U.S. Army Veteran Shares Painful Experiences of Military Racism, Part 15


by Sharon Rondeau

Gary Mason and daughter, who is now 13

(Sep. 21, 2018) — In Part 14, former Army Captain Gary Mason brought us to the point in his story where he was sent back to Hawaii, purportedly on medical grounds, from Joint Base Balad in Iraq.

Mason had arrived in-country just days before the 2008 election and was stationed at FOB Paliwoda, an operational offshoot of Joint Base Balad, where he served with the 3/4 Cav. unit under the command of then-Lt. Col. David Hodne.

After suffering an allergic reaction to the fumes from a “burn pit” in mid-November, Mason was sent from FOB Paliwoda to Joint Base Balad for a medical checkup, although he learned soon thereafter that Hodne and others in his circle were orchestrating not only his return to Schofield Barracks in Hawaii, but also what they hoped would be the end of his military career.

Toward the end of his service in Iraq, Mason was quietly provided a copy of an email sent by Hodne’s administrative assistant, Captain Johnson, indicating an intent to “kick him out” of the Army.

The medical workup was a pretext, Mason told us, after he reported that an enlisted man, Sergeant Major Manis, had assaulted him without provocation outside the Tactical Operations Center (TOC) where Mason was performing his assigned duties.

In a face-to-face meeting with Hodne prior to returning to Hawaii, Mason told Hodne that the racism he had observed upon his arrival at FOB Paliwoda and Hodne’s declination to discipline Sergeant Major Manis for the assault were a “reflection of your leadership.”

Of his return to Hawaii, ostensibly for further medical evaluation, Mason related:

Shortly after I arrived back in the States, a young sergeant at Schofield Barracks told me, “I have to tell you something that I couldn’t tell you downrange.” So we met at a downtown Waikiki hotel at a breakfast bar.  He began with, “Let me tell you what was going on at FOB Paliwoda.  I don’t know if you know this or not, but Col. Hodne was the executive officer who was in command when Pat Tillman was killed.”

If you know Pat Tillman’s story, the family was very, very upset that the military lied about how Pat died.  Col. Todd McCaffrey was the battalion commander at Ft. Lewis when I was there and was right next door to a young Major Hodne at that time.

Apparently what happened on the mission involving Tillman is they were tracking some insurgents.  The circumstances surrounding Tillman’s death and Hodne’s role are already public information.

Pat Tillman had a brother, Kevin; they were both in the Army, having trained as Rangers, but they split them up.  They saw that there were some insurgents up on a cliff who were shooting at them, so they split up the unit.  The first group turned left in a valley one way and mounted another cliff and the other group fell behind and stayed on the ground.  Apparently, Pat Tillman reached high ground and was up on the cliff, and Hodne gave the order for the ground group to fire on the location where Pat Tillman was.  Pat Tillman was trying to wave his hands and say, “Stop, it’s friendly, it’s friendly” but was killed.

I’m not saying that Hodne has had anyone killed, but my antenna was up because it seemed the people I was with were trying to get me killed downrange.  I also believe that’s why the unit was so protective of Hodne.

The sergeant also told me that Sergeant Major Manis had assaulted some other African-American soldiers and that Manis would then say to his victims, “Don’t pull a Lt. Mason on me,” meaning filing a complaint and exposing him.

I saw Hodne when he returned to Hawaii.  He was at the dental office behind me in line.  I turned around and greeted him, and he had a shocked look on his face and stuck his hand out to shake mine.  I extended my hand and said, “Welcome home.  I’m glad you’re home and that you’re fine.”  Everything I did was above-board. I never returned the blow-for-blow; I always said something positive.  I think that’s what bothered them the most. I think they were expecting me to give them, “I hate you; I’m angry.” But I never did. I always stayed professional.

[Editor’s Note:  In June 2015, The Colorado Springs Gazette reported that then-Col. David Hodne, commander of the 1st Brigade Combat Team at Fort Carson, placed a ban on displaying “all job-related insignia” on the uniforms of soldiers under his command.  “It’s a culture thing,” Hodne was quoted as having said.  “It’s about the collective, it’s not about the individual.”  The development is in stark contrast to that which Mason described while he was in Iraq when Hodne and his 3/4 Cav. colleagues not only wore their Army Ranger tabs proudly, but also looked down on those who had not earned that distinction.]

After what happened to Tillman, according to military rules, Hodne and the leadership involved in this fratricide should have gotten a reprimand in their files which would have ended their careers, but for some reason it didn’t.  Hodne’s brother was a Special Forces full-bird colonel, and Hodne’s wife was also a full-bird colonel.  So you have a family of prospective generals.  They have already prepared each other to become general officers and they’re not going to let a lieutenant ruin that.  It’s already been preordained.

A lot of it has to do with the Ranger battalion Special Forces combat arms community which has already looked out for each other’s careers. They evaluate one another and push one another forward.  If they like you, they will give you whatever you need to keep your career moving, but if they don’t like you, your career is over.

Once I was back in Hawaii, I saw Col. Yang, who was the allergy and immunology medical doctor at Tripler.  He commented to me that “this is strange, because I’m receiving a lot of attention about you from the command downrange,” which included Col. Piatt and Col. Hodne. “These guys are upset about something,” Yang told me. “I’ve been told to give you a Medical Exam Board (MEB).”

That’s when I talked to a female medical officer, Major Douglas. She was the rear detachment brigade surgeon, and she said, “They can’t do that.  Your condition is one that a lot of people have in the military and they can still work. You don’t want a review board…do you want to get out?” and I said, “No,” and she said, “OK, well, then, you’re not going to get out.”

Then I told her what had happened in Iraq, and she said, “Ah, I see what they’re doing.”  Then she got mad because Col. Hodne was trying to force the medical command to put me through a Med Board, and she told him, “Don’t send me another email asking me to Med-Board Lt. Mason, because he doesn’t need one. ” So she told me, “Look, let’s just get you out of this.” She didn’t want to go into it because she didn’t want to become part of the witch hunt with Col. Hodne, but she said, “I need you to find yourself another job somewhere else. I’ll go ahead and approve it.  Just get away from them.”

It’s a disgrace.  I would like to tell you that everybody is honorable, that the military is a great place, but it’s a microcosm of what’s going on in government.  It’s really a system, and if you fit in to the system and you’re doing everything politically right, you’re part of the group and they like you. People will do what they can for you if you’re part of the correct political group, but if not, it’s too bad.

I don’t like using the word “naïve,” but I was.  I didn’t want to believe it was really going on. There were a lot of people doing terrible things to people, and you are either on the right side with them or on the wrong side.  Unfortunately, the right things were the “wrong” things to do and the wrong things were “right,” if you know what I mean.

The doctors said my condition was not career-ending, and I had been doing the job in Iraq only so that I could finish the military chaplaincy program.  That’s where my mindset was.  I wanted to stay on top of the situation, do my job, and leave people alone.  They didn’t like me, so I would find another job and move on.

Apparently, Col. Hodne had a lot of connections in the Infantry branch.  A lot of times they call the Human Resource command, which at the time was located in Alexandria, VA; now they’re in Ft. Knox. These are what they call branch managers, and they’re the ones who put your name in a billet (job slot).  They have a matrix of all of the positions that are open by rank and job. They put your name in by a recommendation from your supervisor.

The way the military works, if you’re not given a positive evaluation, your supervisor can ruin your career. As a result, Col. Hodne’s wife and brother – both full-bird colonels – had a “family name” thing going.  So why didn’t Col. Hodne lose his job after the situation with Pat Tillman?  They never intended for Hodne to lose his job.  He was a “good old boy” and pretty-much a guy who was set up for promotion.

At the time, I did not understand any of that.  No one prepared me for it.  They say they want only honest people in the military, but that’s not true.  It’s more like, “Do whatever the commander in charge tells you to do.”  The rules and regulations are in place only to protect the commander, not the victim.  That means that everybody in the chain of command works for the commander.  If you move up the ladder, everybody works for you.  As the commander, you could be cheating on your wife; there could be some domestic abuse; but you don’t say anything about the commander; you just leave it alone.  All you want while you’re working for the commander is a very good officer evaluation.  That way, you’ve proved that you can stay under authority, follow instructions and you’re going to do what you’re told. In other words, you don’t question authority; you just do what you’re told.

I had no idea about any of that.  Personally, I was like, “Wow….” I learned backwards. I thought I was supposed to tell the truth, and somebody said, “Gary, you can tell the truth, but never admit that you were wrong.”  I was being told this by a senior adviser in the military:  “Just always say you’re right,” even if somebody was murdered.  It’s all what they call “collateral damage”; you’re doing this for your country.  Whatever you do, do not question what’s going on.  They would say that’s above your pay grade.

While I was in Iraq, they were so busy transitioning into the combat mode that Hodne didn’t have a lot of time to focus on what I was doing, but he was shocked that I wouldn’t play the game they were playing.  He didn’t think I was going to see this through. His attitude was, “We always joke like this, and the sergeant major always puts his hands on people, and nobody ever questions what we do and why we do it.” The message to me was, ”There’s that new guy; he doesn’t understand how we do things here.”

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