Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, April 12, 2019, to discuss sexual assault and domestic violence. U.S. Marine Corps/Lance Cpl. Isaiah Gomez

Congresswoman Jackie Speier visits Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, April 12, 2019, to discuss sexual assault and domestic violence. Photo by Lance Cpl. Isaiah Gomez, courtesy of U.S. Marine Corps.

Though the Privacy Act confers privacy protections on federal civil servants and military service members, conduct that rises to the level of a court-martial, criminal charge, or certain IG investigations is publicly releasable, Speier told The War Horse. “I’ve long shared the concern that access, or lack of access, to military investigations and court files has contributed to lack of oversight and motivation for the services to enact badly needed reforms and ensure survivors are able to achieve justice while perpetrators are held to account,” Speier wrote in her statement to The War Horse. “We need to seriously explore ideas on how best to address the lack of transparency in military investigations and military courts. Without transparency, the likelihood of meaningful and substantive change is slim to nonexistent.”

In nearly all cases involving Marines who were identified during this investigation, no additional information was released by the military aside from “loss of trust and confidence.” But in the majority of cases, those Marines were transferred and trusted with new duties until they reached eligibility for retirement.

“The retirement benefit is an earned annuity like a 401k,” said Rob Bracknell, a former Marine judge advocate, adding that military retirement benefits are only withheld in cases involving espionage or disloyal acts against the United States. At the time of publication, many of the officers had been retired—including the colonel who was jailed for child molestation—and received lifelong access to healthcare and benefits as well as a military retirement of at least $50,000 annually.

During the course of this investigation, The War Horse requested publicly releasable information for 20 officers, including more than a dozen who were previously removed for “loss of trust and confidence” who appear to have been retained and are still on active duty. In an incomplete response, Corps spokesman Master Sgt. Andrew Pendracki said eight officers had been retired.

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Officials declined to specify whether the other 12 officers still on active duty were required to undergo a board of inquiry, a process where relieved commanders must prove to their superiors why they should be trusted to lead Marines again. One officer relieved for leading a unit that lost two rifles now oversees training and readiness for an entire Marine division of tens of thousands of Marines. Another officer, relieved for “poor judgment,” is now trusted as a member of the Joint Staff, a direct assistant to the Corps’ and Defense Department’s most senior leadership, according to Marine Corps public affairs. In many of the other cases, no details were provided by the military to identify whether the officers were relieved for poor performance or illegal behaviors.

The lack of transparency about officer misconduct is commonplace and intentional, according to retired Lt. Col. Joe Plenzler, who served as a public affairs officer alongside more than a dozen general officers, including three commandants of the Marine Corps. During half those assignments, the Marine leaders saw engaging with the media as “all risk and no gain,” Plenzler said. And some of them “add an additional dose of hubris in there” by asking, “Why should I have to talk to these guys?” he said. This behavior harms the Defense Department’s efforts to bridge the military and civilian divide and is a direct contributor to why military leaders feel misunderstood by lawmakers and the public at large, Plenzler said.

But while senior officers may restrict information about wrongdoing, public affairs officials are taught to speak truth to power, he said.

“The whole ‘maximum disclosure, minimum delay’ thing is good advice,” he said. “It’s stuff that they should be doing. It’s their responsibility.” Especially when the military’s most senior leadership is involved in wrongdoing, he said: “Without rationale for why commanders are relieved, people’s imaginations go to the coldest corner of the room and start making up stories…That’s not good for the individual who’s the subject of the relief and it’s not good for the institution.”

Joe Plenzler (left) stands beside his commanding officer, then-Major Gen. James Mattis (center) and Capt. Warren Cook, near Ad Diwaniyah, Iraq, in 2003. Photograph courtesy of Joe Plenzler.

Joe Plenzler, left, stands beside his commanding officer, then-Major Gen. James Mattis, center, and Capt. Warren Cook, near Ad Diwaniyah, Iraq, in 2003.Photo courtesy of Joe Plenzler.

But officers are constantly reminded to “protect the institution,” Plenzler said. “When the institution’s wrong, what do you do? Do you continue to protect it? Do you speak out? The general trend I’ve seen is it’s pretty much a go-along-to-get-along club. … If you want to make your next rank and matriculate up through, you know, from a brigadier to a full general, you’re not going to rock the boat that hard.” But throughout his career as a Marine, one thing was clear, Plenzler said: “Generals get what we call the ‘general officer discount.’ … These young [enlisted] Marines would absolutely get blasted and kicked out of the Marine Corps. These generals would get a slap on the wrist or, or nothing at all.”

The Corps isn’t alone. In the Army, officer misconduct is also prominent, though less widely reported in the media.

In 2015, professors at the Army War College published a 53-page report that found many officers cited “dishonesty in the name of the greater good” as an explanation for their actions, the Army Times reported. “Others cited the seemingly unimportant nature of the requirements being fudged, the need to keep up with other officers or units that may have inflated their performance or readiness rates, or a belief that senior leaders were aware the information being submitted was inaccurate.” The two professors, both veterans, spoke with officers from across the Army and, according to the Army Times, identified dishonesty in “training practices, incomplete inventories, [and] even falsified medical reports.” Additionally, the researchers found that each year, tens of thousands of documents are submitted with inaccurate data. “To the average officer, it is the way business is done in the Army,” the professors wrote in their investigation.

The War Horse found that since 2013, at least 13 senior Army officers have been relieved for “loss of trust and confidence” following myriad unauthorized or illegal behaviors. A lieutenant general plagiarised essays at a military school. Two major generals were relieved for failing to properly handle reports of sexual assault. At least three brigadier generals were also removed: one for unknown reasons, one for poor performance, and one for disrespecting subordinates. In another case, a colonel provided free medical care to unauthorized civilians. The details were withheld for at least three other colonels relieved of their commands. Many of the officers appear to still be serving on active duty.

The War Horse identified at least 29 relieved Air Force commanders during this investigation. Two lieutenant colonels were fired for hazing. Two major generals were fired, one for an unprofessional relationship and the other for unspecified allegations of misconduct. A third major general, the service’s highest-ranking female fighter pilot, was fired for fostering a “toxic” unit climate. One of them, a brigadier general who was relieved for allegedly abusing her position of authority at the Air Force Academy, now serves as the chief of staff for the Space Force.

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The War Horse also identified at least 41 Navy commanders. Twelve were captains and five were admirals. Among those cases, an admiral was fired for an “inappropriate relationship” with another sailor, a senior officer lied repeatedly about the location of his vessel, and another lied to military investigators. In August 2019 alone, five of the Navy’s most senior officers were fired for unknown, “unrelated” reasons. In the majority of cases, the government restricted information that shows whether the firings were for misconduct or poor performance. Most recently, the Navy declined to release information to a news outlet following the controversial relief of a senior fleet commander. Even though the news outlet Task and Purpose requested the information, military officials determined the journalist was not “a person primarily engaged in disseminating information to the public” and that the information he had requested was not “urgent to inform the public about an actual or alleged federal government activity.”

In addition to withholding information, there are also recent instances of service members violating civil rights, including officials blocking public social media comments about military sexual assault and war crimes, and routinely denying lawful requests under the Freedom of Information Act.

“This behavior is corrosive to democracy,” Gainey said.

“People With 3 Stars on Their Collar Are Making a Lot of the Decisions”

Gainey’s initial guidance to fully disclose why the Marine had been fired was endorsed by two staff judge advocates and the commanding general, Maj. Gen. Castellvi, who Gainey described to The War Horse as “progressive” and “a man of integrity.” Gainey also says he recommended that an exclusive be given to a reporter, preferably a Marine-turned-journalist, ahead of the press release and that a deliberate effort be made to retract public records in the form of photos. Maj. Gen. Castellvi and both attorneys declined multiple requests for comment.

“There are potentially damaging official photos of LtCol Zavala that could be used against the Marine Corps,” Gainey wrote in an internal email provided to The War Horse, referring to the “MacArthur shots,” adding, “The online audience will use these photos to advance whatever agenda they are trying to push forward.”

But he knew he was stepping into murky territory by removing them. “These photos are troublesome,” he continued, “because we only have the power to remove [unit] photos with help from HQMC [Headquarters Marine Corps].”

Two staff judge advocates approved a press release disclosing the incident of domestic violence. Courtesy of Paul Gainey.

Two staff judge advocates approved a press release disclosing the incident of domestic violence. Courtesy of Paul Gainey.

With the drafts complete, Gainey drove back to the headquarters building where he joined a group meeting and presented the options to his superiors, which included the commanding general, chief of staff, the unit’s senior enlisted Marine, and other leaders from the 1st Marine Division.

“I presented the two options for Castellvi,” Gainey told The War Horse in an email statement. “I gave my rationale for the transparent option and used common sense to try to appeal to the general. I explained that apart from it being the right thing to do, it was the smart thing to do. I stated that this information would get out to the public if it hadn’t already. I described the potential fallout that could occur should we try to mislead the public.”

Gainey then spoke out of turn, he said. “I told the general about a gunnery sergeant in my shop that received a career-ending NJP [non-judicial punishment] because he made inappropriate sexual remarks to one of his Marines,” Gainey recalled saying. “I asked the general how it would look to all the Marines in the division if there was a difference in the privacy and consequences between enlisted and officers. I stressed that my gunnery sergeant’s conduct, while inexcusable, didn’t come close to domestic violence. The outburst seemed to resonate with the general.”

Maj. Gen. Robert F. Castellvi gives a speech during the morning colors ceremony at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California, Sept. 11, 2020. U.S. Marine Corps/Cpl. Jailine L. Alicea Santiago

Maj. Gen. Robert F. Castellvi gives a speech during the morning colors ceremony at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California, Sept. 11, 2020. Photo by Cpl. Jailine L. Alicea Santiago, courtesy of U.S. Marine Corps.

Following the meeting, Gainey said he was told to “disappear” ahead of a private meeting between Zavala, the Marine being relieved of command, and the commanding officer, Maj. Gen. Castellvi—now serving as the “eyes and ears of the commandant” of the Marine Corps, the branch’s most senior officer. As Gainey looked out a first-story window, he saw the Marine being relieved park his car in front of the division headquarters office—dubbed “The White House”—and walk inside. In the meeting, which Gainey said lasted approximately two hours,  the disgraced commander met with the general, his chief of staff, and the senior legal adviser.

Hours later, at approximately 6:30 p.m., Gainey said he returned to the general’s second-floor office and spoke in the hallway with the most senior enlisted Marine in his chain of command, who did not respond to multiple interview requests. “[He] told me that I was exactly the kind of officer the Corps needed,” Gainey said, “and that I lived up to the moment.”

Gainey then walked into the general’s office, where “the sergeant major was notably excluded,” Gainey said. For a second time that day, Gainey found himself alone in a room with the commanding general and his chief of staff, a combined total of eight ranks his senior, he said. As soon as the meeting began, Gainey understood his strong stance would not serve him well with the officers.

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He realized, “I had put my bars on the table—that my career was over,” he said during a phone interview. “The commanding general told me that, after thinking over the situation, he had decided to go with the press release that used the phrase, ‘lost trust and confidence.’”

Gainey said he felt “ashamed” about the general’s decision.

“This is wrong,” Gainey remembered saying.

When Gainey spoke up, multiple officers stood in his way of telling the truth. They called him “emotional.” “Crazy.” And “out of line.” And when he stood his ground, he was silenced and sent away. The general told Gainey to publish the press release first thing the next morning, Gainey said. “How do you want me to answer reporter’s questions?” Gainey said he asked. “Castellvi told me to just use the press release.”

Capt. Gainey stands with his fellow Marines during a deployment. Photograph courtesy of Paul Gainey.

Capt. Gainey stands with his fellow Marines during a deployment. Photo courtesy of Paul Gainey.

Outside the room, an officer pulled Gainey aside and told him he was “too emotional,” Gainey said. “He thanked me for my hard work and dismissed me.” Gainey then returned to his office where he prepared the release and drove home. During the ride, Gainey said he “couldn’t stop crying.”

Five minutes before he pulled into his driveway, his phone rang. The chief of staff ordered him to return to base and send the press release out immediately. He followed orders, and around 8 p.m. sent the announcement to reporters. In response, Gainey told reporters he could not answer their questions and referred them to his superiors at Headquarters Marine Corps. He then returned to his car and drove home, where he tossed and turned in bed for the remainder of the night.

The following morning, Gainey drove to work where internal emails provided to The War Horse show he referred even more reporters to his superiors before driving to the division headquarters for a routine operations meeting. When his turn came, Gainey said he recounted the relief of command in front of the entire staff, a room full of more than a dozen senior officers ranging from an infantryman to a logistician and a Navy chaplain.

“Because I cannot lie, I have forwarded all queries to Headquarters Marine Corps,” Gainey recalled saying at the end of his update. In response, the major general leading the meeting asked Gainey to forward all of his correspondence with journalists and left the room, Gainey said. By the end of the meeting, Gainey was ordered to take a week of administrative leave.

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On the evening of May 13, one of the division’s staff judge advocates called Gainey and confronted him about an alleged leak to the press, which Gainey refused to acknowledge, he said. The following day, Gainey returned from administrative leave to a meeting with the chief of staff where Gainey was ordered to undergo a psychological evaluation. Following the session, Gainey was hospitalized for five days.

After his release from the hospital on May 19, Gainey said that his leaders never met with him again and he “was ordered to cease all contact with everyone” he had worked alongside. One month later, at the recommendation of his mental health team, Gainey was transferred to the Wounded Warrior Battalion where he was medically retired by the Corps.

Looking back on his service, now more than a year since he left active duty, Gainey said he doesn’t just think about how recusing himself after publishing the press release marked when Gainey said he knew his military career was over, but that it also marked a new chapter in the career of the Marine relieved for domestic violence. During the two years he has navigated the legal system, Zavala reached eligibility for retirement. The officer’s case was awaiting final disposition from the Secretary of the Navy, a routine measure for commissioned officers, at the time of publication. The Marine Corps declined to comment on Zavala’s case because it’s ongoing.

“The way public affairs does things needs to change,” Gainey said during a phone interview. “I hope the term ‘lost trust and confidence’ isn’t allowed in the future. People deserve the truth.”

This War Horse investigation was reported by Thomas J. Brennan, edited by Kelly Kennedy, fact-checked by Ben Kalin, and copy-edited by Mitchell Hansen-Dewar. Research was contributed by Samantha Daniels. Prepublication review was completed by BakerHostetler.

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Thomas J. Brennan

Thomas is the founder and executive director of The War Horse. He served as an infantryman in Iraq and Afghanistan before studying investigative reporting at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. His reporting has appeared in Vanity Fair, Center for Investigative Reporting, and on the front page of The New York Times. Thomas has held fellowships at the Center for a New American Security, The Atlantic Council, and The George W. Bush Institute. Thomas's feature writing has been awarded by the Society for Features Journalism and the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma. His investigative reporting has earned him both a national and regional Edward R. Murrow, two Fourth Estate Awards, and the prestigious Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Journalism Award. He can be reached at thomas@thewarhorse.org.

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