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by Sharon Rondeau

Gary Mason with 3/4 Cav 1st Sergeant

(Jun. 14, 2018) — Part 7 of our series of former Army Capt. Gary Mason’s story brought readers to Forward Operating Base (FOB) Poliwoda in Iraq’s Sunni Triangle, where Mason was stationed in late 2008 with the 3/4 Cavalry unit after re-entering active duty.

For the past five years he had attended graduate school for the military’s Army chaplain program.  Close to graduation at the time, he inquired if he could re-enter active duty through a process called “accession,” to which the resounding answer was “Yes; we can use you.”  At the same time, Mason planned to finish the remainder of his Divinity degree, much of which could be completed online.

Mason began his military career at the age of 28 as an enlisted Infantry soldier after acquiring his Bachelor’s degree, a fact which appeared to shock the drill sergeant at Ft. Benning, GA where he attended Boot Camp, as well as Mason’s wife, Shahnaaz.

He served three years in the Infantry, then applied to the Army Chaplain Corps, which entailed being placed on Reserve status while he studied for his Master’s degree.  Between 2003 and 2008, Mason attended graduate school, worked full-time as a diplomatic security officer at the U.S. State Department, and did what he could to help his wife raise their two young children.

While pursuing his Divinity studies, Mason was promoted to the rank of First Lieutenant.  During the summers, he attended rigorous Army training schools in the fields of Airborne and Air Assault to expand his understanding of the challenges faced by the soldiers to whom he soon hoped to minister.

Mason’s decision to resume active duty was made for financial reasons, but, he said, after having been stationed at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii for a time to become acclimated to his new responsibilities, he was eager to go to war when his unit received its orders to deploy to Iraq.

In the previous segment, Mason recalled an incident following deployment to Iraq in which inappropriate slides were shown during a unit meeting, one displaying sexism and the other racism.  Mason said he neither said anything at the time nor filed a complaint, but simply “took a mental note” about the behavior.

Immediately following the election of Barack Obama on November 4, 2008, Mason said, the unit’s portable bathrooms were splattered inside with “racial graffiti.”   As the election results were announced on television that day, Mason recalled that a soldier angrily got up from the table and unplugged the TV while others uttered racial epithets and insults in response to the news that a black man had been elected president.

Of that surprising turn of events, Mason said he recalled telling himself, “It was ignorant, but I’m moving on.  It’s not the mission.”  He also said that as a soldier in combat, the person in the White House did not impact him “as long as he is authorizing us to fight a war.”

“I don’t care if you’re white or black; as a matter of fact, when you’re at war you’re not thinking about voting,” Mason told us.  “I was downrange trying to complete the mission.”

An underlying observation of several military veterans who have shared their experiences with The Post & Email is that of “toxic leadership” within the military’s highest echelons, a factor which Mason said ultimately ended his career prematurely after 14 years.

In 2015, he was discharged and deemed “disabled,” and, now with two Master’s degrees, he is unemployed.

After arriving in Iraq, Mason’s story continues:

I was an Infantry officer, but I was in a cavalry unit whose mode of transportation was often helicopters or humvees.  We had light armored vehicles, like an armored tank with wheels instead of tracks.  It was very heavy, and it was normally mounted with a Mark 19, which was a grenade-launcher or .50 caliber machine gun.  Their mode of transportation was to move out in vehicles.  The Infantry were foot soldiers; our transportation was our boots.  So I thought, “OK, I’m in a cavalry unit.”

But they had one infantry company, and that was Charlie Company, which was led by a captain who knew that I wanted to come down to the infantry line. The infantry had been going out every day doing recon and patrol missions. If they heard of a security threat, they would try to eliminate it.  They were out there in the communities kicking in doors and doing those types of missions.

That particular position was my key-and-development position (career broadening); I was supposed to be down there with the infantry since I was the senior infantry officer arriving.

Instead of placing me in C Company as a platoon leader, the training officer and the Battalion Commander, Lieutenant Colonel (Hodne) chose a less senior second lieutenant who had gone to Ranger school. That was his choice; I didn’t argue.  I said, “OK, fine, as long as I keep moving forward, I’ll get the proper officer evaluation report and move on with my career.”  My heart wasn’t set on staying at 3/4 Cav; my heart was now in “Whatever job you give me, I’m going to perform it to the best of my ability; whoever you put me in charge of, I’m going to make sure I take care of them and do what I’m supposed to as an officer and a leader in the U.S. Army.”

When we arrived from Schofield Barracks, we were providing relief to the 101st Air Assault out of Ft. Campbell, KY.  They had been deployed for approximately 15 months.  As they were going out, we were coming in, taking over from them at FOB Poliwoda.

They had something called a left-seat, right-seat ride.  Left-seat ride is normally the first week after you get there.  They’d give us a briefing, a whole after-action report of what happened during their deployment.  We’d come in and sit in on all the commander’s briefings and get an idea of what was going on.

Imagine sitting in a car:  left-seat ride is the person driving; right-seat ride is the person learning.  You’re just a passenger.  So we were in right-seat-ride, and the 101st was still left-seat ride.  Whatever your position was, you would link up with whoever was doing your position that you were going to assume.  In my case, I was going to take over as the night-shift battle captain.  Normally that’s the captain’s position, but I was a first lieutenant and they decided there was nowhere else to put me, so they put me there.

A lot of people don’t like doing that job because it’s a very administrative-heavy job.  You’re doing everything: watching what happens in the region; handling personnel; you have people doing those things, but you have to get the last 24 and next 48 hours’ information and put it into a PowerPoint presentation for the next-shift commander.  You then have to give him a briefing as to whether or not there were mortar attacks, rocket attacks, if we secured any targets; we had to talk about intel, supplies, our communications, our network operations…

What they were not used to was seeing my face because my face was different. They had only four African-American officers in the whole battalion, which is a very low number.  It was my first combat tour and I took it very seriously.  I wanted to make sure that no one was going to go out there and get killed; I was at least going to try my best to make sure that I got them all the atmospheric information they needed for them to do their job.  I was saying things like, “These are our assets: we have drones in the sky.”  If it was a cloudy night, I would say, “You can’t go out because you can’t get eyes in the sky,” which would tell you if there are going to be any threats along the road.  An important question was, “Can we detect any IEDs?”

I was a bit nervous, but all of the training I had, not just in the military but also in the State Department, came into play.  I practiced security and learned the protocols of safety and protecting people.  I learned how to use my weapon, but the military was not where I learned to fight.  I learned that growing up as a young man in the street, in the inner city.  I knew that if I went into a neighborhood or community, the enemy knew that neighborhood better than I did, so I always had to use covered or concealed positions.  I had to conceal or make sure I stayed behind obstacles so I wasn’t an open target to be taken out by anyone.  Those are some basic things that I learned growing up.  The thing I did not know was how the cavalry wanted to run their mission and administrative processes.  So I had to take all of this information, put it together, and assert myself in a way that would be credible to them. So, instead of leading a platoon, I was put in charge of the (TOC) Tactical Operations Center.

What I didn’t realize is that there were a lot of other people there who were eyeing my position and trying to determine whether or not I “should be” in that position.

A first Lieutenant in my unit shared with me the sentiment of the soldiers who questioned my “right” to be there. He said they made comments like, “This is a position of leadership, and who is he to tell us what to do?  He’s black.  We don’t know him.  He’s new here.  He’s going to come in and tell us what to do?  He’s going to tell us to have slides in at a certain time? He’s going to come in and boss us around?” I didn’t know that that was their attitude initially.

I found out later, based on the investigation of what went down, that they tried to scrub all the names and Social Security numbers so I couldn’t see who wrote witness statements about what they said happened.  When the unit sergeant major assaulted me unprovoked, I began to see up close the evidence of this attitude.

The first Lieutenant in my unit who felt comfortable sharing his take on things explained to me, ”Just like the country was not ready for a black president,” they “were not ready for a black man running the Tactical Operations Center.” I would soon find out to what lengths they would go to in order to remain in their comfort zone.

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