“WE HAD JUST LOST CONTROL”
by Sharon Rondeau
(Jun. 5, 2018) — Our last installment of Capt. Gary Mason’s story ended on the note that he had asked an Army recruiter if he could return to active duty for financial reasons while finishing his Divinity degree toward ordination as a U.S. Army chaplain.
Mason enlisted in the Infantry in 2000 and advanced through 2003, when he felt called to apply for admission to the military Chaplaincy Corps. Once accepted, the candidate earns a Master’s degree in a religious-related field and is placed on Reserve status until completing his studies.
Mason had already earned a Bachelor’s degree in Communications from Howard University when he enlisted in the Infantry at age 27, a decision which surprised his wife, already an Army veteran herself and expecting their first child.
In Mason’s case, he enrolled in the Divinity program at Regent University in Virginia Beach, VA while working full-time as a diplomatic security officer at the U.S. State Department. “During that time, while I was there, I was taking an online course at Regent, but my job allowed me to do the Reserve time,” Mason said. “I would go to Army bases all around the U.S. and participate as a chaplain candidate.”
Mason shared some of the surprising twists and turns he encountered in his journey from enlisted soldier toward ordination in an interview here.
His advanced degree, although largely completed online, necessitated sacrifices which Mason said he was willing to make in order to benefit his family and ultimately, the soldiers to whom he would minister.
As related in Part 6, Mason said that after he and his wife Shahnaaz welcomed their second child, “finances became very tight again.” It was Shahnaaz’s idea, he said, for him to request returning to active-duty status before completing his Divinity studies. She said, “Gary, since you have only six years to finish this program, have you considered going back on active duty and then completing your degree while you’re there? Then you can transfer over.”
“It’s called an accession,” Mason told The Post & Email of that possibility. “I had made it all the way to first lieutenant as a chaplain candidate. I talked to some recruiters and asked if there was any way I could return to active duty and finish my Master’s there, and they said, ‘Yes, as a matter of fact, we can use you.’ This was August 2008, before the election of Barack Obama.”
His return to active duty would take Mason and his family from the East Coast to the “Big Island” of Oahu, Hawaii, from which Mason would then be deployed to Iraq’s Sunni Triangle. Of this new chapter in his military and spiritual journey, Mason said:
They approved me and accessioned me onto active duty as a first lieutenant. Guess where they put me? In the U.S. Army Infantry as an infantry officer. I didn’t realize what the repercussions would be; normally, anyone who becomes an officer has to go to OCS (Officer Candidate School). But they figured I had already been to the Chaplain Officer Basic Course (CHOBC) and didn’t need another “basic” course.
In August 2008, I received orders to take my family and get stationed at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii. When I got there, I was first assigned to Third Brigade, 25th Infantry Division. Every officer is assigned a key-and-development billet which determines a soldier’s career progression. As an officer, you have to make sure you work in all the designated billets to be on track for your next promotion, which would take anywhere from two to four years.
When I got there, I was sent down to what they call the 3-4 Cavalry. They were trying to find a unit for me to be assigned as a first lieutenant so that I could be ready for promotion to captain when the time came. They sent me to a place called the Third Squadron, Fourth U.S. Cavalry, which was under the 25th Infantry Division in Hawaii. That is when I first met Lt. Col. David Hodne. I didn’t know much about him; all I knew is he was the battalion commander and was supposed to assign me a Key & Development position. I thought he was going to interview me about my background and see if he could find me an Infantry position. Normally a first lieutenant is an executive officer, which involves a lot of policy and report-writing. You’re pretty-much the commander’s executive person. As a second lieutenant you normally manage a platoon of war fighters, but I hadn’t done that since I was already a chaplain and first lieutenant.
So it was out of sync; they didn’t really know I was a chaplain; they just thought I was coming from the Infantry branch and they needed to assign me. Because they didn’t know me, they were a little cautious; you’re dealing with ammo and grenades, and if you bring someone from another unit and don’t know his training or skill level, you don’t want them running behind you with a loaded weapon.
We found out that we got put on the patch chart to leave for Iraq. We were supposed to go to Anaconda, the Air Force hub base in Iraq, and our mission was to provide security, combat and logistic patrols while supporting the Sons of Iraq to help maintain stability in their communities. Our job was to set up a security ring and do recon missions up and down the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. We also tried to engage the insurgents and the community to find out what they needed to get their government back into place. At the time, we were placed in the middle of the Sunni Triangle, and there were a lot of bomb attacks and IEDs going off.
I didn’t know much about what was happening in this particular unit. I had my own principles: be sharp, be on time, be a good officer, learn my job, read the Army regulations. I approached it as a job, professionally, as I would any job. The first thing I did was ask for a roster of who’s who, who the chain of command is and what our mission was.
We deployed in October, and I had only 30 days to get my family a place to live. I went 30 days without pay because the S-1, the personnel officer, was dragging his feet on getting me processed. A lot of times, if a person isn’t processed properly with his finances, he isn’t deployed. While my family was still in a hotel and I was getting ready to leave, I started having run-ins with the S-1. Finally, an enlisted person walked me over to Finance, and they immediately cut me a check to pay for the whole month. So that was my first sign that there were some problems (Army units rarely make soldiers and their families wait for their paycheck). But I was so hyped-up to put my skills to work and go to war that I overlooked it. I was really, really excited about being an infantry officer, a part of a team and going to fight the insurgency.
I was naive, however, and believed that everything that a U.S. Army officer should do by taking the oath to protect, serve and defend this nation protected me from toxic leadership. I did not know about the rude tactics of racial discrimination or the nastiness of people who would, because someone didn’t comply with what they wanted, would prevent him from being promoted. But if you don’t fit in with your peers, you don’t get promoted. It’s not about the Army regulations; it’s not about administering the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) properly; it’s about whether or not they like you.
I had not even begun to process that. I was a little bit nervous because it was my first time deploying. But at the same time, we were going as a unit, we had trained, and I was a part of a team that was bigger than me.
When I first went to meet Lt. Col. Hodney, he wasn’t there. He told me to show up early; apparently two lieutenants came in, a second lieutenant and me. The second lieutenant had a Ranger tab, which I didn’t have since I hadn’t gone to Ranger school. When you come into the infantry, it’s kind-of a status symbol; if you go to Ranger school as an infantry officer and to Airborne school, they call you a “tabbed” officer. In other words, if you want to get promoted to Captain in the Infantry, they want you to have a Ranger tab and have an Airborne patch, meaning that you’re a tough guy.
That’s not the way I came in. My bio was unique. I came into the Chaplain Corps and got a direct commission. So I didn’t have a Ranger tab, although I had completed Airborne School and Air Assault school, jumping out of helicopters and airplanes. I didn’t realize that’s what they were looking at. So they took this young man over me and gave him a key-and-development billet, which is a position I should have had because I was senior ranking. They assigned him to an infantry platoon and assigned me as an S-4, which means I was in charge of supplies. That’s not a key-and-development billet; it didn’t set me up for promotion to captain. That basically said all I did was count beans and bullets. That was my position before I got deployed downrange.
When I got to Iraq, we were at the Logistical Support Area (LSA) “Anaconda,” and I was told at the last minute that they were going to move me to become the night-shift battle captain working in the S-3 shop, which is training and operations. Operations was what we were doing as a unit. A lot of people do not want to be the battle captain, because it means that there’s a day shift and a night shift. You can be in there from 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m., and then there’s a night shift from 9:00 p.m. to 9:00 a.m. They made me the night-shift battle captain, which meant I was in a tactical operation center. I had to complete situation reports (sit-reps), incident reports, document whoever is leaving the Forward Operating Base (FOB) and coming on the FOB, and any communications from main headquarters. In other words, I had to put together a shift-change brief, which meant that every shop — the S-1 shop, personnel; the S-2 shop, which was computers and intel; the S-4 shop, which was supply — I had to get slides from them, put them together and then brief the last 24 hours and then the next 48 hours to the commander, who was Hodney at the time. So any type of fight breaking out, missile drops, KIA, MIA, AWOL – I was pretty-much a reporting officer of everything that happened in our combat region.
During that time, right before I started that job and we were moved to a place called FOB Poliwoda, we had our first major command briefing. It was a few days before President Barack Obama had been elected, so a lot of people were nervous about who the next president was going to be and arguments were going on about it. I remember we were in a conference room, and there were about 20 members there.
In this whole platoon, there were only four black officers. There were three lieutenants, including me, and one captain. Every other officer was white. We were sitting around, and as we were getting ready for the command briefing, there was a young man who decided that he was going to put up an “ice-breaker” where he was going to show slides. The slides contained women with big breasts, corny jokes, funny photographs and pictures. As we were sitting there, all of a sudden a large picture of the African-American actor Ving Rhames popped up with big, bold letters across his chest that said “NIGGARDLY.”
Everybody got quiet; a few people laughed. There was a chaplain there, and he jumped up, turned it off and walked out. I remember someone saying, “What was that all about?” Of course, the black officers just uncomfortably looked at each other. But I noticed no one said a thing. I was thinking, “OK, so what’s this about?” I looked around and thought, “Is somebody going to correct this?” There was an officer there in charge, and he didn’t say anything. They just kept on going as if nothing had happened. That immediately rubbed me the wrong way, but I thought, “OK, I’m the new guy here; there’s no need for me to say anything; let me just make a mental note.”
Neither the pictures of the women nor the one of Rhames with the word “niggardly” on it was appropriate. There were women in the building. We were at war. We were supposed to be talking about what our mission was there. It was unprofessional and disrespectful. Again, I just took a mental note: “OK, they think this is funny; I don’t, but we’ll just move on.” I didn’t have anything to say about it right then. I was trying to get a feel for how these guys operated.
Where it got bad was that we left from LSA Anaconda in a convoy to Poliwoda, which was in the middle of the Sunni Triangle. When we got there on November 8, 2008, I remember there were groups of Kenyans working at different bases helping out in Operation Iraqi Freedom. All of a sudden I woke up, and they were out there in the fog celebrating, and I said, “OK, what’s going on here?” I walked into the dining facility, and CNN was on and they were announcing that Barack Obama was the 44th president of the United States. There was a dead silence, then all of a sudden I saw people kicking chairs, throwing stuff, and saying, “This isn’t my f***** president.” So finally, there were two white males, leaders, sitting at the end of the table, and one of them said – and he didn’t see me sitting there – “The only reason this black-a** president got elected was because a whole bunch of these poor-a** n****** went out and voted.”
I just kind-of stood up in shock and looked, and one of them said, “Look, man, shut up.” He got up and walked out, but before he left, he went up, snatched the cord out of the wall and turned the TV off in front of the whole dining facility.
So I got up and said, “Who’s the manager of this dining facility?” and a young sergeant first class, a black man, came up, and I said, “Is this your dining facility?” and he said, “Yes.” So I said, “Are you in charge?” and he said, “Yes.” So I said, “OK, go turn that TV back on.” So he went and turned it back on.
Immediately, you could cut the tension in half with a knife. That evening, spray-painted in the bathrooms – we had a lot of porta-johns – they drew pictures of gorillas.
The climate got bad, people started arguing about the president, saying, “He’s not our president”; “We got a monkey for a president”; “We got a n**** for a president.” It was written all over the latrines, and at that moment, I was thinking, “Wow, we had just lost control.”
[Editor’s Note: In 2009, Mason’s wife, Shahnaaz, was a guest on NewsTalk WOL 1450 radio wherein she described the “slide” incident. The interview took place after Mason returned from his Iraq deployment.
Sharon Rondeau has operated The Post & Email since April 2010, focusing on the Obama birth certificate investigation and other government corruption news. She has reported prolifically on constitutional violations within Tennessee’s prison and judicial systems.