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“THAT’S NOT THE BATTLE YOU WANT TO FIGHT”
by Sharon Rondeau
(Oct. 15, 2018) — In the last installment of the story of former Army Capt. Gary Mason’s military experience, gleaned between 2000 and 2015 in the U.S. Army, he described officers in his command unit within the Iraq Sunni Triangle war zone as having learned to “play the game” in order to obtain a favorable Officer Evaluation Review (OER) and gain promotions.
That rule applied, Mason said, even if lives were lost through negligence of the unit commander or others in the battalion. “Whatever you do, do not question what’s going on,” Mason said he was told. “They would say that’s above your pay grade.”
Mason deployed to Iraq in the fall of 2008, several weeks before the presidential election. Very close to completing his studies in the military chaplaincy curriculum, he opted to go into combat to provide better financial stability to his wife and children stateside.
Mason was assigned the position of night-shift Battle Captain, a job he enjoyed and found challenging. By this time, he had served in the military for eight years in various capacities, beginning as an infantryman in 2000.
Shortly after his arrival in-country, two issues came to the fore which changed the course of his Army career: he suffered an extreme allergic reaction to fumes from a “burn pit,” now said to have caused serious illness in many soldiers and, in some cases, premature death.
After he was treated for the allergic reaction by an on-site physician at Forward Operating Base Paliwoda, Mason returned to work and unexpectedly was confronted by a senior enlisted soldier taking issue with his performance despite having no authority to criticize. Stepping outside to hear the soldier out privately, Mason found himself physically assaulted without provocation.
Because Mason was a first lieutenant and the aggressor an enlisted soldier, the crime could be considered “treason,” according to the UCMJ. However, the sergeant major was never prosecuted nor reprimanded.
Mason explained that he simply wanted Sergeant Major Manis to be corrected and to issue an apology for the physical assault, but neither happened.
The 3/4 Cav. battalion commander, then-Lt. Col. David Hodne, later told Mason that Manis normally handles himself that way and indicated that anyone questioning it did not understand the culture of the unit. Mason was expected to accept the disrespect — both verbal and physical. The discussion came about after Mason filed a formal complaint against Manis and told Hodne that Manis’s behavior and Hodne’s failure to discipline him were “a reflection of your leadership.” Mason noted that Hodne, Manis and others seemed unaccustomed to being questioned. “They had an attitude of being ‘above the law,'” Mason explained.
On a medical pretext, Mason was sent back to Schofield Barracks in Oahu, HI just before Christmas 2008. As he underwent medical exams, it became clear to base physicians that he was not unfit to serve, yet Hodne’s desire to have him ousted was made clear to them.
While still in Iraq, Mason was given a copy of an email sent by Hodne’s administrator which said:
An Army brigade surgeon, Major Douglas, informed Mason that his allergic condition, diagnosed at Schofield Barracks by Dr. Yang as “idiopathic angioedema urticaria,” was not sufficient to place him in the “Med Board” process. After Mason indicated that he wanted to remain in the Army even after the burn pit reaction, Douglas told him, “Then you’re not going to get out.”
“Initially, it was they were going to kick me out, but when that didn’t work, they sent me to Japan,” Mason told us in a recent interview. “The purpose of the exercise was to bring back all of the cargo and personnel from Japan to Hawaii and California. For the next 3-4 weeks, I was called to ‘temporary duty'” (TDY).
I was sent to a place called Camp Zama, which is south of Tokyo, where we have U.S. Forces Japan. We share that base with the Japanese and work together to plan responses to potential mutual threats. When I got there, it was January and terribly cold. These were long exercises; I could get there early in the morning, and there were lots of people working all of their different positions reporting to the general on-base about the war games.
I needed only two or three online classes to graduate and become a chaplain. One day I was walking down a road where I could see Mt. Fuji to my left. I was praying as I walked. I saw a male sergeant major and a young specialist, a female, and they were holding Nikon cameras in their hands. They were coming toward me, and I greeted them and said, “How are you doing, sergeant major?” They saluted me, and we started talking about the fact that they were public affairs officers. They said, “We’re here just to record the event and do a video and photo series in a news story about what’s happening here.” He began to share what public affairs was all about, and I said, “I worked in the industry (broadcasting) for nine years before I joined the military.” I told him that I had worked the Olympic Committee, had shot commercials for UPS and worked at Black Entertainment Television (BET). And he said, “What are you doing here? In the infantry, sir? You should be a broadcaster.”
“Sometimes things happen and your career is like a fingerprint,” I responded, and he said, “Why don’t you come be a public affairs officer? Right now we’re short a person.” And I said, “Really? How do I find out who I talk to about it?” and he said, “I know someone at the USA Pacific Command, and he’s the senior public affairs officer. There’s a billet open right now — it’s a captain’s billet — and you’re promotable, right?” and I said, “Yes.” They hadn’t put my packet through yet, but I was promotable. And he said, “Sir, we could use you.”
At first I said, “Well, after I get back to Hawaii…” and he responded, “I’ll set up a meeting with you and the senior public affairs officer, and if it’s good, they’ll probably just hire you.”
The first thing I thought was, “Maybe it’s time for me to get away from 3/4 Cav.”
That evening I happened to walk into an African-American officer, a major, on base. He said, “Hey, LT,” and I said, “How you doin’, sir?” and he said, “You’re working long hours.” I said, “Yes, I am.” He asked me what I was doing, and I said, “I’m the infantry cell.” and he said, “Are you an infantry officer?” and I said, “Yes.”
So he said, “Let me talk to you for a minute.” I wondered if I had done anything wrong and if he was there to set me up. I had been sent to Japan so quickly I wondered if my unit was trying to send me away so I couldn’t follow up about the sergeant major’s assault in Iraq.
He walked me almost 50 meters down the hallway and said, “I don’t mean this to be critical, but I’m going to give you some career advice.” I said, “What is that?” and he said, “You need to move and get another job. You don’t want to stay in the infantry.” And I said, “What are you saying, sir?”
“You are eventually going to end up dying,” he told me bluntly. “What is your goal, your track?” and I said, “My track is to make rank and do a career.” “Well, you need to find out and get yourself a functional branch,” he said. “Even though you’re an infantry officer, you need to find out what your functional job is going to be. Do you intend to go to Ranger school? If you don’t and go off to Special Forces, you’re just going to spin your wheels as a captain or major. You’re black. You don’t have a Ranger tab.”
He was saying some things to me that I didn’t understand at first. “I’m a command officer, a planner,” he said. “I work with command and staff. If you’re going to school, you should think about becoming a command staff officer where you find yourself a functional area where you can do contracts and administrative-type things.”
I didn’t mention the possible opportunity about the public-affairs position. He started naming careers I didn’t know the Army had which would have been more of an office-staff action officer rather than my going around kicking in doors, blowing up things, and killing folk, where you get rank really fast because you’re doing a dangerous job. I didn’t realize it was the “Old Boy” network than the “infantry advantage.”
Of the infantry, he said, “Brother, that’s not fun. You’ll eventually die. If that’s what you want to do, fine, but if you want to stay in that field, you need to go to Ranger school and Special Forces. Otherwise, your career is going to stay right here.”
I shook his hand and thanked him. He spoke words of wisdom to me which no one else had.
Once that happened, I remember leaving Japan with kind-of like an “aha” moment. I wanted to see about Public Affairs. I went back to the island, got home, talked to my wife, and made the phone call. I was able to get a connection with the senior Public Affairs officer at U.S. Army Pacific Command. And he said, “Yes, Command Sergeant Major Anderson told me about you; why don’t you come on up?”
At this time, they didn’t know anything that was going on with my relationship with 3/4 Cav. Things had not escalated yet, although I suspected that I would get a weak OER. There are “code” words they can use and “weak” words which convey the commander’s view of an underling. Hodne didn’t even want to give me a rating, but he had to report all the work I did in the short amount of time I was in Iraq. I excelled at my job well even with the altercation with Sgt. Major Manis.
I was fighting to try to get my promotion, because I knew I wanted the public affairs job. When the Public Affairs Officer asked me, “Are you promotable?” I said, “I’m coming up on a promotion.” So he said, “That’s great. I’d like you to come in, sit with me in my office and do an interview.”
In my mind, I thought, “That’s great.”
As a result, the PAO got in touch with my superiors downrange, one of whom was Capt. Almaguer. Apparently Hodne heard that I was trying to transfer and get a different job. Hodne wanted to make sure that I left the Infantry branch. I believe he began to call, because I noticed the branch managers had an attitude when I called to talk to them. I ended up talking to Major Douglas, and when I went in to talk to Capt. Almaguer I had an interview with the PAO. So it got back to Hodne, and his officers told me, “You need to go into Finance or the Adjutant Generals’ Corps, which is Human Resources.” And I said, “Why are you telling me that?” and they said, Gary, this is for you; if you go into Finance, you can get a Master’s degree.” In other words, “Go push paper.”
I found out later that a public affairs officer falls under the functional area of combat. This was the dilemma; I was an Infantry branch officer but I would be functionally public affairs. In other words, I did not need to go to Ranger school or Special Forces; I could just go to the Defense Information School, get certified, and become a command staff officer, handling all the media for a general.
I needed a job right then. But when it got back to my command, they said, “We don’t want him anywhere near the Infantry branch. We don’t want him in here.” One of the first sergeants who spoke with me told me that they were having command meetings, especially addressing me, and the quote was, “I want this ****bag out of my unit.”
They didn’t want me to go to Public Affairs because it was a tier above them. I could then go down there and interview Hodne. So they were upset. Almaguer was trying to tell me that they would send me to Finance school, and I said, “No.” After that, they just figured they’d give me a bad OER and I wouldn’t get the job.
I ended up going for the public affairs interview in June 2009. I met the colonel, sat in his office, and he had a big dry-erase board with all the commands from Korea, Hawaii, Alaska, California. I brought a résumé. It was an amazing interview. The colonel said, “Your background and experience far exceed what we do as public affairs officers. Where you were the cameraman and did the editing and broadcasting, here, you’ll have to manage people to do those things for you. You might have to write a media release, but this comprises community relations, media relations and command information. You are essentially telling our story to the public and telling the command what they need to know and how to address the media.”
He said that the experience I had was “probably at the rank of a colonel or higher.” I was so happy about that that I had to push what was going on in 3/4 Cav. behind me. Spiritually, I was thinking, “God is using my experience to strengthen me to do something on a different level; I can’t take what happened personally.” The colonel was willing to put in the paperwork and make that happen.
I was a little nervous that they would find out about what happened with 3/4 Cav. and wouldn’t want me to come. I was very cautious about telling 3/4 Cav. command about what I was going to do.
I remember toward the end, I walked through the office and went down the hallway, and I looked up on the wall, and they still had a portrait up of George Bush. Each command always has the president and secretary of defense on the wall, which at the time was Donald Rumsfeld. I said, “Hey, guys, when are you going to put the new commander-in-chief up on the wall?” And the LT shouted out, “If you want the ********** picture on the wall, you put it up yourself.” I said, “What did you say? Look here. This is a military installation. That is not the commander-in-chief.”
Here I was, trying to get my promotion and a new job, and there was this slap in the face. Then the captain said, “We don’t need you two arguing.” And I said, “I’m not arguing; look at the wall, sir; this needs to be fixed.” In the military, when you walk around the installation, if you see something wrong, you’re supposed to fix it. If I see a sergeant or private wearing his uniform wrong, we can say so. It wasn’t that I was in love with Obama; it just bothered me that they refused to put up the picture of the new commander-in-chief. Was it because they were bothered about the first Black president? Regardless of their reasoning, I wasn’t about to ignore it. This reminded me of the racism at FOB Paliwoda. Gauging from their response, it looked as if they had the same problem at headquarters.
The next day I went to get a photo of Obama to fix the problem, and someone had already copied a blurry photo of him from the computer and unprofessionally sloppily put it up in a frame. At that point, I felt that God was telling me, “That’s not the battle you want to fight.”