U.S. Army Veteran Shares Painful Experiences of Military Racism, Part 5

“THIS IS NOT WHAT I SIGNED UP FOR”

by Sharon Rondeau

Gary Mason, wife Shahnaaz and son Josh at Mason’s graduation from Airborne School, Ft. Benning, GA, 2005, while serving as an Infantry Basic Training Chaplain

(May 19, 2018) — In Part 4 of this series, former U.S. Army Captain Gary Mason detailed the education and training he received as a Chaplain Officer Basic Course (CHOBC) candidate beginning in 2003 after he served as an infantryman for the prior three years.

He originally joined the Army after graduating from college to secure medical benefits for his pregnant wife and a steady income over what he envisioned would be a four-year tour of duty. However, in 2003, he felt called to become an Army chaplain and began to view his military service as a career.

A military chaplain candidate is required to complete a Master’s degree in Divinity, religious studies, or another related field and, while doing so, is placed on “Reserve” status. As Mason explained, a candidate must obtain the endorsement of a recognized ecumenical organization in order to receive his or her ordination.

During the summers, Mason advanced his military training with Air Assault and Airborne schools at Fort Campbell and Fort Benning, respectively, so that he would possess the experience to minister to any division of the Army once fully ordained.   “I wanted to make sure I had everything necessary to broaden my horizons in any type of unit out there,” Mason said.

While attending Regent University in Virginia Beach, VA for his Divinity degree, Mason worked full-time at the U.S. State Department.

The following continues Mason story of that phase of his Army service.

Previously called “Combat Arms,” the Army Infantry unit falls under what is now “Forces Command.”  Combat Arms was the branch that dealt with the infantry, the special forces, the armor, the field artillery. Those were the combatant commands.  Then you have Combat Support, which has to do with logistics, finance, human resources, and engineering.  Those are the things that support the front-line fighters, the war fighters.  Then you had Combat Support Services, which encompassed the doctors, the lawyers and the chaplains.  They’re specialized, and you had to have higher education in order to do those jobs.  You couldn’t just come in as a doctor unless all of your certifications were up-to-date.  For lawyers, you have to have taken the Bar exam and of course, completed law school.

So I was fulfilling all of those requirements to become a chaplain. It took me from 2003 to 2008 to finish.  As a matter of fact, I graduated in 2009.  I came in in 2008 because we had a window of six years to finish our degree to maintain accreditation, but I had to work a full-time job and still maintain my Reserve status as a U.S. Army chaplain candidate.

The State Department is where I initially got my top-secret clearance, which comes into play later in my story when the Army tried to revoke it.

Mason worked as a Diplomatic Security Officer at the U.S. State Department from 2005-2008 while attending Chaplaincy School and Graduate School

I became a U.S. State Department diplomatic security officer.  I was working at all of the embassies, at the State Department doing access control; I was even working on details where I was providing security rings for Laura Bush.  Condoleezza Rice was the Secretary of State at the time, and I worked at the Watergate Hotel, where her residence was, because I was providing security.  Whenever there was movement, I would provide security to and from on her details.   That was the job I had while I was going to school full-time at Regent University in Virginia Beach, VA.  At the same time I was working with the Coalition of Spirit-Filled Churches, which was my endorser.

Every summer, whenever there was a training course, I would leave on Reserve status in order to fulfill all of my requirements to become a chaplain.  I was doing all of that at once, plus my wife and I were raising a young family.  It was very tiring, but I was highly motivated. A lot of people have goals to just be a chaplain and stay on Reserve status.  A that point my wife and I agreed that it would be better for me, if I were going to make the Army a career, to do it as a chaplain.  I felt then that that was my calling.  I would never have thought that I was going to stay in the U.S. Army, but if I was going to stay in the Army, I wanted to serve as a chaplain.  In that role, I felt I could be a man of integrity and character.  I was a little older than the average captain or lieutenant, so I thought I could provide a lot of wisdom to those who were younger than me, and I could just live with the right standards and morals and be who God called me to be.  That was my whole purpose in staying; it transitioned into that.  It wasn’t initially why I joined, but I began to see, “This is what I can do:  serve God and country.”  I was excited about that.

Then I started noticing little aspects of unfairness, even in the chaplaincy.  I came into the chaplaincy as a minority, which was fine.  I did not care; I was color-blind.  I was physically-fit, I had served in the infantry, I had been enlisted, on active duty, and I knew all of the standards and protocols for being military-minded.  The way I felt was, “I love my country, I love my wife, and I love the Lord.  I’m getting the education.” In other words, I was enjoying every aspect of it.

Then I began to hear some of the conversations of the other chaplains.  Anywhere you go, people tend to find a way to form cliques and separate themselves instead of just being a big family.  I joined the military to “Be all you can be; in an army of one.”  I believed that stuff!  I don’t know…maybe my mom and dad did a wonderful thing by raising me to always believe that “Yes, you’re African-American, but guess what:  you love everybody.  You do unto others as you want them to do unto you.  That’s the way my mom and dad raised me. Yes, I grew up in Washington, DC in the inner city in what they call the Shaw Community at 14th and “U” Street.  My mom and dad were hard workers, one a police officer and the other in the government.  As they were raising my two brothers and me, my mom and dad said, “Yes, we can stay in DC in this inner-city community, but let’s offer them a better education.”  So we moved to Prince George’s County, MD, where they put us in schools which for the first time, it wasn’t all black.

So I began to see small divisions in the chaplain corps and I personally decided that I would be of the mindset that I’m here to serve God and I’m a Christian. I’m going to have my beliefs set around that, but I’m also willing to respect the First Amendment.  That was one of the hardest questions that the Chaplain Corps asked:  “Are you willing to accept the First Amendment, to be inclusive and accept the fact that we are a pluralistic group of individuals who will serve every service member in the U.S. military without bias or prejudice?”  And I was willing to do that.

When “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” went away, there was an uproar in the chaplaincy because there were a lot of Catholic endorsing bodies that said that their priests could not marry same-sex.  A lot of them were having endorsements pulled.  You can’t serve in the military unless you receive an endorsement as a combat service member, because the endorsing agency is what certifies you to be a chaplain.  You can get a degree in Divinity, but that doesn’t classify you as a pastor. You have to have a certifying body, a church board or some kind of religious affiliation signifying that you are qualified to marry, bury, or to preach and teach and counsel and do the things that would encompass a tenet of faith.

You also have to maintain the endorsement after you’re ordained.  Normally there’s a fee that you pay.  I was originally with the Coalition of Spirit-Filled Churches, but now I’m with the Evangelical Church Alliance.  There are a lot of endorsers out there; you find out which one most closely matches your faith and you go with them; you submit an application, pay a fee, and they want to see all of your grades. You also have to have references from your local pastor where you work.  I was doing ministerial training as well.  So there was a whole list of things needed to complete the Chaplain Corps requirement process.

Many of the perspective chaplains repeatedly asked the question, “Are you Armenian [Orthodox] or are you Calvinist?”  A lot of the chaplains were educated and they would argue these theological questions.   The so-called Armenians and the Calvinists were always debating.  This is where the biggest problem came:  There were a lot of those who were trying to push their belief as a Calvinist or as an Armenian. They didn’t believe that much in what we would call the Holy-Ghost-filled, Bible-thumping, Bible-preaching, evangelical Christianity. They were basically saying, “The way we do it here in the Chaplain Corps is we’re either Calvinist or Armenian.  If you don’t understand what that means, then too bad; you’re not going to be able to sit up at the big table with us.  We are really the most important chaplains. We don’t care about the Methodist Church because the Methodist church is allowing alternative lifestyles.  You’re either going to be Calvinist or you’re going to be an Armenian.”  It wasn’t coming from the Chaplain Corps, but it was the chaplain candidates who would be standing out in the field having these theological debates.  To me, that was fine; you can argue your faith all you want.  For me, all that mattered was, “Do I love like Christ wanted me to love?”

Mason at Ft. Benning, GA Airborne School, 2005

One particular time, we were doing a low crawl in a mud pit under barbed wire.  They had been training us hard; we had been doing intense physical training, then a ruck march and an obstacle course.  There was an African-American who was a little overweight, and he got down and was crawling, then he turned over, and he looked as if he were having a hypoglycemic attack or a seizure.  So I said, “OK, look, there are about 150 pastors out here. I know you’re looking for a medic, but get down there and pray for that young man.” And they were like, “Well, we’re not praying for him; why don’t you Holy-Ghost-filled, miracle faith-healers get down there?” So of course, I just went over there and began to administer some form of first aid/CPR. And I said, “Guys, this is not a theological debate here; this is a person who is suffering, and we need to get involved.  You-all need to be praying while I’m administering first aid and CPR.”  And there was a kind-of “Leave the brother there and let him just choke out in the mud.”  The insinuation was, “That’s what he gets for being overweight; he’s a fallout.  He should lose some weight.”

In the military, unfortunately, it’s like that.  But these are chaplains, not military personnel. These are people trying to pass the course.  But you still have to do some basic training.  The point is:  Let’s pray for the young man, give him some water, and administer first aid and CPR if necessary.  They were too busy trying to be funny, as if, “The guy’s out of shape; why don’t you evangelical miracle-workers go over there and save the man?”  I realized that a life was not being valued here.  I was honestly shocked.

That was not me looking at anything racial; that was me looking at, “Hey, this is not what I signed up for.”

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