“IT WAS GOING TO BE ME OR THEM”
by Sharon Rondeau
(Aug. 14, 2018) — This part of former Army chaplain and Capt. Gary Mason’s story focuses on his sense of frustration, anger, despair, and fear of persecution from within after he filed a formal complaint against an enlisted soldier who physically assaulted him at FOB Paliwoda, Iraq, where both were stationed in the fall of 2008.
In 2000, Mason had joined the Army as an enlisted soldier, serving for three years until he made the decision to pursue a career as a military chaplain. During his studies, Mason was placed on Reserve status and worked full-time as a diplomatic security officer at the State Department.
Toward the end of his coursework, with a growing family and the need for more income, Mason asked to return to active duty. Receiving an affirmative response and orders to report to Schofield Barracks, Hawaii, he was assigned to the 3/4 Cavalry unit, which was soon deployed to Iraq’s Sunni Triangle.
Mason’s introduction to 3/4 Cav. was not a smooth one. For the first 30 days, he went unpaid, and he was never fully integrated into the unit, he told us.
Not long after arriving at FOB Paliwoda, Mason observed openly-displayed racism and sexism at an orientation session which he found troubling, although he decided to move forward with the mission without notifying or filing a complaint with the command.
Because he did not train with the unit prior to deploying, Mason said, he was assigned as third-shift “battle captain,” a demanding administrative job for which he received praise from the departing unit’s Major.
After suffering a reaction to toxic fumes from a burn pit outside his housing unit at Paliwoda, Mason was sent to Joint Base Balad for a physical workup. During an examination, Mason said, the Air Force physician opined that the Army was seeking a premise upon which to end Mason’s career. An email confirming the doctor’s suspicion was later provided to Mason.
While at JBB, Mason sought to be productive and was soon performing well in a similar capacity to that he had held at Paliwoda. During that time, he prepared a formal complaint against the soldier who assaulted him and made arrangements to travel with a convoy back to Paliwoda to deliver them. It was during that visit that a staff sergeant provided him with the email indicating that the upper echelons of 3/4 Cav were, in fact, seeking to return Mason to Hawaii on the pretext that he had a preexisting medical condition which he should have disclosed.
Part 12 of our series concluded with Mason’s having told the unit commander, Lt. Col. David Hodne, that “everything that’s happened here is a reflection of your leadership.”
Mason continued of the encounter on November 24, 2008 and events which followed:
Col. Hodne has been around for a long time. He’s been through a lot; he’s a very seasoned man. I could see in his face that he was kind-of smooth, and he just looked at me. He said, “Lt. Mason, why are you trying to burn my command?”
I said, Col. Hodne, “I’m not trying to burn your command; I’m trying to point out some things to you that are wrong in your command that need to be fixed.” And he said, “Do you want to come back to FOB Paliwoda and work?” and I said, “Col. Hodne, I don’t trust anybody in your command.”
At that point, I noticed he sat up in the chair with a surprised look on his face, and then slowly leaned back again. He was paying attention to everything. In my mind, I was thinking, “I already know what you’re planning: a plot.” But he continued to lean back in his chair. I could tell he was annoyed, and I said to him, “What I want is an apology from the sergeant major. And as a matter of fact, during your investigation, bring him in front of me, and we’ll sit in a room together and talk about what happened. Because right now he’s saying he never put his hands on me.”
I said to him, “Col. Hodne, why would I waste your time in a combat zone with this foolishness? This is a waste of time; I should be working. Any job you put me in, I will succeed. There’s a culture of people saying things, writing things, the jokes…there was a racist slide…”
And he said, “Mason, I’m having an investigation done into that right now, so there are certain things I can’t talk about.” I said, “You have it in writing; you can have people investigate all you want.” I then told him, “When I got to 3/4 Cav, I went 30 days without pay. Then when I got here, no one wanted to give me a job. I was thrown into a night-shift battle captain job. You did not give me a position in the line unit where I belong as an infantry officer. Then I get up here and I get assaulted by your sergeant major. Let me tell you something, Col. Hodne: If in fact I had taken your sergeant major to the wood line and broken his hand or broken him in half, I’m sure you’d have handcuffs on me and you’d have me someplace behind bars.
And he said, “That’s unfair to say. No one saw the sergeant major put his hands on you.” And I said, “That does not answer my question. If it were the other way around, if I walked up here and told you I don’t like the way you’re doing your job and start hitting you in your chest, is that OK?”
He said, “Mason, again, I’m having this investigated.” The point was you can’t put your hands on someone unless they’re the enemy or you’re doing some type of combative training, which we weren’t.
Hodne just said, “OK. Where is it at now?” and I said, “I’m waiting to talk to the docs.” And he said, “There’s an EO complaint,” and I said, “Sir, I didn’t file an EO complaint; I filed charges against the sergeant major.” He said, “Look, the way sergeant major communicates – that’s just the Ranger way.”
And I said, “That’s just the Ranger way? If I had taken him to the wood line and hurt him, it wouldn’t have been the Ranger way; it would have been Mason being locked up.”
On another note, Capt. Johnson was asked over two weeks ago about my promotion, and he hasn’t responded to that. I was almost tempted to say, “And he was trying to set me up.”
All of a sudden, Col. Hodne walked out and the chaplain walked in. I don’t know if they found out about my studying to be a chaplain. I think Hodne thought that in a racial situation, it might be a good idea to have the chaplain come in and get a word out of me.
So the chaplain came in and sat down and said, “Happy Thanksgiving.” And I said, “Chaplain, don’t come in here and talk about ‘Happy Thanksgiving’ anything.” So he said, Lt. Mason, can I do anything? I just want you to know I’m here for you; you can talk to me in confidence.” I said, “I don’t think so, Chaplain. The only thing you can do is pray about what’s going on in this unit. You need to be praying about the racism and the kind of illegal activities going on in 3/4 Cav. That’s all you can do for me. Can you do that?”
And he said, “Well, OK, Lieutenant,” and he walked out.
Then I saw Command Sergeant Major Stout, and I said, “Are you coming in now so we can talk?” and he said, “Why do you want to talk to me? I’m the command sergeant major. I just had you moved from there to here.” But he came in and sat down.
There was one thing that happened at FOB Paliwoda that I wanted to bring to his attention because I knew I’d probably never see him again. I was standing there, having walked out of the DFAC (dining facility), and I had a small toothpick in my mouth. Command Sergeant Major Stout was talking by with Lt. Col. Hodne and stopped and pulled me aside. He said, “Hey, Lieutenant, I need you to lose the toothpick; it’s not a part of the uniform.” It was his way of saying, “When the colonel comes up, you should be more formal. You’re not back on the block, so take the toothpick out of your mouth.”
So I said, “OK, no problem.” I threw the toothpick down on the ground and said, “Thank you, sergeant major.” He wanted to hold me accountable, so this is what I said to him: “When we were at FOB Paliwoda, you walked up to me and asked me to remove a toothpick from my mouth. What was my response? I took it and threw it down because you gave me an on-the-spot correction, right?” and he was looking at me as if to say, “Why is this toothpick thing coming up?” and I said, “You’re in charge of your enlisted folk. I was physically assaulted by your sergeant major. There are racial pictures drawn all over the bathrooms. Now I need an on-the-spot correction. Correct your sergeant major; clean up the latrines. So it’s spot for spot-on correction.” He just looked at me.
I said, “Sergeant Major, I’m done. Now you can leave.” Even though he’s a command sergeant major, I was still an officer, and he was going to respect that. So I said, “You spot me? I’m going to spot you now. You go and fix this mess; that’s your job.” He looked at me, stood up, and walked out.
I could tell these guys were heated; they were like, “The audacity of this black lieutenant…” In other words, they were having their meetings not knowing that there were a few African-Americans sitting in who were coming back and telling me what they were saying. And I was thinking, “Whatever I have to do at this point, I’m going to need help.”
I remember going back to my room that night. I always watched which way I went back because I didn’t want anybody to know which way I was going. There was a long, sandy field with barriers and sandbags to shield us from rocket attacks.
I remember being so upset and even partially afraid because I felt I had no one to turn to. I remember standing in the middle of my CHU and just beginning to pray in the Spirit. I remember I got loud: “God, I need you to help me here. How am I going to survive this?” I just kept praying; I must have prayed for about 35 or 40 minutes. And there was a feeling of peace in that room. All the anxiety, the hurt, the pain, the nervousness, being afraid, all this time I was in the military, trying to take care of my wife and children, and they were getting ready to destroy all of it. I had so much hurt inside of me that all I could do was pray.
I remember thinking at that point, “I’m going to be OK.” The next morning, I got up. They had trailers that they would turn into showers. I remember I took my loaded M4; I had a large, highly-sharpened pocket knife, I had my dog-tags on and a brown towel around my waist and some old Army PTs (Physical Training shorts). I walked in there and got this funny feeling that something about it wasn’t safe. But I went on in anyway, and I put my M4 at the top of the shower stall and kept it loaded. Because at that point, if anybody from 3/4 Cav. or from the outside tried to approach me there, I’d already made up my mind that if someone tried to attack me, it was going to be me or them.
So in other words, if I was in the shower by myself and somebody came in, there was no one to see any of it. I put the semi up on the shelf, I had my knife, and I said, “If anybody comes in here, it’s to mess with me. If they come in here, I’m going to defend myself.” I had gotten to that point when I felt I had to protect myself from my own men.
All of a sudden, as I was showering, I heard large explosions. Immediately I remember grabbing my weapons and running. I was covered in soap. I was trying to get to a concrete bunker because we were getting an incoming rocket. I don’t believe they did this, but I thought maybe they sent me over there to purposely get rocketed. I was running with nothing on and diving into the bunker, and I realized It was far enough off that I was still safe. I didn’t know if I should laugh or cry at this point. I had it coming at me from the enemy side and from the friendly side.