“A REFLECTION OF YOUR LEADERSHIP”
by Sharon Rondeau
(Aug. 3, 2018) — In the last installment in this series, former U.S. Army Captain and chaplain Gary Mason described how a physical assault by an enlisted soldier at FOB Paliwoda in Iraq went unaddressed and his subsequent discovery that the command in the 3/4 Cav unit was likely attempting to oust him.
Having joined the Army in 2000, Mason was very close to finishing his chaplaincy curriculum in 2008 when he requested a return to active-duty for financial reasons. His request was granted, and as a first lieutenant, he moved his family to Schofield Barracks in Oahu, HI. There he joined his new unit which shortly afterward was deployed to Iraq’s Sunni Triangle.
Once in Iraq, Mason noted blatant examples of racism in the form of venal graffiti and inappropriate slides shown during an introductory instructional session employing, unnecessarily, the word “niggardly.”
The portion of Mason’s story which immediately follows details his efforts to see that the assaulting soldier be disciplined and the confirmation he received that the command, in the person of Lt. Col. David Hodne, planned to expel him and send him back to Hawaii on false pretenses.
“…see if we can kick him out under anything…” reads part of an email Mason was able to obtain, sent by Staff Sergeant K. Johnson of 3/4 Cav on November 18, 2008. The email refers to “medical history” which Mason was not found to have had. Rather, a medical workup he received at Joint Base Balad was conducted after he experienced a severe allergic reaction to one of the burn pits now linked to serious medical complications and even death in thousands of U.S. servicemen returning from tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
During the workup, the Air Force doctor told Mason, “I think your command is trying to send you back.”
Although his complaint against the sergeant major who assaulted him made no reference to the racism Mason had observed since arriving in Iraq with the unit, it became clear that not only was racism acknowledged within 3/4 Cav, but also quietly accepted so as not to disturb the status quo.
In speaking with a black captain at Joint Base Balad about the assault, the topic of “racism” crept in and Mason was told, “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.”
Upon his brief return to FOB Paliwoda to file a formal complaint against the assaulter, a frightened staff sergeant told Mason, “You need to watch your back. Look, I just got an email, and they’re trying to set you up.”
Mason’s story continues:
At that point, I began to realize this was serious. I began to send letters home to my wife in case something happened and I didn’t make it back. I typed things up and sent them by email and snail mail. Not only was I working to avoid the insurgency, but I was also looking to avoid being killed by friendly fire. I had to watch my back even when I was with my own unit.
I remember the trip from Joint Base Balad, where they sent me for the medical workup, to FOB Paliwoda. The whole time I was sitting in the back of that vehicle wondering if I was ever going to make it back. I just didn’t know what to expect, and my wife was very, very anxious.
This is where my spiritual game came into play. All of a sudden, after all of the panic that was going through my heart, I felt a spirit of calm come upon me, and God said, “I need you to just pray.” So during that hour and a half ride through the Sunni Triangle, God said, “You’re going to be fine. Focus on Me; don’t focus on them.”
I remember praying, saying, “Lord, you got this. You brought me through all of this.” In other words, amid all the preaching I had been doing, God was saying, “Why are you going to forget that now? Do you think I would allow this to happen?”
My heart rate immediately went down. When I got to the FOB, I came inside the gate, which shut behind me. I needed a plan of action to get back out of there, to get back to Joint Base Balad. The first thing I did was talk to the drivers to ask, “When are you guys pulling out?” and they said, “We’re pulling out first thing in the morning.” So I said, “I’m on this CLP (combat logistics patrol). Make sure there’s a spot for me and I’m heading back with you.”
The first thing I did was to go straight to my CHU (combat housing unit) to retrieve the belongings I had left there and pack them back on the same light armored vehicle (LAV). I went and found an MP and said, “I want to file a complaint about a sergeant major physically assaulting me.” The MP looked at me strangely, stating, “You want to file a what…?” and I said, “I want to file charges against the sergeant major.” He was like, “OK, sir, I can just give this to Col. Hodne…” and I said, “Well, aren’t you the MPs?” and he said, “Yes, but we work for Col. Hodne.” So I said, “OK, well, here’s your copy; you can take this and I’m going to give Col. Hodne a copy.” My heart was racing because I was going around base handing out copies of the charges I was filing against Sergeant Major Manis.
I gave a copy to the first sergeant. I went to his room and he said, “Hey, sir, the commander is livid. You need to be very careful; watch yourself.” Then I said, “I’m giving you a copy of the report so you’ll have it.” He said, “I’ll keep it and turn it in for the record.” I said, “Why is the sergeant telling me that these jokers are trying to set me up?” He replied, “Sir, look, you’ll make it through here because you’re an officer, but you gotta be careful; you can’t be pulling in my enlisted men because they’ll get butchered if they’re helping you. Once the sergeant major finds out that they are trying to help you, their careers will be over.”
Mason said he did not attempt to convince any of the enlisted men to “help” him in his situation. “All I wanted was that email,” he told The Post & Email. “I just wrote what happened to me, and I had a right to file my own IG complaint and press charges. I didn’t pull anyone else into it, even though I knew I was not the only one harassed and assaulted. I spoke with an IG at Joint Base Balad who told me what I could do, and I did it.”
The first sergeant then said, “Look, no one is going to touch Hodne. He’s going to get away with this. You might just want to find another job and leave this command. But I’m going to hold this and turn in a report.”
I left the first sergeant’s office in the early evening to go over to the Tactical Operations Center. I walked down the hallway where there are command housing units right near the TOC in the building where I was assaulted. I went directly to Col. Hodne’s CHU. None of them knew I was back on that FOB, so I caught everybody off-guard. When I went back there, I went to see Hodne, but he wasn’t there. Part of me said I should just leave it on his rack or on his desk, but I said, “No, I’m going to hand-deliver it and makes sure he gets it.”
I remember sleeping on pins and needles that night, and the next morning I got up very early. I went into Major Nauman‘s office, and right in the doorway, Sergeant Major Manis was standing there with his back in the doorway. He and Maj. Nauman were talking. When I walked up, the rest of them were shocked; they were like deer in the headlights. So Manis got angry; he turned around and threw an elbow and shoulder into me, shoving me out of the way. When he did that, my reaction was to turn and hit him square with my knee…but the Spirit of God just overcame me and said, “No.” My reflex to defend myself just shut down and I didn’t retaliate—again.
He looked as if he actually flinched from behind as if he knew I was going to kick him and kept on walking. Then I turned around and looked at Maj. Nauman, and he was sitting there smiling. He had witnessed the provocation and disrespect and seemed amused.
I said, “Maj. Nauman, I’m here to drop off my report. I filed an IG complaint, and I’m pressing charges against the sergeant major. He just assaulted me again.”
Maj. Nauman sat right there and just stared at me. He didn’t say one word. It was clear to me that they were all going to be on the same side. He just continued to sit there and smile.
Once that happened, I walked out. As I was looking for Col. Hodne, sure enough, right in front of the flagpole, there were Maj. King, the executive officer, and Col. Hodne standing there talking with one of the Iraqi council members. They were in an intense conversation. So I said to myself, “This is a good opportunity.” I walked right up while Col. Hodne was talking and handed an envelope to him. He looked at me as if to say, “What’s this…?” then I handed one to Maj. King. They kind-of looked, but they were engaged in a conversation and couldn’t stop and talk to me.
It was timed perfectly. Right as I handed the envelopes to them, they were locking up the trucks getting ready to go out of the gate. So I jogged back, jumped in the back of the tank and we pulled out. I remember thinking, “Lord, just get me out of this gate so I can get back on the other side.” Once I did that, I remember the first sergeant having told me they were in a meeting recently and Col. Hodne was in there discussing this. He was very angry, cursing, just going off…the first sergeant told me that Hodne said, “I want to get this s***bag out of my unit immediately.'”
We arrived back at Joint Base Balad safely. Once I got back, Hodne immediately initiated on his own an EO complaint. In other words, they decided to open up an EO case in my defense. I didn’t ask them to do that; I didn’t bring up the racism; they brought it up. They were playing a chess game. They thought I was trying to claim “race.” All I said was I wanted the sergeant major counseled and I wanted him to apologize for assaulting a commissioned Army officer.
Apparently, Sergent Major Manis must have told the colonel that he didn’t put his hands on me.
It took a lot of courage for me to press charges. I was going against the command and I knew that this was going to bring fire and brimstone on me. But, at the same time, I realized that if I didn’t, it didn’t make any difference, because they were already after me. There was no middle ground for me to take. I had already told them that I didn’t like what they did, and they smacked me in the face by saying, “We’re not doing anything about it, and now we’re going to set you up.”
Once I saw the email, I knew they were already on the offensive and moving to destroy my career. So at that point, I had no choice but to make a command decision and say, “Well, I have to stand up and fight now.” I had to do it as I had done it all my life; instead of physically fighting with my fists, I had to fight in prayer and by using my head and heart to make sure that I didn’t do anything to ruin my credibility so as to have my story heard.
So I began to realize, “Now I’m really in a fix.” When I got back, apparently they had gotten on comms and Hodne was angry, saying, “How in the world is Mason traveling around in all these daggone combat vehicles? Aren’t we in charge of the combat logistics group?” When I got back – it was kind-of like the Underground Railroad – I went around and started talking to the people in charge of personnel, equipment, supplies, vehicles, and I was able to get my own truck to get around on Joint Base Balad.
Then something strange occurred. After returning, I noticed that one of the supply sergeants, an African-American male, said, “Mason, we don’t have any more rooms here with 3/4 Cav, so I’m going to put you in an old barracks unit.” It was way out in the middle of a field up against the far end of the FOB where there was a gate. It had a bunch of barriers, sand bags and construction walls to protect it from the incoming rockets. He said, “That’s where the 101st used to be; nobody’s over there. I know you might want to room with 3/4 Cav…” I said, “Look, give me what you give me; I don’t necessarily want to be with 3/4 Cav anyway.” Then he said, “You’re going to be here by yourself,” and I said, “That’s fine.” He said, “Just don’t tell anybody I gave you this key.” I realized this guy was trying to protect me from my own men.
It seemed as if some of the junior enlisted were attempting to help me discreetly without getting attacked themselves or being deemed witnesses to what was happening. In other words, I think they were saying, “We can’t admit that we know what’s going on, but we can tell you that you need to watch out. You’re on your own; you need to watch it, but here’s a vehicle.”
When I got to the Joint Base Balad ALOC (Army Logistics Operations Center), there were two black officers, a first lieutenant and a captain. I said, “I have to get a doctor’s appointment here; what am I going to do while I’m here waiting?” and they said, “You can always go over and work in the larger TOC for the Air Force.” I am not one to just sit around — I wanted to be productive.
There was an Air Force hub with a small cell where we were calling all the rocket hits. Now I had moved a tier above where 3/4 Cav was working. They said they could use me to report the coordinates for all the attacks from the rockets that were coming in. So I walked in, and there was a huge wall with a geographical area map. It had all the FOBs, all the places, all the terrains, and every time there was a hit, an IED, a KIA, we had to plot all those points to go up to higher command. So I said to myself, “Instead of getting all worried and worked up, I’m going to show them in spite of what happened, I’m going to keep on working.” Since no one wanted to give me a position, I went over and talked to one of the commanders there, and I said, “Do you mind if I come in and work?” and he said, “Well, sure, do you want to work a day shift or a night shift?” and I said, “Let me work the day shift.”
So I started getting acclimated to the base. Joint Base Balad was a very, very large base. It had three or four dining facilities and a gym. I got right to work. I was on that radio all day, and what got them was that 3/4 Cav would call up to higher command, and I was there answering the phone giving them coordinates. And they were like, “Mason is now working up at higher command. He’s up there reporting air strike coordinates.” And they thought I was being sent back for a medical discharge!
At Joint Base Balad, they were trying to do things the right way. If there was nothing wrong with you, they weren’t going to medivac you back to Hawaii. So I had my own combat housing unit, I had my own truck, and I had my own job hours set up. I didn’t want to talk to anybody about what was gong on, but I slowly began to share a little bit of information. I didn’t know who to trust then. There were one or two guys I shared a little information with in case something happened to me. They said, “Look, Mason, we know that that place is jacked-up over there, but we have a job to do, so as long as you’re helping us, we don’t care.” They worked for 3/4 Cav also, but they were working headquarters, so they were a tier up. They weren’t boots on the ground, but rather, they were working with Air Force assets to provide air security for what 3/4 Cav was doing in the field, including Paliwoda.
While I was there, a sergeant came up to me; he had a folded piece of paper in his hand which he gave to me. He risked his career to do it and said, “Sir, I want you to have this.” I opened it up and it was the “kick-him-out” email. And then he said, “You’re going to have to tell me what the deal is…” He wasn’t the only person at Paliwoda trying to find out the real reason I was there. I thought, “At least the word was getting around that my unit was trying to set me up-now I have more witnesses.”
Finally, they still kept me in-country for another 2-3 weeks. They wouldn’t just release me. They were trying to come up with a way to avoid doing an IG complaint and pressing charges against Manis. Their way of handling it was to get their own EO people to call me and strike up an EO complaint. So the EO guy called me, and I said, “What are my options?” He said, “IG, EO, press charges…” and I said, “I chose to do an IG complaint and press charges. Who told you to call me about the EO?” and he said, “Major King, the executive officer, told me to call you.” And I said, “I’m not calling to file an EO complaint; I didn’t say anything about race. There are some racial items going on, but I never said I was pressing charges because of race; I’m pressing charges because I was assaulted. So let’s get that clear.”
I began to tell the EO guy what was going on, but he was on base with Hodne. He was being used as a mole to get as much information and see how much evidence I had to use against them and then go back and tell the command. I really didn’t give them much information because I knew what was going on, so I stuck to the facts about what happened between Sergeant Major Manis and me. Eventually, he just stopped calling and never followed up on the “EO investigation.”
I remember it was somewhere around Thanksgiving in Iraq. I was still reporting attack coordinates. On November 24th, I was standing in front of the big computer screen, watching drones flying around and doing my job. I remember the door opened, and there was the chaplain, Lt. Col. Hodne, and command Sergeant Major Stout. They saw me standing behind a big desk by myself with all these phones ringing. When Lt. Col. Hodne walked up, he stood there and said, “Lt. Mason, when you get a chance, I’d like to know if I can talk to you.”
Suddenly he was diplomatic, but I didn’t have anything to say to him. But I had someone relieve me, and we walked into a small conference room with two chairs. I sat down, he sat down, and he said, “Lt. Mason, I’ve read your report; I have everything. I want to know — would you tell me what’s really going on?” and I said, “Col. Hodne, you can read about what’s going on. I’ve already put it in writing.” He said, “Yeah, I’ve read it. We have an investigation going, and we’re going to try to get to the bottom of this.” He didn’t know that I had the email and that I was getting information about his calling me a s***bag.
I couldn’t just reveal to him that I knew all of this, that they were trying to set me up, and I put on my game face and heard what he had to say. And then I said, “Col. Hodne, everything that’s happened here is a reflection of your leadership.”
Mason’s story will be continued. The Post & Email requested comment from Army Media Relations but received no response.
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.