“THE FARTHEST THING FROM MY MIND”
by Sharon Rondeau
(Apr. 21, 2018) — Shortly after learning of the case of an injured U.S. Army soldier whose family said he was held in a psychiatric ward at Walter Reed National Medical Military Center against his will, The Post & Email was introduced to the soldier’s spiritual adviser, Gary Mason, also a former Army soldier who saw combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Mason enlisted in 2000 after his wife learned she was expecting their first child. She herself had served a four-year term in the Army as a counterintelligence agent and Russian linguist, then spent another four years as a “ready reservist,” as is customary.
In January 2015, Mason was discharged from the Army as “disabled” after 14 years’ service for what he believes was retaliation for his reports of institutional racism within certain Army units and an alleged assault by a fellow soldier who never faced discipline.
A native of Maryland, Mason’s story has been broadcast on Maryland Public Television and received support from the Prince George’s County NAACP. He has spoken to a number of groups and associations on the topics of racism, Christianity and “toxic leadership” in the U.S. military.
A clip of a May 21, 2015 interview with Mason and Washington, DC’s WOL 1450 Newstalk Radio can be heard below.
His story as told to The Post & Email begins below, with the remainder to be told in a number of future articles.
I joined the Army in 2000 as an enlisted soldier in the infantry, and that’s where I learned that I had a bit of naiveté in what I thought the Army was. My wife and I were married in 1997. She was already prior service: four years on active duty and four years in the individual ready reserve. Your mandatory contract time is for whatever you enlist; once you finish out that actual time served, the military has what they call “ready reserve” where they can call you back up in case it’s a time of war or something else happens.
We were familiar with her service and some of the things she went through as an African-American female, but that was never relevant. My wife and I met at Howard University, and my goal was to pursue a career in the television and film-making business. We got married in 1999, and I told her, “We’re going to set up a company and do documentary and film.” Money was a bit tight; the company was picking up small jobs, but then my wife became pregnant. That’s when I realized, “Hey, sweetheart, we don’t have health insurance; we have a small business.” I was trying to come up with an idea as to how I was going to cover the cost of getting her to a hospital with no health insurance.
One day I was driving down Georgia Avenue in Washington, DC and crossed the Maryland line into Silver Spring, and I saw a recruiting office with a sign advertising a $20,000 signing bonus. So I went in, looked at some of the benefits, and thought if I could do a tour of duty, it might be a good place to start.
I talked to the recruiter, who realized I had a degree. And he said, “There are two ways you can do this; if you come in as an officer, you’re not going to get that $20,000 bonus because that’s not for officers, but for enlisted personnel.” And I said, “Well, what’s the benefit of my coming in enlisted vs. coming in as an officer?” because I didn’t have a clue. So he said, “If you come in enlisted with a degree, you can start as an E-4.” The ranking system is E1 to E9 or you can come in as an officer from O-1 to O-9, lieutenant to colonel and then the four general officers.
“So if I came in as an officer with my degree, I wouldn’t be able to receive the $20,000?” I asked, and he said, “No, but if you come in as enlisted, not only will we give you $20,000, but you also have to join the infantry. If you want an additional $10,000, you go to Airborne school,” meaning that you jump out of planes. So that’s $30,000, and I was thinking in my mind, “This might not be bad.” I was pretty athletic in high school and played football. So I said, “What are some of the other things the infantry does?” and he said, “You’re obviously a front-line fighter; you do a lot of training, and you travel a lot.”
So I went home and talked with my wife and said, “Shahnaaz, what do you think about my joining the Army?” and she said, “Well, Gary, it’s a good idea, but you want to negotiate to make sure that you get the job that you want. You shouldn’t go in unless you’ve talked to some folk who have been in and know what to do.”
I went back down there, ended up joining and came back home, and she said, “What did you do?” and I said, “I joined the infantry.” And she said, “What?? Why did you do that?” and I said, “I got the biggest bonus I could, student loan repayment; I figured if I joined and served my country, I might as well do it all the way. I said, “It kind-of reminds me of the history of the Buffalo Soldiers,” and I thought it would be an honorable thing to do.
I wanted to do the best thing for my family with a newborn on the way. I already had two sons for whom I was paying child support, and it was a financial hardship while I was pursuing the film-making company. I didn’t want Shahnaaz going to some clinic because we didn’t have insurance.
When I got to Basic Training at Ft. Benning, GA, it was a shock getting off the bus and seeing the drill sergeant screaming and yelling. At 27, I was an older enlistee. The average age of coming into the military, oftentimes, is 17, 18, 19 years old.
I remember the drill sergeant saying to me — we were in our barracks, standing in front of our bunks — and he was coming down the line, calling out our names and ranks, and he came to me and said, “You’re an E4, Specialist Mason? Why are you here as an E4?” and I looked at him and said, “I have a degree.” And he shook his head and said, “You’re a dumb***.”
He said, “You got a degree and you joined the infantry?” and he looked at me and said, “You will learn.” And then he turned around and walked away.
I didn’t understand what he meant at the time, but did I find out? Yes, I did. I realized that what he was saying is, “You came to the lowest of the low, the bottom of the barrel. You are a grunt.” And he basically said, “You’re a ****, a Dedicated Infantry Combat Killer.” In other words, he was saying, “You don’t join the infantry if you have a degree.”
He was out-of-line, but he was being prophetic. Drill sergeants aren’t there to hold your hand; they’re there to whip you up to reality and prepare you to die. In other words, “You’re going to die for your country.”
In the back of my mind, being that it was the year 2000 in August, I never, ever considered the idea of racism. It was the farthest thing from my mind, and I think that was the most naïve thing that I thought. This was the biggest lesson I learned. I believed that we were living in a post-racial era, and soon I was going to get a quick lesson as to what was really going on in the military.
Sharon Rondeau has operated The Post & Email since April 2010, focusing on the Obama birth certificate investigation and other government corruption news. She has reported prolifically on constitutional violations within Tennessee’s prison and judicial systems.