by Sharon Rondeau

(Jun. 19, 2018) — In Part 8 of our series, former Army Captain and Chaplain Gary Mason took readers to Iraq’s Sunni Triangle, where he was deployed in 2008 with the 3/4 Cavalry on a mission to retake the region from insurgents and set the stage for peace.

Mason returned to active duty earlier that year while completing his Master’s degree in Divinity to become an Army chaplain, having decided that he would make the military a career.  Unlike most officers, however, he first served as an enlisted soldier in the Infantry for three years.

As an officer and first lieutenant, upon arriving at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Paliwoda in Iraq, Mason was appointed  nighttime “battle captain,” an administrative position in the Tactical Operations Center requiring a combination of hardware and software, organizational, and interpersonal skills in order to supply up-to-date reports on casualties, intelligence, and operations to the unit commander each day.  Mason said his goal was to “perform [the job] to the best of my ability” as “an officer and a leader in the U.S. Army.”

FOB Paliwoda was an extension of Joint Base Balad, also then known as LSA Anaconda.

Earlier in Mason’s story but after arriving in Iraq, he described verbalized racial epithets and graffiti appearing inside the porta-johns used by 3/4 Cav after the November 4, 2008 election results declared Barack Obama the president-elect of the United States.

After assuming the job of battle captain, Mason told us, tension began to develop between a sergeant major, who was enlisted, and him which led to an assault, then escalated into a downward spiral.   Mason believes that his ousting from 3/4 Cav was rooted in the racism he said he witnessed which was a shocking and painful occurrence.  He also believes lack of discipline in the unit and retaliation on the part of the commander for his reporting of the assault weighed heavily in the Army’s efforts to end his career precipitately.

Part 8 described 3/4 Cav’s training by the 101st Airborne Division to assume its duties as Airborne prepared to leave Iraq and return stateside.  During the week-long training period, Mason, explained, Airborne servicemen would be in the “left-seat-ride” position, with 3/4 Cav soldiers in “right-seat-ride” as the trainees.

Mason’s story continues:

After that week of training, we were still at right-seat ride.  Then the week changed, and I had to move into a left-seat ride.  The second week was me actually being in charge, and then the guy who was training me from the 101st had to watch what I did throughout the night.

We had Iraqi allies who would work with us to give us information about what was going on in the local communities.  That way, for the next year, we could help them get back into leadership and control of their own communities.  It was kind-of like a counter-insurgency operation for the Paliwada area.

There was a group called the Sons of Iraq, and these guys were trying to re-establish their presence to get their government back.  But they would go out and get into fights and firefights with their insurgents. We had a small medical unit with a brigade surgeon; they would bring their wounded in to us because sometimes it was too far to bring them to their outpost.

That’s when I started seeing that this thing was real:  there was a lot of fighting going on in the community.  On my first day, I was told, “Let’s go; we have to go out to the clinic.”  So I went out into the courtyard, walked across, and they were bringing in bodies and putting them on the table.  So now my role went from administrative in the Tactical Operations Center to helping move bodies.  All of the bodies were dead.  We would roll them over, find the bullet hole, and lift them up, and the doctor would do an assessment.  I don’t even think they had bags; they would put them in the back of the truck; I don’t even know what they did with the bodies.

Now I was doing things that happened on the fly. I had to maintain a level of hardness even with some of the things being disturbing.  Something was always happening very fast.  I had to be alert, make sure I didn’t get shot, that I did my job and did it well.

During the first week, I went into the Tactical Operations Center, and it was chaos.  A TOC is like a war room.  You look around the walls and you see what’s happening on the ground and in your area of operations.  That means a commander should be able to walk in and see how many have been killed — enemies and friendlies — what the weather is, what the intel is, how many Air Force assets we have, and of course, our supply status and communications.  We had to set up all these computer systems and make sure they were all connected with one another and we were getting the proper communications back and forth to Joint Base Balad.

Mason at FOB Paliwoda, Iraq

I walked into this place and it was full of chaos and noise.  I gave them five minutes before I was to start.  So here I was, the new guy, the black-faced guy.  If there were 50-60 people in that room, there was only a handful that were African-Americans, whether officer or enlisted.  My first thought was that I had to give my commander his first brief of our first day of left-seat ride in this region.  I remember how difficult it was getting all the information from all the other commanders in order to put my slide deck together to present to him.

The first thing I remember doing is walking in and raising my voice so high and so loud that it shocked everybody, then it went straight to silence.  I yelled out, “At ease.”  That’s how I established myself.  Some liked it and some didn’t, but the point was that I had to grab people’s attention and let them know that we were here for business.

Some looked at me as if, “Who the hell does he think he is?” and some said, “Woo…who is this guy?”  I could see the faces around the room.  After that, I went straight into my briefing.  I went straight down my slide deck; I called the commanders who were in charge of their particular sections.  I let them brief their own slides.  But the bottom line was, I had to give an assessment of what went on the night before and what we were projecting to do in the next day or two.

This is where the problem started.  That night, the executive officer from the 101st Airborne asked if we could go to the dining facility so that we could talk together.  So I thought, “OK, what did I do wrong?  Somebody’s already evaluating me.”  He was a Major from the 101st.  He didn’t say what he wanted to talk about.

He was Latino.  So we sat down, and he sat across the table from me and said, “I have never before seen a briefing done in the fashion in which you did it.  You took one or two weeks and came in here and did that better than some of the guys who did it for 12 months before you even got here.  We have some problems, but you’re going to do fine.”  So I was thinking, “Oh, this is good.”

He then said, “Do this, do that, be clear, be on time, make sure that you project well as you’re doing, and you’ll be fine..  You’re going to lose some people, but you’ll be fine.”  So he gave me some encouragement.

I went back the next day and the computer systems were down.  They couldn’t get any computer to work in that office for two days.  So I had to get the information by hand and on a pad.  I had to go old-school; I had to brief from a pad.  I almost got the feeling that the guys in there thought, “OK, we’re going to initiate Mason.” I think there were some people in the room who didn’t want to do their job, and I said, “Get off the computers and figure out this system.”

So all night, from 9:00 p.m. to 9:00 a.m., reports were coming in late from different sections, and I had to gather all of this information by foot.

There’s a relationship that’s built between the battle captain and the battalion commander.  In other words, I had to take notes on what he wanted to see and what he didn’t want to see.  He might say, “I don’t want to see any color on my slide; I want straight black and white.  Just tell me what I need to know to eliminate the enemies.”

This was all happening when people were fighting and arguing over the new president.  I just pushed that behind me because I had a job to do.  I didn’t care one bit about what was going on with that.

There was a sergeant major there, a Ranger guy, and I was told by some soldiers in the unit that he had a problem with African-Americans.  He had a reputation for physically reprimanding African-American soldiers.  One senior enlisted soldier came to me personally and shared how this sergeant major had assaulted him.  He would come in and out of the Tactical Operations Center and he’d try to see how things were going.  He had come in as a senior enlisted, which means he had probably been in the military for 18 or 19 years. He felt like, “I don’t care if he’s a lieutenant or not; I’m not going to have any lieutenant tell me what to do.  I’m going to let you know that I’m the platoon daddy and I can say and do what I want as a sergeant major.  You give me my respect until you earn yours.”

He would just walk into my TOC and say, “We’re going to practice drills,” and I would come out and say, “Hey, Sergeant Major, we’re not practicing drills at night because the comms are down, so you need to go back to your office and I’ll tell you when we’re ready to practice drills.”  So he would look, and I would say, “Sergeant Major, stand down; let me handle my business and we’ll get to drills later.” So he got embarrassed.

This became a pi**ing contest between a lieutenant and a sergeant major.  I wasn’t pi**ing on anything; I didn’t know what they were doing and how they wanted to do it. They had a way of doing things where this particular sergeant major would come in and scare folks.  But apparently he realized that his scare tactic didn’t work with me, because I didn’t care who he was.  I could respect his rank and service, but his ego was getting in the way of us working together.  I just wanted him to go in his office and do his job; he had no business coming in to the TOC and telling the battle captain what to do.

So there was already this beef between the sergeant major and the new lieutenant.  He didn’t know that I was enlisted before; he didn’t even know my background.  What he should have done was try to talk to me before we were deployed.  He had an opportunity to meet me; I guess he just didn’t want to because I didn’t have a Ranger tab, so he didn’t think much of me.  I didn’t even know who he was and didn’t really care, but this is what happened.

Apparently what was going on was that on the day shift, the young lieutenants, who were white males working with the sergeant major, were telling him things that I was doing at night that they didn’t like or they felt as if they were doing more work during the day and I was on the night shift and there wasn’t much going on at night. So they bad-mouthed me to the sergeant major and created an issue.  There was still the racial thing; the graffiti was getting worse.  I kind-of ignored it, because I had a lot to do.

That is where things began to go south.

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  1. I’ve kept track of and read Articles 1-9
    I’ve shared Articles 1 thru 9 concerning U S Army Veteran Gary Mason
    I’ve printed ALL U S Army Veteran Gary Mason articles to date.
    Excellent articles about an absolute GREAT HUMAN being with compassion and honesty who has served his country with dignity.
    Thanks for ALL of the articles.
    Continue to publish any /all additional article about this young man