“YOU’RE NOT GOING TO WIN THIS BATTLE”
by Sharon Rondeau
(Jul. 16, 2018) — [Editor’s Note: This installment of our series continues from Part 10, wherein then-Lt. Gary Mason was sent from FOB Paliwoda in Iraq’s Sunni Triangle to the Logistics Operations Center at Joint Base Balad, ostensibly for a medical workup.
In late 2008 Mason was assigned to the Tactical Operations Center with the 3/4 Cav unit and was observed to have been performing well when he was assaulted by a senior enlisted soldier without provocation. The incident occurred after Mason returned from a two-day sick leave caused by an extreme allergic reaction to fumes given off by a burn pit outside of his sleeping quarters.
As major news outlets have reported, burn pits used by the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan have been determined to have caused a host of serious medical problems, and in some cases, premature deaths. Mason said he knew of at least one class-action lawsuit stemming from exposure to the pits’ toxic fumes and that he has suffered long-lasting effects from his exposure at FOB Paliwoda and Joint Base Balad.
Below, Mason describes how he later came to discover that FOB Paliwoda command, led by Lt. Col. David Hodne, planned to return him to Schofield Barracks in Hawaii and end his military career.]
The next morning, I packed up my rifle and assault pack, but I left four duffel bags of military gear which I shoved under my bunk, because I figured I’d be back. I got on the convoy to Joint Base Balad, where the slide of Ving Rhames was shown, and I went in and talked to the command there. There was one black captain, Capt. Meyer. The same S-1, Capt. Johnson, who refused to process my pay for the first 30 days in Hawaii, sent out a report via email to the Logistics Operations Cell I was going to and said, “Hey, look, we have Lt. Mason coming back; he has a little heart; he has a medical condition that he told nobody about, so because of that we’re going to try to send him back to Hawaii. I want you to start looking into some things to see how we can set him up and kick him out of the military.”
I didn’t know that he sent out the email. I had no clue. There were some black enlisted soldiers in the headquarters command, and apparently it upset them. I knew a lot of them; they were enlisted soldiers. When I was coming in to the unit, a lot of these guys were working to help me get ready to deploy and we kind-of bonded a bit. They were asking, “Why are you trying to send Mason home?” They knew things that I didn’t know. Apparently there was a rush to create a reason as to why I should be sent back. In retrospect, I realized they didn’t want the racism issues to be exposed.
After I got there, the doctors were checking me out, and the Air Force doctor said, “I think your command is trying to send you back.” Immediately I saw what was happening: “They don’t want me to report the assault. Now I have a medical condition and they want to put me out of the Army.” In other words, now I was being forced to have to tell the truth. I could have just sat back and said, “OK, I’m getting out; I don’t like this; go ahead and Med-Board me.” But I wanted to fight for my career.
So I sat down and wrote up a chronological list of everything that happened. I wrote up a timeline and a narrative, went to the inspector general’s office at Joint Base Balad and tried to file an IG complaint. The IG officer there said, “You have to file the IG complaint with your unit. What you should do is write up a report, send it to them, let them know you want to do an IG complaint — it’s probably going to make your commander mad — but you have to do this through your IG. If you were stationed here, you could file it here. Also, you have to let the MPs know if you’re going to press charges.”
I wrote the narrative and sent a copy home to my wife. I made four more copies: one for the executive officer named Major King; I made a copy for Lt. Col. Hodne and one for the first sergeant, the senior enlisted; and I made one for the MPs.
As it was printing off, it got jammed and ended up printing out in the Delta Troop’s office. Their officer was Captain Meyer; he was the only black captain there. Apparently when he saw it, he said, “What the hell is this?” and I immediately was called to his office. He said, “Mason, could you explain this?” I sat down, and he said, “Close my door.” I closed his door, sat down, and he said, “Mason, tell me what happened.” So I told him everything that happened, and he said, “I was actually sitting in that briefing with the slide that came up. Look, Mason, you’re right; everything you’re saying is right; the problem is you’re not going to win this battle.”
I said, “What are you talking about?” and he said, “Mason, although there’s a lot of racism going on here, sometimes you have to pick your battles, and this is not the battle you want to pick because you’re not going to win.” I said, “Captain Meyer, it’s not about me winning; this man assaulted me — and enlisted soldiers, too. What kind of unit are you running here?” And he said, “Mason, I’m telling you again; you don’t know this guy, Col. Hodne. They’re going to throw this under the table, sweep it under the rug, and he’ll probably give you a bad officer evaluation report and try to jack your career. You should probably just find another job someplace else and not go back there; stay here and work and then try to get out of this unit. It’s best to just leave this alone because you’re not going to win.” Captain Meyers, a standout officer, was forced out a few months later after Col. Hodne wrote him a career-killing Officer Evaluation. Meyers later told me, “You were right, Mason. I’m glad you spoke up about the abuses.”
I realized this guy wasn’t about to do anything. I saw where it was going; everybody was going to shut their mouths — they were scared.
When I was downrange and able to check my Army Knowledge Online account containing my military records, I realized I was up for promotion to captain, and the only way for me to get it was with the support of my command. I thought at that point that I probably wasn’t going to get it, but I figured I’d get it out there and put it in writing.
I told the young sergeant to send an email to the S-1, Capt. Johnson, to see if he was checking on my promotion orders. I knew I was going to get them mad, but I wanted to know what their position was. That’s when Capt. Johnson sent the email back to the administrative sergeant and said, “Look, we’re going to put him out.”
I said to myself, “I have all the evidence here, but it’s not going to work, because I’m not going to let them do this.” I said to myself, “Wow, I see where this is going.” The sergeant hadn’t told me about the email; he was afraid to tell me.
A lot of the folks there were black, and all of a sudden, they started getting concerned.
I didn’t know the history of Lt. Col. Hodne; I didn’t have a clue. A week later, I told Capt. Meyers that I had to go back to FOB Paliwoda because I had to get my duffel bags out of my CHU (combat housing unit). He used to run all the convoys back and forth up and down the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. I told him I needed to get on a CLP to get my stuff and get it back to Joint Base Balad. I wanted to take a helicopter, but they wouldn’t let me. On the road, you run the risk of hitting an IED with a convoy.
Hodne didn’t know I was coming, and they didn’t know I was filing a complaint. They didn’t know any of that. I got four envelopes and hand-delivered the complaints to Hodne, Major King, the first sergeant, and the military police. As I was walking out, I grabbed my weapon and eight magazines of ammo. At that point, I didn’t know what was going to happen with the complaint, but figured there was the possibility that I could get into some type of conflict or firefight with the enemy on the road.
As I was going to the light armored vehicle (LAV), I walked by the office and saw the staff sergeant sitting there, and he looked as if he was in tears. So I stopped and said, “Hey, sarge, are you OK?” and he said, “LT, yeah, I’m OK.” I said, “It looks like you’re upset. Is everything OK?” and he said, “Well, no, not really.” I said, “Do you want to talk?”
He walked up to me and said, “Hey, Mason, I need you to be careful.” And I said, “What do you mean?” and he said, “You need to watch your back.” And I said, “What are you talking about?” and he said, “Look, I just got an email, and they’re trying to set you up.”
When he told me that, it was as if someone hit me in my gut. All of a sudden I knew that I was downrange in a situation that I couldn’t contain. I said, “How do you know that, sarge?” and he said, “I got an email, and the email says that they want to set you up.” And I said, “Can you give me a copy of that email?” and he said, “No.” I said, “Why not?” and he said, “If I give you that email, they’re going to target me. Sir, I just don’t want to risk it. I wouldn’t lie to you, but you don’t know Lt. Col. Hodne.”
I was asking myself, “Why is everybody talking about this guy? What is going on?” I didn’t know Hodne. When the sergeant told me that, I went back, got my bayonet and a couple of pocket knives…now I was feeling like a fish out of water. Not only did I have to navigate my way on roads with IEDs, but I also had to watch my own back with my own command.