by Sharon Rondeau

(Jun. 28, 2018) — This chapter of Gary Mason’s military story brings the reader to the point where as a first lieutenant stationed with the 3/4 Cav battalion at Ft. Paliwoda in Iraq’s Sunni Triangle, he was physically assaulted by an enlisted soldier, a sergeant major, without provocation.

In Part 9, Mason detailed the sergeant major’s demonstrable animus toward him which appeared to have been based on hearsay from other soldiers amid a simmering undertone of racism which Mason observed after landing at the main operating base, Joint Base Balad, following the election of Barack Obama.

After Mason reported the assault to a battalion commander, he was immediately relocated to Joint Base Balad ostensibly for medical treatment which spiraled into a series of events leading to his involuntary separation from the Army.

The assaulting soldier was not disciplined but rather, his behavior was excused as simply the way he “communicates” with others.  Conversely, Mason maintains that the treatment he received afterward was retaliatory and career-ending.

Just prior to the altercation, Mason experienced an extreme allergic reaction to fumes given off by a “burn pit” located just outside of his housing unit, an issue reported in recent years by a number of major news organizations which is said to have affected tens of thousands of U.S. veterans returning from wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Mason’s exposure began during his deployment to Iraq’s Sunni Triangle in late 2008, although his discharge for “disability” did not stem from it.

The Department of Veterans Affairs has created a Burn Pit Registry which now contains the names of approximately 64,000 veterans who have reported lung problems, cancer, neuropathy, fatigue and, in some cases, early death after exposure to the pits on a daily basis.

The major operational base in the area where Mason was deployed, Joint Base Balad, is documented to have used burn pits.  Mason was first sickened at Ft. Paliwoda while serving as night-shift “battle captain” but also spent time at JBB upon his arrival in Iraq and prior to returning to the States.

The Post & Email has reached out to the U.S. Army for comment on Mason’s story but received no response.

Mason’s story continues:

We were living near burn pits and had one right outside our wall.  We would burn everything from oil, gas, trash; anything we needed to get rid of we would just burn.

One night, I woke up and my mouth and jaw had swollen up like a camel.  I went straight to the medic and had him look at me.  He got very nervous; he was the brigade surgeon from Walter Reed.  He said, “Hey, look, what’s going on? Have you had this happen before?”

I said, “Yes, they say I have something called idiopathic angioedema urticaria. They don’t know what’s triggering it; I started getting it after I enlisted.”  It’s like an allergy; they give you something to reduce the swelling.  He said, “Well, this is life-threatening because if it moves into anaphylaxis, it can go into your throat, and I might have to intubate you.  Maybe you should go to Joint Base Balad, where there’s a full-up medical hospital and they can check it out.  I’m going to give you some meds which will make you very drowsy, so you’re not going to be able to work for two days or until I see this swelling go down.”

He pulled me off the Tactical Operations Center for two nights and asked me to stay in the medical room.  He then put me on Benadryl or Prednisone to prevent my going into anaphylaxis.  Apparently it got the young lieutenants mad because they thought they had to do double work.

When I came back on the third day, I walked into the TOC to get prepared to brief my slides and get the information going, the sergeant major walked up to me and said, “I don’t like how you’re f—— doing your job.”  Col. Hodne and Maj. Naumann were sitting behind me — this was the battalion commander and the S-3 — and just listening.  This was the first time the sergeant major actually engaged with me.  Whatever had built up in him about me, it was clear that he wanted to create an argument.  I said to him, “Hey, look, sergeant major, I have ten minutes to get my brief together.  This is not a good time to talk.  What we can do is after my briefing, we can step to the side and talk.”  And he said, “No, we’re gonna talk now.  You’re not doing things right; you’re not getting the work done.”  And I said, “Sergeant major, the computers have been down for the last week.  My guys are doing the best they can. Until we get the S-6 (the computer guy) to fix this stuff, we have to do what we have to do to make sure the commander is briefed.”

I turned to continue talking to the sergeant about what needed to be briefed.  Then the sergeant major tapped on my shoulder and said, “You need to follow me.”  So I said to myself, “OK,” because this man was starting to get on my nerves.  We walked outside into a little breezeway.  He immediately picked up his hand, like a sword, and started hitting me in my chest, saying, “I don’t f—– like how you’re doing your job; I don’t f—– like how you’re not upholding your end of the work.”  And he was hitting me in my chest.  At this point, I saw red, but I said to myself, “Gary, this is an attempt to provoke you into some type of action or physical altercation so that I lose my job.”  So I grabbed his wrist and said, “Do not put your hands on me again.  Since you want to be assaulting me and cursing me out, we’re not having a conversation.  I’ll address this conversation with some of the other commanders, but you will never in your life put your hands on me again.”

Then he ran in front of me and blocked me from going back into the Tactical Operations Center.  This time he wanted to stab me with his hand in my shoulder, so I pushed his hand again and got loud.  I said, “I’m telling you right now to ‘at ease’ and back away from me.”

Because I was so loud, people rushed out into the breezeway and got in between us and said, “Hey, Lt. Mason, what’s going on?” I said, “The man just assaulted me. He’s putting his hands on me and cursing me out.  This man’s telling me he doesn’t like the job I’m doing in the Tactical Operations Center, but I’m not going to have him putting his hands on me.”

Then Major Naumann grabbed me and said, “Mason, come with me, and we’ll talk in my office.”  When we got there, he sat down and said, “Have a seat.”  He had a half-smile on his face and asked, “Mason, what happened, and what is going on?” and I told him.  I said, “Major Naumann, Sergeant Major Manis interrupted me doing my preparation for brief.  I told him we could talk after the brief.  He basically harassed me to the point where I felt I had to step out and have a talk with him. When we walked out to the breezeway, he started putting his hands on me and cursing me out.  As a result, I told him we’re not talking.  I turned around and walked away.”

Major Naumann then said, “Gary, don’t worry about it; we’ll have it covered.”  Then he said, “The brigade surgeon talked to us and said that you had a medical issue, and he wants to send you to the hospital up at Joint Base Balad.”  And I said, “Hold up — does this have to do with my losing my job?” and he said, “No, no. no.”  And I said, “It sounds to me as if this was an attempt to have me removed form the position of Battle Captain.” And he said, “That’s just the way Sergeant Major Manis communicates; he’s real physical.”  And I said, “Major Naumann, he assaulted me.  I want him counseled, because he cannot put his hands on people.”

He then said, “Lt. Mason, why are you wearing your feelings on your sleeve?” and I said, “It’s not my feelings, Major Naumann. What we have here is a situation where as an officer, you cannot touch me.  You don’t put your hands on anybody.”  He said, “Mason, it seems like you’re really hot about other things…” and I said, “Well, let me tell you what’s going on.”   I wasn’t going to say it, but I did: “What is going on with all this racism here?  It’s happened to me three or four times.”  That’s when his face got red, and I thought, “I must have hit a nerve.”

He asked, “What are you talking about?” I said, “Well, when I was at Joint Base Balad, we were having our first commander’s brief, and they put up a slide of Ving Rhames with the word ‘niggardly’ written across the man’s chest. What kind of atmosphere is this?  In the latrines, there are gorilla and monkey pictures drawn all over the toilets and the walls.  This is not who we should be as a unit.  This is causing tension here, and I think as a result, this sergeant major is off the chain.

“You need to have some kind of a sensing session and clean up things really fast or things are going to blow up around here, and I’d much rather have this thing fixed,” I told him. “It seems that this election has messed up a lot of your heads.  I don’t care who the president is, but there are a lot of people in this unit who don’t like the fact that we have a black president, and it’s causing arguments and fights on the base when we should be focused on the mission.”

After I said that, he said, “Mason, if you want, you can write down what happened and we’ll look into it.” And I said, “I’ll write a report and I want him counseled.  I want a counseling statement done against the sergeant major.”  And he said, “OK, I’m going to talk to the command sergeant major.”

There was a command sergeant major named “Stout.”  The difference between a sergeant major and the command sergeant major is that the command sergeant major is in charge of personnel.  The sergeant major doesn’t have a job; he just has years and rank to get promoted to that rank.  So Sgt. Major Manis didn’t have a job; he was just kind-of floating around, getting on everybody’s nerves, running his mouth — something that is dangerous, especially during wartime.

While we were talking, Major Naumann said, “I think you probably weren’t given a fair introduction to 3/4 Cav.  The problem is that you just got to the unit and you hadn’t gone on the training exercises with us, so a lot of people just don’t know you.”  I said, “Major Naumann, that doesn’t matter.  The bottom line is I’m doing my job.  I can’t help it if people don’t like me. I’m not here to be liked; I’m here to do a job. So you’re either going to accept me as a part of the team or you’re not.  Already, we’re being referred to as n*****s and soldiers are saying openly we have a ‘monkey’ president. That’s not a good introduction.”

And he said, “We’ll look into that; I didn’t know that was going on.”  I said, “Well, I’m letting you know; maybe you should look into that and we can talk about this later.” And he said, “We will be filing a counseling statement.”  So he just looked at me, and I looked at him, and I said, “Is there anything else?” and he said, “No, I want you to just take the day off.” And I said, “Sir, I’m fine.  I don’t need a break.  I’m going back to the Tactical Operations Center.”

As I was walking down the hallway, the command sergeant major walked up.  Command sergeant majors were usually black, but Stout was white.  He had a Ranger tab; Manis was a Ranger tab; Naumann was a Ranger tab; Col. Hodne was a Ranger tab.  It was a Ranger tab community.  So Command Sergeant Major Stout said, “Mason, you’re not going back in the Tactical Operations Center.” I said, “Why am I not going back?” and he said, “We’re going to put you on a CLP (convoy-combat logistics patrol).  We’re going to transfer you back to Joint Base Balad so that the doctors can look and see what’s going on with your health.”  And I said, “Well, my health is fine.”  This is the excuse they gave me:  “Because of your condition, we’re going to have you checked out further.”  He said, “Pack your bags; you will be on the first CLP (pronounced “clip”) in the morning at 6:00 a.m. rolling out the gate.”

[Editor’s Note:  In the next chapter, Mason will describe his arrival at Joint Base Balad and duties while there, his return to Ft. Paliwoda, and the email he later obtained showing that certain members of 3/4 Cav conspired to end his military career.]

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