U.S. Army Veteran Shares Painful Experiences of Military Racism, Part 2

“KEEP YOUR MOUTH CLOSED”

by Sharon Rondeau

Mason during a “live fire” exercise

(Apr. 27, 2018) — An article published on Monday introduced the story of former Army Captain Gary Mason, who entered the military in 2000 at the age of 27 after acquiring a degree from Howard University in Communications.

Mason’s father is a retired Washington, DC police officer.  The family lived in the capital city until Mason was five, when they moved to Prince George’s County, Maryland.

Mason enlisted in the Army after he and his wife, Shahnaaz, discovered they were going to have their first child.  A small business owner without health insurance, Mason was concerned that his wife would not receive proper care, and the $20,000 bonus offered to enlisting soldiers was an added incentive for him to join.

Shahnaaz supported his idea to join the military as she had served four years in Army Intelligence and knew the benefits. What she was deeply concerned about was his choice to serve in the Infantry Branch, a decision that proved to be life-changing.

For Part 1 of this series, Mason recalled his first close encounter with a drill sergeant, who, upon learning that Mason had joined the infantry as a college graduate, incredulously exclaimed, “You got a degree and you joined the infantry?” punctuated with “You will learn.”

Mason said that at the time, the existence of “racism” within the Army’s ranks had not occurred to him, as he believed that the military was “pretty progressive” and “ahead” of the rest of the population. “In some ways, yes, but in other ways we were still backwards and outdated,” he told us.  “There was a culture in the U.S. Army — and I can’t speak for the other branches, but I would imagine it’s the same — that they were still backwards in their thinking when it came to toxic leadership.  In other words, there were still people in the Army who believed that white men should be leaders and they should be in charge, and African-Americans and Latinos should be the workers and the ones who would be our collateral damage in combat.”

He continued, referring to the possibility of racism:

I wasn’t even thinking that; that was not my thought at all.  In fact, before I went into the military, my thought was, “How do I choose which branch?”  I remember my wife telling me, “There are more people in the Army and there’s better career progression for African-Americans, and the most promotions are happening in the Army.”  That was based on her experience.

The Marines are a small branch that falls under the Department of the Navy, and the Air Force is kind-of an elitist thing where everything is based on test-taking versus performance.

I ran track in high school and had been a boxer.  The hardest thing for me was running long distances. But I was very assertive, a hard-charging, go-getter athlete type, so when I got to Ft. Benning [for Basic Training], very soon I was made the person who was in charge of my platoon and my bay; in other words, I was to tell everybody to keep this place clean and how to do everything right.

One evening, a large young white male came to me and said, “I’m not going to have a black man telling me to do anything, because where I’m from, black people don’t tell me what to do, so I’m not doing a thing that you say.”

I was shocked, and I said, “Look, I don’t care where you’re from. You’re going to get over there and get that mop and you’re gonna mop.”  And he said, “I’m not doing a thing for you.”

So finally I reported it to my drill sergeant, and the drill sergeant did the right thing:  he brought him in to his office, and he said, “Let me tell you something.  There will not be any racism here; you will do what this young man tells you to do.”

[Editor’s Note:  Mason said that the drill sergeant who handled the situation was the same one who told him, “You will learn” upon Mason’s arrival at Ft. Benning.]

What I realized was, “OK, I’m going to come across racist people, but if I report it properly, the chain of command is going to fix it.”  So I said, “OK, well, he’s different; he’s from the back woods of West Virginia and he just hasn’t spent much time around African-Americans.”  Now this guy suffered; he broke out into tears.  It was as if his whole world came apart.

I kept working with him, and on a long, long rough march, he fell out — that means he fell way behind.  I turned around and went back and got him and helped him make the rough march with us.

After bending over backwards to help him, he then became my biggest advocate.  As a matter of fact, he showed me pictures of his family who were skinning pigs on the farm; they were pretty poor.  He apologized, and after that, we didn’t have any problems.

The Post & Email then said, “So he learned something and something good came of it.”

Yes, exactly.  So that was my story of Basic Training.

When I was about six weeks into Basic Training, my wife had the baby.  I received a Red Cross message that was disturbing; it said that “Your wife and child are in the delivery room and your wife is having complications; we’re probably going to lose one or the other.”  I was shocked.  My wife, being the loving wife and mother, said, “If anybody is going to live, I want the child to live.”  Of course I was upset.  So they brought me to the commander’s office and I sat there. They couldn’t get me out that same day; I had to wait until after the surgery.

Come to find out, both of them made it.  The baby was a preemie.  I flew into Pittsburgh to be with her and then I flew back to Ft. Benning to finish Basic Training.

My first assignment after that was at Ft. Lewis, Washington, and my wife and son joined me. This was just before 9/11 broke out.  Ft. Lewis is now Joint Base Lewis McChord as the result of a merger between the Army base and the Air Force base.

This was my first significant thing.  There was a battalion commander by the name of Lt. Col. Todd McCaffrey.  I was at a small company, and I think for the first time that’s when I noticed that racism existed.  When I got there, in my platoon, there might have been only three or four African-Americans out of about 40-45 soldiers.  It was quite common that the word “n*****” was used.  At that point, it wasn’t directly addressed to me, but it was a common usage in conversations as to how they referred to black men.

Every now and then there would be racial slurs written on walls.  We had rocks outside of our barracks which represented the unit rock, where we would write down our motto.  Sometimes we’d see things like “Hate the n*****” or “Kill the n****.”  Of course, we’d never know who did it, but the whole company would suffer.  The leadership didn’t like to see things like that, but that’s what went on.

At that point, I began to realize, “OK, this is happening, but it’s ignorant, and I’m going to rise above it.”  So I didn’t make a big deal about it.

No one really picked on me too often because I was kind-of a big guy and lifted weights; I loved fighting.  The whole idea of going into the sand pits and practicing hand-to-hand combat appealed to me.  As a boy, I became a champion in the daily neighborhood fights. I grew up in an apartment complex, and it was very territorial.  So there were little gangs formed, and the bottom line was that you better be able to handle yourself and defend yourself. So I made a name for myself that I was very good with my fists.

My first run-in in the Army was when I started seeing the younger, weaker African-American men coming in – high school graduates – being taken advantage of.  They would be the ones to clean the latrines, to buff and mop the floor.  A lot of times it was just an initiation process, but I noticed that the African-Americans were always the ones on the menial tasks.

When it was time for a promotion from a Private to a Private First Class up to Specialist, I noticed immediately that in my particular company, they would never give us (the African-Americans) promotion ceremonies.  Normally for a promotion, you bring the person in front of the company; we would all be standing in formation, and the leadership would read off a set of promotion orders and the person promoted would get pinned in front of the whole company.  We always had our own little private ceremony and we would pin each other, because they would never read off our promotion orders.  Sometimes our pay would just quietly change.

Mason with “Battle Buddy”

I was always the one who would bring it to the attention of the leadership, and of course, I would always get persecuted for it.  “Oh, come on, Mason, you’re a specialist; you’re different from them.  Stop worrying about these privates and wearing your feelings on your sleeve.  This doesn’t pertain to you; you’re older than they are; we have to turn these guys into men.  Stop complaining about it.  Soldier on, soldier up, and don’t fuss about it.”  I would hear these types of things.

“Were any of the men in the upper echelons black?” The Post & Email asked.

Yes, the first sergeant; he was like the “daddy” of the company.  You had a captain and a first sergeant who were normally on company level together.  At the time, the company commander was a white male, and there was a black sergeant, the senior enlisted guy.  He was pretty quiet; I think if he had seen some of the things that were happening, he would have quietly made changes.  I began to learn that a lot of the African-Americans who had rank, around E-5, which is a sergeant, or E-6, which is a staff sergeant, were quiet:  “I have my rank; I don’t want anyone to mess with my rank; let’s just reach my 20 years and I’m not going to get involved in all that pettiness. Yes, I went through the racism also, but I want to make my 20 years and then get out with my retirement.”

A lot of them learned the game.  For those who didn’t, they never made E-5, E-6, and they ended up having some type of disciplinary situation and being put out because that wasn’t the kind of African-American or Latino that they wanted.  They wanted someone who is going to come in and be a “yes”-man; “Yes, sir; no, sir;” stand at attention and be a robot.  Don’t ever, ever go against your chain of command.

“Did the company commander ever call the unit together to say that racism would not be tolerated there?”

Yes.  We called them “sensing” sessions.  Normally we would break into platoons, with about 40 members per platoon.  Each platoon had its own leadership guided by a second lieutenant or a staff sergeant or sergeant first class.  We would have meetings, and the staff sergeant or second lieutenant would be like squad leaders who would report all of the incidents that had happened.  They would have a private meeting and determine whether or not they needed to tell the company commander.  So they would try to get the pulse of what was going on in our individual platoons.  Every now and then, if the situation got worse, then we would have a larger meeting where the commander or the first sergeant would officiate.

The first sergeant would try to mitigate the problem before it got to the commanders.  In other words, “Let’s see if we can stop this on the lowest level.”  In the case of the infantry, there’s a lot of drinking, a lot of chasing the girls on post, fighting in the bars and in the gym.  Infantrymen were known to get into brawls and fights.  So every now and then, when something racial would happen, they would try to eliminate the problem from the lowest levels.  They never wanted to get it up the chain of command to the battalion commander, who was the overseer of about four or five different companies.  He was the next tier above the company commander, who was normally a captain.

So if these incidents came up, they would isolate them.  They never wanted to say that “racism” was an epidemic, so that’s how they would break it down.  They would avoid it.  Every now and then, there would be someone who would try to pull that individual aside and talk to him, which was like putting a band-aid on an oozing chest wound.

Occasionally, if you were a really bad alcoholic, they would send you to an AA class.  This was well before President Barack Obama got into office; between 2001 and 2003 when I was at Ft. Lewis.  At the enlisted level, what I saw was, “You’re in the infantry, so whatever you’re told to do, you just do it.  You don’t question anybody in the chain of command or any officer.”  That is where you learn the culture:  “Keep your mouth shut; do what you’re supposed to do; and don’t let your name come up before the commander.”  If you can do that, you’ll probably move forward in your career.  “Keep your mouth closed.”

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