U.S. Army Veteran Shares Painful Experiences of Military Racism, Part 4


by Sharon Rondeau

Gary Mason (second from left) with three other chaplain candidates at Ft. Jackson, 2006

(May 11, 2018) — In Part 3 of this series, former Army Captain Gary Mason detailed his time in the Infantry at Ft. Lewis, WA between 2000 and 2003 and his subsequent acceptance into the Army Chaplaincy Corps.

Parts 1 and 2 of Mason’s story can be read here and here, respectively.

Mason’s decision to apply for the Army chaplaincy program was initiated by a role he assumed early on of attempting to resolve conflict among members of his platoon.  He also observed racism, sexism, and physical fights between soldiers which he felt he could address more meaningfully by “doing God’s will.”

Already possessing a college degree when he entered the Infantry, Mason’s platoon leader suggested he would find more satisfaction in becoming an Army chaplain.  Not having expected initially to make the military a career, Mason applied and was accepted to the Chaplain Officer Basic Course (CHOBC) and promoted to the rank of lieutenant.

With the future looking bright, Mason never forgot his ties to the Infantry and took advantage of military “practicums” during the summer months consisting of Airborne and Air Assault training to broaden his opportunities once he graduated from the chaplain program.  He never imagined that some years later, disaster was to strike following his deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan as an Army Infantry officer chaplain.

Having first been an enlisted soldier, Mason was able to anticipate some of the physical exigencies for which he could be called to minister as a chaplain, although he said most chaplain candidates did not typically possess that background.

A painful experience for him, Mason said, was that “the Chaplain Corps made sure I was only to become a Gospel Service Chaplain because I was black.”

He was surprised to find that CHOBC involved the concept of “pluralism,” or an “all-inclusive” approach toward ministering in the military.  He also said that his expectation of simply “preaching the Word of God” was quickly dispelled.  “The Chaplain Corps was more subtle,” he said.  “They had a goal, and that was, ‘We want only a particular religious subject-matter expert.  We don’t want an evangelistic, Holy-Ghost-filled, Bible-thumping, Jesus-saving pastor.  We just want a counselor/subject-matter expert, but at the same time, we want you to have almost like a Ph.D. in order to do your job.'”

Mason said that upon graduation, each chaplain becomes part of a “commander’s group.”  “In other words, you work for the commander.  On a company level, you work with the captain; on a battalion level, which is the next step up, you’re working with a lieutenant colonel.  If you’re working on the brigade level, you’re working for a full-bird colonel. If you’re working on the brigade level and you have a full-bird colonel, he’s going to call in every company commander, and that means that all the senior officers will come in and they will talk with them and their oversight of all of their personnel staff and enlisted soldiers.  Then you’ll have the inspector general, the EO people, the chaplain, and the brigade surgeon. It’s like the president calling in his cabinet,” he recalled.

Of the chaplain’s main function within a brigade, Mason said, “The chaplain is there because he’s is supposed to keep the pulse.  He’s supposed to get down to the lowest level with all of the service members and make sure soldiers and their families are thriving.”

As chaplains advance in rank, Mason said, there is less interaction with the soldiers and more with company commanders along with overseeing newer chaplains and continuing one’s education.   “When you become a Major as a chaplain, you’re working more so on a brigade level where you’re overseeing the younger captains.  So you might not be in the gospel service where you’re preaching or teaching a Sunday service.  When you go to Major, they send you to the Major’s course, which is a year long, where they teach you to be more of a planner.  In other words, you’re going to oversee the curriculum for the younger chaplains as they are teaching services involved in family readiness when they deploy.  They’ll normally cycle you to four designated areas.  For instance, when you become a Major, they want to make you a subject-matter expert in the field of resource management, and with the money that comes from all of the chapel services, they’ll send you into Ethics, which you can teach at a military war college.  You’ll go into clinical pastoral education where you will be a Major working in a hospital doing CPE or you’ll be doing family counseling where you have a family counseling office.  So you’re more geared toward a subject matter as opposed to the younger chaplain, a captain, who is teaching and preaching with the service members,” he said.

He further described a chaplain’s training and ascendancy within the military hierarchy:

When you become a lieutenant colonel, they’re dressing you up to possibly be around as senior leadership.  Now you’re spending time with full-bird colonels and generals.  You’re the garrison commander’s partner.  In other words, you’re now spending more time planning what the whole post activity should be.  Now you’re looking at things from a broader viewpoint and talking to the general.

For instance, if you’re having DUIs on the post or suicides or marital situations that could be impacting the commander specifically, the chaplain comes in and says, “This is what needs to happen,” and then he deciphers the information from the senior command officer and pushes the policy down to the younger chaplains to disseminate it all the way down to the lowest levels.  So that’s how that works.

When I came in and first went to the chaplain officer basic course, there were three parts.  The first part was coming in and learning the duties of a chaplain.  The second portion was more specific detail as to how to give services, how to do death notifications, how to do field ceremonies, how to handle marriages and counseling. and then the third part was more of a capstone where you went out into the field and did training, acting as if you’re doing real-world stuff, but it’s in a training environment.

All the while, you’re a chaplain candidate.  During that time, you’re supposed to finish a 72-hour graduate-level degree, which is normally a Master of Divinity.  They put you on a National Guard or “reserve” status.  During that time, you have the opportunity to do what they call practicums, where you can choose a list of Army bases you want to go to and you serve as a chaplain candidate while you’re going to school during the summer months if they have openings.

When I left Ft. Lewis, I went to Ft. Jackson, which is where the Chaplain Officer Basic Course is held, the headquarters for all branches.  It’s separated out by individual. The Army has its own Chaplain Officer Basic Course, so that’s where I went.  I had not even started my first semester, but they knew I was accepted into the graduate program, so they said, “We want you to do at least your first portion of the chaplain course.”  They asked me if I wanted to do all three, but technically you shouldn’t do all three until you’re graduating.  The last semester, you finish out and get assigned. When I was working, the chaplains’ office was located in Crystal City, VA, across the street from the Pentagon.  The senior position of a chaplain can only be a two-star general, normally a Major General.  At the time I switched over, it happened to be an African-American chaplain by the name of Chaplain Hicks.  He was retiring as I was graduating from the Chaplain Basic Course.

I went into this with my heart set on doing God’s will. I didn’t come in understanding what the Chaplain Corps taught, which was to be pluralistic in our approach.  There was a whole course given on pluralism, which means that we cannot be biased or come in with the belief that our faith is “the” faith.  We have to be all-inclusive.  We cannot be exclusive with our ministry calling.

When I came in, I thought I would have a service at 12:00 noon and be teaching and preaching the Word of God.  I didn’t even know what pluralism was.  Soon, I began to understand what the “pluralistic” approach was, which meant that I needed to take classes on sensitivity.  At the time, “Don’t ask, don’t tell” was still in place, so there wasn’t a new set of Army regulations saying we had to do same-sex marriages.  That wasn’t a consideration then.  We were just being taught the basic necessary functions of what our roles and duties were.

The basic requirement is you have to have 72 hours of graduate-school training, the majority being in theology or religion or church administration.  Then you have to have at least two years of practical experience pastoring or performing so many weddings or funerals.  You also had to have an ecclesiastical endorsement, which means a governing body recognized by faith-based groups must sponsor you.  It has to be an accredited institution that can provide an endorsement which allowed candidates to come in as a full-service chaplain, whether it be in the National Guard, Reserve, or active-duty.

I got to the training center in Ft. Jackson, SC in 2003 after I took a direct commission.  When I got there, it was a schoolhouse environment.  We still had to be in uniform; we still had to do PT; we still had to show up at the chow hall.  We had mandatory meetings.  It was like going back to college.  There were 250-300 chaplain candidates who would break up into smaller groups.  I think there were about 30 in my platoon.  We were staying at a place called Dozier Hall, which is kind-of like a small hotel, like a barracks, but nicer and more upscale for officers.

This was my first opportunity to wear what they call “Butter Bars.”  We were second lieutenants and had a shiny gold bar on our uniforms.  They used to call me a “mustang” because I was enlisted first.  Not only was I enlisted, but I was in the Infantry.  A lot of chaplain candidates coming in never had any military experience, and they were trying to teach the enlisted soldiers the military way of life.  I was already a “grunt,” so I had already fired weapons.  A chaplain is non-combatant; they don’t hold weapons.  They’re supposed to be there as the peace-bearers, for medical support, to help after a bomb goes off, when you need to get to that ER because they’re going to need prayer or last rites.

They also taught ecumenically, which means that we have to be fair with other faith-based groups.  The Baptists have ways of doing things; then you have the Methodists, the Lutherans, the Episcopalians, Catholics.  There were imams there, although I didn’t meet any in my class.  There were perhaps two Buddhists.  The ecumenical environment said, “We’re all one; we all work together as chaplains,” which was incorporating pluralism as well.  Even the Wiccans wanted a chaplain.

We had templates for serving people who were gay and lesbian; we had one geared more toward the spiritual, Christian-based counseling and one that was more general.  If someone was giving a funeral or chapel service, we had one that was more Christian and another that was more of a generic ceremony with no real religious preference.

I got very involved in doing all of my practicums during the summer months.  I went to Airborne school at Ft. Benning; I went to Air Assault school in Ft. Campbell, KY.  There I got my designation to rappel out of helicopters; of course, airborne is jumping out of planes.  The more schools you have, the more opportunities you have to work in different places.  I was already an infantryman, and I knew there was no way I was going to be denied any type of job opportunity in the U.S. Army. In other words, I wanted to make sure I had everything necessary to broaden my horizons in any type of unit out there.

Capt. Mason’s story will be continued in a future article.

This story is cross-posted at AF through Medium.com.

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