“MAN, WE CAN’T TALK WITH YOU”
by Sharon Rondeau
(Jan. 5, 2019) — This chapter of the story of former U.S. Army Captain Gary Mason details his transition from the bad experiences he had in the Infantry’s 3/4 Cav. Unit in Iraq to his position as a public affairs officer with the 8th Theater Sustainment Command in Hawaii.
What Mason did not realize at this point was that he was not alone in having become a target for assault and that extricating himself from the experiences of the unit would not be easy.
Prior to enlisting in the military in 2000, Mason had graduated from Howard University with a major in communications and had launched his own media business. While in college, he had worked at The Washington Post and at BET (Black Entertainment Television) as well as in photojournalism. The impending arrival of he and his wife’s first child caused him to rethink his options in light of the need for medical insurance and regular income, prompting him to walk into a military recruitment office.
Upon his acceptance into the service, Mason chose to enter the Army’s Infantry division, where he trained in various positions for the next three years. Recognizing that he often placed himself in the position of mediator between discordant parties in the context of his Christian faith, he decided to pursue the career path of military chaplain.
While working toward his Master’s degree in Divinity, he served as a diplomatic security officer at the U.S. State Department, continued his military training during the summer, and was promoted to the rank of first lieutenant.
In spring 2008, two courses away from completing the program, Mason asked to return to active duty for financial reasons. The Army granted his request, after which he was transferred to 3/4 Cav. and Schofield Barracks, HI. Shortly thereafter, in the fall of 2008, he was deployed with the unit to Iraq’s Sunni Triangle to rout out terrorists.
Almost immediately upon his arrival, a unit-wide meeting encompassed the display of slides depicting the word “niggardly” under a portrait of African-American actor Ving Rhames and photos of scantily-dressed women which Mason found surprising and inappropriate, yet kept to himself. After the election of Barack Obama, Mason said that graffiti comparing blacks to gorillas appeared all over the portable latrines used by the unit.
More important than the outward racist and sexist displays, Mason believed, was attending to the matter at hand: locating as many terrorists as possible and removing them from the battlefield.
While stationed at the outpost FOB Poliwoda, Mason served as night-shift Battle Captain, an administrative position requiring computer and communication skills and, in some instances, split-second decision-making. As he was settling into his new routine, he suffered an allergic reaction to fumes from a burn pit outside of his housing unit. Medically-ordered to take two days off, upon his return he was physically assaulted by Sgt. Major Manis, a senior enlisted soldier. There had been no previous interactions between the two, Mason said.
The Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) states that an enlisted soldier can be charged with treason if he or she should assault an officer. Following the incident, Mason sought acknowledgment from the command that Manis should be reprimanded and requested a simple apology from him. Neither was forthcoming.
Shortly thereafter, Hodne sent Mason to the Army’s Sunni Triangle base, recently renamed Joint Base Balad, allegedly to obtain a full medical workup because of the allergic reaction.
Not knowing what his future would be, at JBB Mason volunteered for and was placed in a similar position to that of Battle Captain, where he excelled. After consulting with the IG at JBB, Mason wrote out a formal complaint against Manis and filed it with several MPs and Hodne on a trip back to FOB Poliwoda to retrieve the remainder of his personal belongings.
Just before Thanksgiving 2008, Mason had the opportunity to meet with Hodne face-to-face, describe the assault, and tell him that his failure to discipline Manis was “a reflection of your leadership.” Hodne reportedly countered with the contention that as there had been no eyewitnesses to the altercation, it was one man’s word against another’s. According to Mason, Hodne also indicated that “Manis normally handles himself that way” and “anyone questioning it did not understand the culture of the unit.”
Although he had observed overt racism dating back to his first days at Poliwoda not addressed by the command, Mason did not allege that the assault nor any of its aftermath emanated from it. During his conversation with Hodne, the latter reportedly told him that an internal investigation showed that the computer from which the slides were displayed were not the property of 3/4 Cav., but rather, 0f the 101st Airborne Division, who 3/4 Cav. had relieved upon its arrival in-country.
Just after Thanksgiving, Mason was sent back to Hawaii, ostensibly for more complete medical workups. However, in the interim, he quietly learned by the provision to him of an email generated by Hodne’s administrative staff sergeant that Hodne wanted him out of the Infantry and, for that matter, the Army.
The physicians at Schofield gave Mason a clean bill of health other than that he was to avoid combat situations where burn pit fumes could again trigger an allergic response. He was told that many soldiers with allergic conditions were still considered fit for duty and, as Mason indicated he wanted to pursue a career, he was not placed in the “Med Board” process as one physician had told him had been requested by someone “downrange.”
While in Japan on an assignment, Mason met two enlisted public affairs soldiers who mentioned that there was a Public Affairs officer opening and encouraged him to apply, given that he possessed related experience in broadcasting and journalism.
With anticipation, Mason applied for the position although with some trepidation, knowing that an unfavorable OER (officer evaluation report) from Hodne could preclude him from consideration. “I was a lieutenant at the time, promotable to captain,” Mason told us. “Even though I was still an infantry officer, I was going to be functionally branched as a public affairs officer. For me, the functional area fell under the combat branch, so it’s an identifier. That’s what Hodne did not want. Col. Hodne wanted me away from the combat branch, because what that would do is allow me to write stories about the Infantry. The people who worked in the same branch all know each other, and everybody takes numbers. All the promotions are put under the combatant branch. Hodne wanted me as far away from that branch as possible. If he couldn’t get me out of the military, he wanted me out of that branch. In other words, they wanted me out of combat jobs. A lot of the time, people go for combat jobs because there are faster promotions. The officers will also be promoted faster.”
Unexpectedly, intertwined with the return of 3/4 Cav. were overtures made to him by several of the unit’s soldiers who reported extreme distress at not only the manner in which Mason had been treated, but also that they, too, had been assaulted or harassed by Sgt. Major Manis. When Mason asked one of the soldiers if he were “suicidal,” Mason said the soldier did not respond, causing Mason to consider what actions, if any, he should take.
“I was trying to distance myself from 3/4 Cav. and put it behind me. I had left the unit and was trying to move on with my career. What I found out later is that a false investigation had been launched against me to accuse me of doing something illegal. I guess they wanted to discredit me, because I had reported the assault. It never came out, but when I did a FOIA, I found that it was added to my file. That was their ‘Plan B,’ but they never brought it to my attention,” Mason told us.
Soon thereafter, a military chaplain from Tripler Army Medical Center, newly-stationed in Hawaii, asked Mason to arrange a meeting between him and Hodne, which Hodne declined. “Hodne told me he did not want to meet with Chaplain Reiner,” Mason said. “I think he was upset that I was still in the command and hoping I wouldn’t bring up what happened. But I think he realized there were people in his command who he had put on the chopping block. There was one African-American captain — the one who said, ‘Mason, that’s not the battle you want to fight’ — and he got fired. There were two other black lieutenants who received very poor officer evaluations.”
In order to get promoted, you have to have a good OER. It goes up to the Pentagon or Human Resources command, and they promote those who have very good recommendations. Even if you have a profile because you’ve been injured, that is held against you. If you have a “Profile 3” showing that you have a broken shoulder and can’t carry a rucksack, you are designated “unfit for duty” and discharged. You can get an honorable discharge and medical retirement.
There were only four black officers in 3/4 Cav,, and all of them received negative or poor OERs. It’s almost as if it was a knee-jerk reaction; Hodne was upset, and all of them received bad OERs. The enlisted folk who admitted that what Sgt. Major Manis did was wrong were targeted, and their promotions were held out. That would affect their careers. All of those things were impacting a lot of these young men.
I was thinking, I got this job and I’m moving on. I realized that the command might know something about it and perhaps were wondering if I was going to do anything about it or just move on. They were probably waiting to see if I would just walk a tight line and be quiet.
Five months passed, and they still hadn’t sent me to get my Public Affairs certification. I felt that they were holding it out. When the new lieutenant colonel came, Col. Garner, and they wouldn’t update my file to include all of my degrees, I kept thinking, “I hope this is not related to my experience with 3/4 Cav.” It was hard to know, because nobody was going to tell me what they knew. What I did know was that my education put me ahead of others for promotion. I couldn’t deny what was going on, although I wished I could.
I met with one or two African-American officers and a warrant officer. A warrant officer is between an enlisted person and the officers and a great asset to the Army. He began to tell me, “This is how the military works…” So I started getting a little bit of guidance, but I still didn’t want to go into everything that had happened because I wasn’t sure who I could trust.
When the guys got back, the soldier who had given me the email asked to meet with me. I met with the soldier and he began to share with me, “When they did the investigation, they lied to you; they said the computer belonged to the 101st, but in fact, it didn’t; it was 3/4 Cav’s computer. We couldn’t say anything because we were being threatened downrange that ‘No one is going to communicate with Lt. Mason.'”
Another man, a sergeant first-class, said that one day, “Manis came into my office yelling and screaming at me and hitting me in my chest.” That was the same thing that had happened to me. He said he pushed Manis against the wall, and they were getting ready to get into a fight. Manis reportedly went in there and cursed him out, saying, You’re not doing your f—- job.”
Later on, according to the sergeant first-class, when Hodne found out about it, Manis showed up and apologized to him and said, “Look, I’m sorry; I don’t want you to pull a ‘Lt. Mason’ on me.”
These enlisted men, all African-American, were apparently all told that I was trying to destroy Hodne’s command, so they wanted to come back and tell me this. One of them said, “Mason, I need your help.” I said, “Are you OK?” He just looked sad, and he said, “No, they’re trying to ruin my career; they don’t want to promote me…” and I said, ‘Are you suicidal?” and he just looked at me. He didn’t respond, and that’s what bothered me.
I got in contact with the first sergeant, the senior enlisted guy at 3/4 Cav. and asked him, “What’s going on?” We met privately down in Honolulu. Apparently, no one could be seen with me. It was really bad. We met, and this guy was honest with me. He said, “I’m going to tell you something. You’re an officer; we’re enlisted soldiers. Man, we can’t talk with you. I’m glad you’re fighting; what happened to you was wrong; but they’re going to destroy us if we even attempt to help you.”