U.S. Army Veteran Shares Painful Experiences of Military Racism, Part 6


by Sharon Rondeau

1st Leiutenant Mason, Chaplain Candidate in front of Walter Reed Hospital, Building 1, Washington, DC

(May 27, 2018) — In our most recent segment in the story of U.S. Army Capt. Gary Mason, he detailed his hectic schedule from 2003 to 2008 working full-time as a diplomatic security officer for the State Department and completing his Master’s degree in Divinity for the Army Chaplain Officer Basic Course (CHOBC).

During the summers, Mason furthered his military training, begun as an infantryman in 2000, so as to better understand the lives of the men and women to whom he would be ministering.  At the same time, Mason and his wife were raising two young children.

At the conclusion of Part 5, Mason recounted an incident which gave him reason to reconsider his intent to become an Army chaplain.  As he witnessed a group of chaplain candidates decline to assist a soldier experiencing a medical emergency while he was taking part in a training exercise, their lackluster reaction prompted Mason to say to himself, “This is not what I signed up for.”

Further, Mason said, he discovered that the Chaplain Corps was not necessarily seeking preachers in the traditional sense, but rather, individuals who were willing to become “subject-matter experts” within the Army’s hierarchy of “religious” services.

Relative to what Mason saw as a missing component within the Chaplaincy Corps — valuing every life and acting accordingly — Mason recalled that frequent theological discussions among chaplain candidates were whether one was “Armenian,” meaning embracing the doctrines of the original Christian Orthodox church, or “Calvinist,” a “reformed” Protestant theology encompassing the five “Doctrines of Grace.”

Most of all, Mason believed, prayer would guide him in his journey toward ordination.  Of his observations of many of the chaplain candidates, however, Mason recalled:

I was thinking, “Wow, wait a minute…hey, guys, we should pray before we do everything.  But these people were like, “We don’t have to pray.  We have a degree.”  In other words, there were a lot of men and women who wanted to be a part of the military but not necessarily trying to do God’s will.  They were just like, “We need a check.”  That’s when I had my “aha” moment.  I stopped and looked around, and what I saw was a group of failed pastors in the civilian world who didn’t have much of a ministry or income on the outside.  There was a rush; the military was looking for subject-matter experts to come in and handle our religious programs.

It became very evident when we had to do our chapel services. We were all required to put together a 5-15 minute sermon, and we had to give a message.  It was very obvious that a lot of these guys and ladies did not have callings.  In other words, you can go get a degree in Theology, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you can stand up in a pulpit and teach, breaking down God’s word.  So I began to find out that this was not about evangelizing; this was not about saving souls; this was not even about improving some of the things that I thought were wrong and could be improved.  This was about being part of a command group with a good-paying check.

In other words, these jokers – and forgive me for saying “jokers” – were like, “Look, we just need to check the box; I have an endorser, I have a degree, and now I have a job. Now I can go and put on a uniform.”  A lot of them didn’t even want to wear the religious-affiliated cross.  A lot of them just wanted to put on the uniform of the U.S. Army and then think, “When I walk around post, you can salute me.”

That was highly offensive to me, because I was an infantryman. In other words, I was a grunt.  I felt that if anyone there was a credible witness to be a chaplain and even die alongside my fellow service-members, it was me.  In other words, when bullets get to flying, guess what I did?  I would run toward it.  I didn’t run away from it.  Just like the beach scene in “Saving Private Ryan,” there was a chaplain right there as a man was rattled, body filled with bullets and dying, and he was trying to administer last rites.  I think that’s courageous.  I think it’s needed, but you have to be called to do it.  The chaplain’s work is serious business; it’s not about whether you’re Calvinist or Armenian.  It’s about meeting the needs of service members who are suffering in dark places, whether it be sexual assault, rape, racial discrimination, suicide, homicidal thoughts, marriage problems, death notifications.  You need to be in that operating room when limbs are being removed and limbs are blown off.  You need to be there, and you need to administer spiritual comfort.  That’s a big definition for “chaplain.”  I began to realize that some of the people in the Chaplain Officer Basic School were not there for those reasons; they were there for a job. We called them hirelings; they were the people who wore the religious symbols but weren’t really trying to help anyone.  They had a nice-paying job and did everything for money.  They didn’t do anything for the love of the people.

I was shocked when I was in my dorm room one night and the person next-door to me was having wild and crazy sex, and this was a chaplain.  Then I heard one chaplain upstairs in the laundry room cursing out his wife, who had come to visit.  We had one young black female chaplain who was being approached by white males asking her to have sex.  These aren’t chaplains.  There again, I was facing the same feelings I had when standing in formation being referred to as a “n*****.”

I was thinking, “Oh, my gosh, even on this side of things, it’s the same games.”  At first I questioned.  “Lord, this is a heartbreaker. Am I making the right decisions?  Should I leave the military altogether?  Now I have commitments.  I have six years of a degree I’ve been working on.”  What I did was instead of focusing on all the negative again, I said, “Lord, I’m going to push that behind me and I’m going to keep helping those I can help.”  And I was thinking, “I’m going to ignore this, because there are people who need me, and I’m going to focus on that and do what God called me to do.  No matter what the rules are here, I’m going to do my best to do what’s right.  As long as I do that, my career will advance.”

I thought as long as I stayed in shape, passed the PT test, wore my uniform correctly and did everything I knew God wanted me to do, my career would be furthered.  That was my thought.

When I was one semester away from graduating, I went back to the chaplain career course to do my field exercise as a chaplain.  We stayed in the field for 5-6 days.  While I was there, they put all of the women into their own tent.  There was a group of five or six females, women chaplains, who were black and Latino.  While they were in their tent, at nighttime, some white chaplains came to their tent and started singing, “Wade in the Water” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”  Then they started saying, “Why don’t you piccaninnies come on out?”

There were two or three of the women who were walking to the latrine, and some of the white chaplains walked behind them and made comments such as, “Look at Beyoncé.”

Some of the women felt fearful and came to us and said, “Can we talk to you?  We need to have a meeting; we need to tell you what happened.”  I remember sitting there – and there was a major sitting there, also – and one of the women said, “They approached us, calling us ‘Beyoncé’ and saying things about our behinds.”

We had this older gentleman, a Reserve chaplain; he was about 6’6,” and I remember him jumping up and saying, “We’re gonna have a confrontation.”  But I said, “No, that’s not the way we handle this.” Again, a lot of the minorities were feeling that they were being isolated and not being given fair treatment.  Just as when we had to have our own promotion ceremonies, we were feeling left out.

So I stopped this guy, because he wanted to go right over there; he knew one of the guys making the comments.  I said, “No, we’re chaplains; that’s not how we handle things.  What we’ll do is go to the leadership and report the incident. You all know we’re getting ready to graduate; if you bring this up, they’re probably going to stop the whole graduating class and investigate.  Are you all willing to go and let the commander know what happened?”

There was some indifference.  A couple of them were like, “Yes, I’m willing to tell.”  So I encouraged them to write up the incident.  I told the young man, “There will be no fighting; we’re going to finish this field exercise.  We will let the command know and they’ll fix this. We’re the Chaplain Corps.  They’ll do the right thing.”

The women went; they had their meeting.  They were called out of class, and it was pretty bad.  They went in and reported everything.  There are two ways of handling it:  you can do a formal or informal investigation.  They said that if they did a formal investigation, it could take three months and everybody would have to stay there.  No one would graduate as a chaplain or take assignments until the investigation was complete.  An informal investigation would take two or three weeks; no one would be charged, but commanders would try to correct the situation on its lowest level so as not to alert upper-level commanders that there was a problem.

The African-American women came to an agreement that they all wanted to do a formal investigation, but the command opted to do an informal investigation and let these folk off the hook.  They slapped a few wrists; they didn’t want to address it because they didn’t want to spoil the graduations.  Here we were graduating, and we had the black chief of chaplains, Chaplain Hicks, who came to the ceremony. Instead of congratulating us on our hard work, the school commandant was asking, ”If you all knew this was going on, why didn’t you bring up these things earlier?” Now, the victims were having to defend themselves on a day when they should have been celebrating.

The black female who was propositioned to have sex was asked if there were other things going on.  It started opening up a can of worms.  One of the black females was teetering on not meeting the weight and height requirement, and she was asked, “Are you complaining because they were talking about recycling you because you couldn’t lose the weight?”  The credibility of the women was being questioned while the men who had harassed them were allowed to graduate into a corps that espoused integrity and virtue.

The informal complaint lent itself to being a slap on the wrist; they didn’t want to destroy the mood because we had children and families about to see us graduate the next day.  It was too little too late.  When we got to the graduation, the person who made the comment about their behinds being like Beyoncé ended up as the valedictorian.  So all the African-American and Latino women who were there were like, “How does this ignorant person get to do this?” and the command said, “You opted not to do a formal investigation.  We reprimanded them, but you have to forgive.”  So I said, “This is a culture.”

Whenever you’re at a schoolhouse (military training school), they don’t like seeing your name come up in complaints and investigations.  They have to make a determination if they want you in their rank and under their command.  They already know they have problems in the military. They don’t want someone to come in and magnify the problem. If you speak up about injustices or soldier abuse you’re labeled a “problem child,” and what they want is someone who’s willing to come in, be quiet, and just play the game, because people don’t want to be held accountable.  I learned the culture needed to change, but it would be a fight.

So if you’re coming up for active duty as a problem child, that’s a problem; they want someone who’s willing to come in, be quiet, and just play the game, because we all have a job to do, which is to focus on the mission.

Ultimately, I finished CHOBC in 2007, but I had to finish my degree in order to be able to be a U.S. Army chaplain and captain.  I did five or six practicums; because I had been in the Infantry, I noticed that the chaplain corps always wanted me to do my practicums at Infantry bases.  I went to Ft. Benning and Ft. Campbell; I went to Walter Reed twice, where I did a unit of clinical pastoral education; I worked in the ER, and then I did two assignments at the Pentagon.  I actually worked in the chief’s office to help them.  I wanted to mix it up so I could get a variety of training.  Every summer until I graduated while I was working at the State Department, I did every practicum I could to better my career and understanding of being a U.S. Army chaplain.

Editor’s Note:  A field sermon given by Mason in 2007 can be heard here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N8YJm6Y5D9w&feature=youtu.be

Walter Reed Army Medical Center – Clinical Pastoral Education Graduation, August 2008 (Mason is third from left)

By 2008, the period of time for my accreditation was coming to a close.  This was not the average Master’s program.  They want you to do a doctorate of ministry when you become a Lt. Colonel and say that you have a doctorate degree.  The average Master’s degree is 30-36 credits, but this was a 72-hour program requirement.  It was a Master’s of Divinity, which is the precursor to your Doctor of Divinity.

I had so much effort put into this that I could not turn around now.  So when someone said, “Lt. Mason, you have to hurry up and finish,” I had to consider my family.  Here I was again doing everything I could to work full-time and go to school full-time, so I talked with a recruiter and asked, “Is there any way I could go back on active duty and finish my degree?  I need more income. Is there something I can do in the military full-time, finish my degree, and then transfer into the chaplain branch?”

The answers to Mason’s questions will be presented in the next installment.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.