Thoughts on Transitioning from “Enlisted” to Officer & Chaplain

“THE CHAPLAINCY IS NOT WHERE YOU DO THAT”

by former U.S. Army Capt. Gary Mason, ©2018

(Jun. 2, 2018) — [Editor’s Note:  The following is a stream-of-consciousness account by former Army Captain Gary Mason of his observations of his transition from enlisted soldier to chaplain candidate and his goal of ministering to effect positive change where needed.  His story has been told in six previous articles, with Part 7 forthcoming shortly.]

Officers go to OCS (Officer Candidate School) and learn how to be an officer; it’s like Basic Training when you’re enlisted.  Then you determine which branch of service within the U.S. military you want to be a part of.  They said, “You’ve already been to basic training.” As a matter of fact, Basic Training in the infantry is harder than “basic training” as an officer.  The rigorous routine they put us through as an enlisted soldier is much more harsh than OCS, where you can go back to your own room and sleep in it.  But in the Infantry, we had to sleep in a bay on top of each other.  You’ll hear it from the enlisted men all the time:  “We work for a living.”  A lot of enlisted folk can’t stand officers; they say, “We would never go to the dark side, because they don’t work for a living; we do.”  But the fact that I was enlisted as an infantryman, the other infantry guys respected me.  They called me a “mustang”; in other words, you came out of the canyon with us and now you’re leading, so you earned the right to be a leader.

On the other hand, which became a problem, the West-Pointers didn’t like me.  The guys who just went to college and came out and became infantry guys didn’t like me because they were like, “Who is this guy?” He went to Howard University and got some degree; he didn’t go to West Point, so he can’t come to the Officers’ Club and eat with us and talk politics.  He’s not Armenian or Calvinist; he’s one of those spirit-filled brothers on the corner, break-dancing.  It was kind-of like, “OK, you’re an officer, but you’re not a West-Pointer.”  In other words, you don’t know the history of the Good Old Boys network.

That’s when I began to say, “Wow, I have some real learning to do.” So I began looking for some mentors.  I couldn’t understand why the black officers didn’t want to talk about it.  They had to do what they had to do to get their rank. They would always say, “Yeah, when you have a chance, give me a call.”  And the first thing they would ask me was, “Are you in a Greek fraternity?” and I said, “No, I’m a Christian,” and they’d say, “Well, we’re definitely not talking to you.”  If you weren’t in the Masonic order, a Free Mason or a Greek college fraternity member, there were no organizations for you.  They would have their own little circles of protection.  Here I was, this brother who came out of Washington, DC who was looking to take care of his family, to do right in the military, wanting to serve my country and God, but that’s not what people wanted.  I’m not saying there weren’t other chaplains who really wanted to live as a chaplain — there are about eight or nine chaplains I know personally who were called to be great men and are serving God; I can’t speak for the other 1700 active-duty chaplains in the Army.

From 2003 to the time my career ended in 2015, I had befriended two dozen chaplains, both black and white. They were great friends, but they’d just come out and tell me, “If you’re really about evangelizing and doing the work of the Lord, the chaplaincy is not where you do that.”  They would say, “I’m going to finish the years to my retirement, and then I’ll come out and start a church.” That was the gist of it.

Back in the day, they had two collars on the uniform in the Army; they call them BDUs (battle dress uniforms).  Now they have these new high-speed, camouflage uniforms that keep changing.  At that time, an officer would wear his military branch on one collar and his rank on the other.  In other words, someone could look at your collar and determine, “He’s an infantry officer and he’s a captain.”  Now you just put your rank on.  A lot of times, you can’t tell — unless you wear your official dress uniform with shoulder boards and ribbons — but what happened was a lot of the senior chaplains who were lieutenant colonels and colonels were more concerned about their progression and their promotion versus their identification as a chaplain.  In other words, they were more concerned about being accepted in the “real” Army as a soldier as opposed to being a chaplain. If someone approached them and said, “Chaplain XXXXX,” they might say, “Don’t call me ‘Chaplain’; I’m Colonel so-and-so.”  They wanted more respect from hearing their rank being called than being identified as a man of God.

That happened only in the higher brass.  Everybody who came in as a lieutenant or captain in the chaplaincy were like rookies.  They were working really hard to act out their faith.  I saw the most faithful people as lieutenants and captains because they didn’t know any better.  They were like, “Look, God has blessed me.”  But you get promoted based on your officer evaluation reports (OERs).  If you get skipped over twice for promotion, the military can put you out.

This is normally what happened: there would be chaplains to come in at captain level and they would be fired up for the Lord and excited about being a chaplain in the U.S. Army.  Then all of a sudden they would get skipped over for promotion.  Then it would seem that a little bit of depression would set in, and it was like, “Chaplain, are you OK?”  Then all of a sudden they would become worried about their careers, and they couldn’t focus on the work of the Lord and helping other service members.   Then you would see them disappear; they weren’t as active; they weren’t doing as many programs.  Now what they were doing was spending more time with the commander trying to impress him rather than going out and helping the service members.

If you’re helping the service members, they will get behind you and rally as a servant leader.  By doing the work of service to those who need you, all of them rally behind you.  But if you come in and all you’re concerned about is your rank and promotion, it becomes very evident that you’re not really serving the people; you’re being self-serving, and you want everybody to give you something.

For me, no matter who you are, you can’t put a label on being a Christian.  I grew up in the inner city; I was a boxer, a fighter.  I grew up not having much.  I played football, I ran track.  I got an education.  So all of my life experiences are packaged.  If I’m a chaplain, I’m going to be a great chaplain and hopefully help those who have suffered.  If someone’s a crackhead and I never snorted crack, I might not be a good witness to him because I don’t know what it’s like to snort crack. But if I come from modest beginnings and make it through life and get a great education, I become believable.  That’s the way I looked at my military career.

The piece I didn’t know about was, “How are you fitting in with your peers?”  There’s a rater and a senior rater.  The rater is the person you work for.  So if I was a captain, I probably got rated by the battalion commander, who is a lieutenant colonel.  But the senior rater would be that lieutenant colonel’s supervisor, which is a colonel.  So if I have a great relationship and get along with that supervisor and he likes me, he’s going to give me a good OER.

What I came to realize is not the mission, but the relationship you have with your peers.

I do believe there should be esprit de corps; you should have loyalty; you should love the company where you work.  For chaplains, you have to balance your collar.  You have a job being in the Infantry branch, but you also have to maintain the fact that you are the subject-matter expert and the man of God.  In other words, you should be good at understanding everything the infantry has to do and even perform those tasks with them, although not as well as them because you’re not trained.  I was the exception, because I was in the Infantry.  If they were going on a ruck march, I was there with them.

As a chaplain, it’s your duty to go out with your chaplain assistant so that he can protect you in the field as you’re counseling service members who are suffering.  The chaplain assistants are not required to be a Christian; it’s just a job.  As an officer and chaplain, you have to mentor them.

So when the chaplains were cheating on their wives and drinking and doing all kinds of unethical things, that would reach the chaplain assistant who would say, “Some of these chaplains are dirty.”  If there was a bad chaplain working under a commander, that would make the job harder for the next chaplain.  It wasn’t fair, but you were expected to prove yourself.

People are people, whether you’re a chaplain or an infantryman.  The one common thing we have to agree on is that racism, sexual assault, suicide, sexual harassment, PTSD all exist in the branch I worked in.  I spent the majority of my time trying to push past it in order to get on with my career, but I could not force myself to ignore it when I saw something go wrong.  I took an oath to protect and obey, not just against foreign enemies, but also people in uniform who were violating the UCMJ.  That was my duty as a person.

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