On a pleasant August day in the Bavarian Alps in 1994, the director of an unusual new U.S. school for former Soviet bloc military officers singled out the college's commandant as indispensable, telling the dignitaries assembled for opening ceremonies that there would be no college "had there been no Col. Ernest Beinhart."

Four months later, the director fired Beinhart for insubordination. Beinhart fought back, claiming that he had been made a scapegoat for abuses of power and cost overruns at the center.

The bitter battle that ensued left the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies, a high-profile Pentagon initiative to foster democracy in the former Warsaw Pact nations, struggling to live up to its promise. Defense Secretary William S. Cohen last week visited the center in Garmisch, Germany, bolstering a facility that the secretary said "has acquired an international reputation for excellence."

Back in Bethesda, from a small office at the National Naval Medical Center where he works in a dead-end job as a disability hearing officer, Beinhart, 49, is still fighting after five years to clear his name and be reinstated to his old position or a comparable one. He alleges that his efforts to overturn his firing prompted a coverup that reached the highest levels of the Pentagon.

"I'm in Round 76 of what was supposed to be a 10-round fight," said Beinhart, an intense Marine who has assembled reams of documents supporting his case and waged his campaign with phenomenal doggedness.

Beyond the Byzantine tale of strife at the Marshall Center, some military officials say Beinhart's experience illustrates how a prevailing defensiveness at the Pentagon against allowing its institutions to be tarnished resulted in military justice being derailed. The Pentagon's initial justification for rejecting his case also may mean other military officers who report to civilian supervisors have no recourse if they have been wronged, they said.

"I consider Col. Beinhart to be the organizational equivalent of a rape victim," Walter Christman, a GS-15 employee at the Defense Department who was involved with the Marshall Center, wrote in a memo to Pentagon officials. "His trust in the superiors appointed over him was repeatedly, totally violated."

Beinhart's supporters include a former ambassador, two retired generals, active-duty officers and senior Pentagon civilians who have written letters to Cohen claiming that Beinhart has been denied a fair hearing and that his case merits an independent investigation.

"There was a climate that didn't want more embarrassing cases with DoD, and the Marshall Center was a showcase," said Kenneth Hill, a retired career diplomat who had served as ambassador-in-residence at the school.

Alvin H. Bernstein, the former director who dismissed Beinhart, calls the accusations "crazy," and other officials at the center also dismiss them. Bernstein said Beinhart's supporters are either misinformed or part of a "cabal" of malcontents unhappy that they were not given larger roles in the Marshall Center.

"I was dismissed fairly unceremoniously," said Bernstein, who was removed as director in 1996. "If someone out there was trying to protect me, I wish to heck I knew who it was."

The center was an ambitious effort to reach out to the rising military leadership of the former Warsaw Pact nations and prevent a reversion to totalitarianism by teaching officers principles of democracy and civilian rule over the military.

Bernstein, an academician who had chaired a department at the Naval War College, was a witty and highly regarded classical historian able to lecture memorably on the Peloponnesian War or civil-military affairs. Beinhart enlisted in the Marines at 18 and fought in Vietnam. He then earned an officer's commission and climbed through the ranks, displaying a combination of intellect, integrity and endurance that a Navy admiral said made him "the most impressive Marine officer I have ever observed."

The two collided in Garmisch. After four months, Bernstein fired Beinhart, the commandant of the center's principal academic entity, because of what he called his "failure to respond to mentoring." Bernstein, backed by others at the center, said the colonel failed to carry out Bernstein directives he disagreed with. "Ernest will be appealing this from his deathbed, but the fact remains, Ernest was insubordinate," said retired Air Force Col. Bill Sloan.

"He fought me tooth and nail on everything," said Bernstein.

But other officers and professors who were at the center describe Bernstein's management as chaotic. "Al Bernstein is a brilliant, articulate man, but if he was running my ship, I'd get off," said Thomas Hone, a professor who taught at the center.

Beinhart said he had warned Bernstein that he was spending money on the center for which he had no budget authority. An inspection shortly thereafter found the center $4.72 million over budget and cited problems with the "command climate." Bernstein said the discrepancies reflected the budget uncertainties of a new facility and denies Beinhart's claims.

Beinhart's dismissal "was part of a pattern of reprisals against individuals who had the moral courage to try respectfully to point out to Dr. Bernstein the inevitable consequences of his often inappropriate actions," Bernstein's military assistant at the time, Army Lt. Col. Frederick Hammersen, told Pentagon officials in a letter, a copy of which was provided to The Post by Beinhart. The letter said Bernstein maneuvered to have Hammersen and another officer transferred, but dropped the plan in the uproar following Beinhart's dismissal. Bernstein denies these allegations.

An investigation soon after the dismissal, led by a one-star Army general appointed by NATO commander Gen. George Joulwan, found that Beinhart had been insubordinate and that his firing was justified.

Beinhart and his supporters immediately criticized the investigation as a whitewash. Some of those who were interviewed said testimony supportive of Beinhart was discouraged.

Beinhart was transferred to Bethesda and given what he calls career-ending fitness reports by Bernstein and Air Force Gen. Charles Boyd, who oversaw the Marshall Center. He filed an Article 138 complaint, alleging he had been wronged by Bernstein and Boyd, but his letters and phone calls to Pentagon officials got little response.

"Ernest honestly believed when the right person would see that he was wronged, it would be corrected. He is so forthright and honest, you want to slap him on the head and tell him to get real," said retired Air Force Col. John Lieberherr, who commanded the NATO school in nearby Oberammergau.

After 19 months, Beinhart received a letter from the Pentagon saying his complaint was "jurisdictionally defective" since neither Bernstein nor Boyd was his commanding officer at the time of the alleged wrongs, even though they signed his fitness reports. Bernstein, as a civilian, could not be his commanding officer, the Pentagon said. Beinhart's repeated efforts to get the Pentagon to identify his commanding officer were met with silence. As a military officer, Beinhart could not bring suit on the matter in federal court.

"I've concluded that it was never meant to be anything but a delaying action," said Beinhart.

After failing for a year to get the Pentagon to name his commanding officer, Beinhart filed an Article 138 complaint in July 1997 against Joulwan, the top U.S. officer in Europe.

Meanwhile, the military newspaper Stars and Stripes in May 1996 had published a series of stories documenting problems at the Marshall Center, including financial irregularities and a school environment that condoned absenteeism by students who skipped classes to go car-shopping.

During a visit to the center the following month, then-Defense Secretary William J. Perry told reporters that the stories were "exaggerated and overblown."

Nonetheless, the Pentagon appointed a team in July 1996 to investigate the center, but directed that it not write a report. Soon after the team gave its oral briefing, Bernstein was abruptly removed from his position and given a job at the National Defense University in Washington.

A month later, seven current and former officials connected to the Marshall Center sent a letter to Perry urging him to correct the actions against Beinhart and conduct a full investigation.

"When Ernest refused to go quietly away, higher and higher levels of people got sucked into this," said retired ambassador Hill, one of the signers. "People had their reputations connected to the Marshall Center, and gradually they developed a systematic denial to the case."

In May 1998, an investigation by the Pentagon's inspector general found that Bernstein had "engaged in a pattern of behavior which ignored ethics regulations," which Bernstein strongly denies. But the report also found that although Bernstein cast Beinhart's performance "in the worst possible light," the firing was not improper.

Beinhart's supporters were outraged, declaring in a joint letter to Cohen in November 1998 that it was not "a full, fair and impartial inquiry," and asking for an outside investigation.

They turned next to Marine Lt. Gen. James Jones, then Cohen's top military assistant and his longtime friend, who expressed sympathy for Beinhart's plight.

Christman, assigned to the Office of NATO Policy, wrote a 40-page memo to Jones and other top Pentagon officials reviewing the incident in scathing terms: "It is time to acknowledge that senior DoD officials, for the benefit of the Marshall Center, were encouraged to give Dr. Bernstein the benefit of the doubt for too long. Later, after quietly repudiating Bernstein and his administration of the Marshall Center, no full and truthful accounting was directed. Such an accounting might have brought embarrassment to those who had been misled, but it would have enabled those harmed by Bernstein to receive redress. Instead, sustained official efforts have been made to prevent exposure."

But almost immediately after the memo was delivered in December 1998, Beinhart received a letter from Cohen informing him that his complaint against Joulwan was denied and his firing justified.

A few days later, a military assistant to Cohen said the letter had been signed by auto-pen and sent by mistake. "This is definitely not what we had intended," Marine Col. Mastin Robeson said in a phone message left with Beinhart. "Gen. Jones is very unhappy about it. . . . This is not a dead issue, there are still some cards to be played."

The letter was never rescinded, however.

Beinhart, believing that Jones had not supported him, turned his fire on the general, who had been nominated to become Marine commandant. His letters and phone calls drew the attention of the Senate Armed Services Committee and aides to several senators considered raising the issue at Jones's confirmation hearing.

But on the morning of Jones's hearing in June, a letter from Cohen hand-delivered to the committee backed the conclusions of the inspector general and said that Beinhart's case "has received review at the most senior levels" of the Pentagon. "That swung the day," said a congressional source.

"It seems to me the guy has had way more than his share of hearings," said Boyd, who now is executive director of the U.S. Commission on National Security/21st Century and recently brought Bernstein in as a consultant.

The Pentagon says the matter is closed, and officials deny any investigations were rigged. "Our philosophy on all our investigations was we follow the facts wherever they lead," said former Pentagon inspector general Eleanor Hill, who oversaw Beinhart's case.

Some dispassionate observers familiar with the case say that Beinhart was wronged, but that he has harmed his case with a refusal to compromise. Cohen has suggested that Beinhart can apply to a Navy board to get his Marshall Center fitness reports pulled, but Beinhart, who must retire next July, insists he is entitled to restoration to an appropriate duty station in Germany, correction of his records and reimbursement of financial costs from his battle.

Beinhart had planned to retire in Germany and study at a university after ending his tour at the Marshall Center. He could have done that even after his dismissal, retired as a colonel, and saved $175,000 in costs and five years of his life. Instead, he sits in his small office in Bethesda, writing letters and faxing documents until late in the night, trying to clear his name.

"They assumed I would just stumble off and disappear from their privileged lives," he said. "I haven't disappeared, I will get justice, and I will restore my honor."

CAPTION: Marine Col. Ernest Beinhart contends that he was made a scapegoat for cost overruns and abuses at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies.

CAPTION: From a small office at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Col. Ernest Beinhart is pursuing reinstatement and redress from the Pentagon.