“IT’S NOT SUPPOSED TO HAPPEN THAT WAY”
by Sharon Rondeau
(Jan. 10, 2019) — This section of the military story of former Army Captain Gary Mason expounds on the dilemma he faced after members of his former combat unit, 3/4 Cav., told him upon their return from Iraq to Hawaii that pressure was placed on them not to fraternize with him as a result of Mason’s having filed a complaint with then-unit commander Lt. Col. David Hodne about an assault on his person by an enlisted man.
In the fall of 2008, Mason had deployed as a first lieutenant with 3/4 Cav. to Iraq’s Sunni Triangle and the U.S. base FOB Poliwoda, a then-volatile area where IED injuries and deaths among U.S. soldiers were high and terrorists continued to tear apart the country’s progress toward political stability.
An assault by an enlisted soldier against an officer can be considered treason, but the soldier received no reprimand, and Hodne told Mason following what he said was an investigation of the incident that it was simply one man’s word against another’s.
Mason said he wanted only an apology from Sergeant Major Manis and acknowledgement that his action was wrong.
Prior to the assault, Mason enjoyed the challenging assignment of night-shift battle captain. Approximately two weeks after his arrival, he suffered an allergic reaction to fumes from a burn pit near his barracks. He sought medical attention and was cleared to return to work two days later and on that day was assaulted by Manis.
Shortly thereafter, Mason was sent to the main regional base, Joint Base Balad, on the premise of further medical evaluation, though he would discover that his transfer was the beginning of his return to Hawaii and efforts by his command to oust him from the Infantry altogether.
As he underwent medical workups at Joint Base Balad, he sought out and obtained a job similar to that of battle captain. At the same time, he prepared a report of the assault which he eventually delivered to a number of FOB Poliwoda military police officers, the Inspector General and Hodne.
In a meeting with Hodne at JBB shortly before he was sent back to Hawaii, Mason told Hodne that he believed a lack of discipline and adherence to military protocol allowed Manis to assault him without any consequences, directly attributing the deficiencies to Hodne’s “leadership.”
Before leaving Iraq, Mason discovered that Hodne’s administrative assistant, Capt. Johnson, had sent an email to a number of parties, obviously at Hodne’s prompting, demonstrating a desire to oust Mason from the military on the pretext that he had a medical condition he did not disclose upon his deployment in 2008.
Returning stateside, Mason was medically evaluated by physicians at Tripler Army Medical Center in Honolulu, who said his allergy to the burn-pit fumes did not preclude him from continuing his military service.
On assignment later in Japan, Mason discovered that an opening existed in the Public Affairs division in the 8th Theater Sustainment Command for which he applied upon his return to Hawaii. After what he described as a very positive interview, on July 1, 2009, Mason was officially transferred to the 8th TSC as a public affairs officer.
By the time the 3/4 Cav. unit returned, Mason had transferred to Public Affairs in the 8th Theater Sustainment Command, another unit of the Infantry, and covered the event for the press. The enlisted soldiers who confided in Mason told him that he was lied to about the results of an ancillary investigation involving racist and sexist slides Hodne had told Mason was conducted during their meeting. The returning men added that they feared retaliation in the form of career ruination if they were to defy orders to avoid him and that the command considered him a “dirtbag.”
Concerned for the men’s mental health and careers and that one in particular might be suicidal, Mason debated what action to take, if any, and ultimately decided to confide in the 8th TSC’s chaplain.
As the unexpected events unfolded, Mason was awaiting assignment to Defense Information (DI) school in Fort Meade, MD as well as a promotion to the rank of Captain.
From that point, Mason said:
3/4 Cav. did an EO (Equal Opportunity) investigation, although I never said my complaint to Hodne was racism. They were claiming that I said it was racism, but I was claiming assault. Those in his command were trying to make sure that Hodne was not accused of being a racist. They jumped to the conclusion that that’s what I was saying. All I said was that they used the word “niggardly” to describe a black man and that they had monkeys and gorillas and the word “n*****” all over the portajohns.
Later on, the executive officer said he said something about that, but while I was there, nothing was corrected. All they were doing was trying to get rid of me.
At that point, I had a decision to make: Do I help this young man who seems to be on the verge of losing his career and possibly suicidal, or do I just turn my face and walk away? I was thinking, “What do I do with this?”
I remember asking myself, “Who do I go to? If I say something, it’s probably going to jeopardize my promotion and my going to Defense Information school.” I talked to my wife, and she advised me, “If this young man is suicidal, you probably need to talk to someone.” So I went to the chaplain with the 8th Theater Sustainment Command. He was a full-bird colonel and worked for General Terry. At first I wanted to see if he was receptive to what I had to say. People knew that this was really creating a toxic environment. Once President Obama was elected, with Gen. Mixon stepping down, everyone went into hunker-down mode.
I began to tell the chaplain what was going on, and he was shocked, but he said, “I believe you.” I told him, “I don’t know what to do, but I think the young man is suicidal.” Eventually I began to have counseling sessions with him.
A lot of chaplains just bow down and do whatever they have to do in order to achieve their rank. As we discussed earlier, many of them are just subject-matter experts rather than men of the cloth. I felt good that I was able to talk to Chaplain Lindsay. He just took it in and said, “Gary, if there’s anything I can do, I will try my best to assist you.”
Eventually I began to share what happened to me in Iraq and that the immediate threat to guys over there was that they might be suicidal. As we were talking, we prayed about it, and he said he thought I should write a memorandum for the record. So I did that, and I asked to talk to the chief of staff at the 8th Theater Sustainment Command, Col. Perkuchin. I went in to talk with him, and I was nervous, because I thought, “Once I tell him, it’s going to ricochet all the way through Schofield Barracks. But I prayed about it, knowing that this could be the turning point, and it was; everything became disastrous after that. But I said, “If I don’t do something or say something, these men could lose their lives at their own hand or their careers would be over,” and I thought it was just the Christian thing to do. I remember thinking to myself, “These guys did everything they could to take care of me while I was downrange; now that I’m back in garrison, I should do everything I can to assist them with their careers and their lives.”
I’m not a dirtbag. If I can do something to help and assist, I will. I walked in there; I sent Col. Perkuchin an email, and I wrote a letter to 8th TSC deputy commander Col. Maskell explaining in detail that I went through a lot at 3/4 Cav., that I had concerns for some of the service members there being suicidal as a result of what happened and I felt I needed to help. I asked if they would reach down through their chain of command to check on those service members to see if they were OK.
They didn’t come back and tell me what happened. By my doing that, it called out Lt. Col. Hodne. They got embarrassed. I was seen as both the good guy and the bad guy. I was the good guy for the enlisted men who were struggling. But for the senior command — the generals, lieutenant colonels, the colonels, the majors — these guys were mad. Why the heck did this lieutenant-promotable share all of our business? I could feel it in my spirit on that island — I must have knocked over a hornets’ nest. I felt as if I had to do it.
This was the pivotal point. I had already composed a complaint by writing up what happened at 3/4 Cav. But then, I had given it only to 3/4 Cav. and their command. This was the first time I presented a summary of what happened to a senior command which was above them which I think they didn’t want anyone to know about. When I did that, I noticed that when I came back to the office where I was working, Command Sergeant Major Anderson, who was a great asset, decided to retire. I don’t think it had anything to do with me, but I thought it was strange. He had more than 20 years in and could have retired at any time, but he wasn’t at his mandatory retirement date. He just said, “I’m done.”
This guy was incredible. He was an awesome public affairs enlisted guy. I was surprised to see him go. I remember I had gone in; I was on the verge of waiting for my captain’s promotion, and I remember that before I presented the letter, I had asked Col. Perkuchin, who was the chief of staff at 8th TSC, if he could help me do my officer evaluation report (OER). Apparently he saw the OER that had come from downrange, which was not complimentary. He told me it would not help me get promoted. Perkuchin was a rank above Hodne and said, “This isn’t good.” So I began to share with Perkuchin a little bit of what happened. He wasn’t like the ones I was dealing with in combat; he was more level-headed. So he said, “We’re going to have to write you another OER.” I think he saw what was happening, but he didn’t know how to approach it. But he said, “You have to get promoted to captain,” and they rewrote an OER for me. Every six months everyone should get one, and they had to give me one on my performance at the 8th TSC because I had been in public affairs for almost a year.
I was doing things for them, working, and my work spoke for itself. So he said, “We owe you an OER,” and he wrote one that was awesome. He said, “I don’t know if this is going to help you, but we’ll get it up to Human Resource command,” and sure enough, my name came up on the captains’ list to go before the board within a few months.
I don’t think Col. Perkuchin knew abut the summary I sent. My wife then asked if she could meet with Gen. Terry. She felt as if this had impacted her; she was stressed and becoming concerned about my safety. She wanted to talk to my chain of command to let them know, “We’re not doing this to start trouble with Col. Hodne and 3/4 Cav.; we just want you to know we are concerned about our family.”
Little did she or I know that once they sent me down to DINFOS, someone said, “We want Mason off-island. It’s time to send him on a deployment.” I didn’t know this was what they were planning. Apparently that memorandum I sent caused a lot of problems. It must have embarrassed some people and made them angry. I think they didn’t know what to do with me now, but they didn’t want me up there working.
It hadn’t gotten back to me yet that people were really angry. They did a good job at masking it. Right before Hodne and the the unit came back, there was a situation where 5-6 guys hadn’t deployed. These are called “problem children,” and they had them on a list. They stayed in the garrison while Hodne and 3/4 Cav. deployed. Hodne wanted those people out of the military, and there was a group assigned to do that. The guys on the list were doing drugs, fighting; they were angry.
Apparently the week I left, someone broke into the office of Captain Johnson – Hodne’s assistant who wrote the email about getting me out of the military – and defecated all over his desk. They vandalized his computers, tore up everything and stole some things. I had been gone for three or four months. The same young man, Lt. Bowen, who had told me he wasn’t putting up President Obama’s picture, sent me an email saying, “Captain Mason, did you ever return the key to the commander’s office here?” He didn’t tell me that the office had been vandalized. They were thinking that I had gone up there and done it. I had turned in the key I had and filled out what is known as a “hand receipt,” so I turned it in properly. So I said, “No, I don’t have a key; I’ve never been back there. Why are you asking me that?”
Then he told me what happened. He was working in Capt. Johnson’s office. I don’t know who did it, but apparently they questioned whether or not I had done it. I would never do that…I don’t know what they had going on over there. I’m not saying only 3/4 Cav. has this kind of behavior; lots of units do. All I said was, “Thank you, Lord, I’m so glad I’m out of there.”
When I shared that letter to Col. Maskell, it was supposed to go to Gen. Terry. It was not meant for Col. Maskell, but I had to go through his commander to get the letter to him, so he read it. I was waiting for a response to the email that went to Col. Perkuchin about my concern for the safety of these enlisted guys who served under Hodne. Gen. Terry asked for a meeting with the Mason family. I was now at Defense Information School and couldn’t make the meeting, and Gen. Terry called my wife and children in to speak with him. My wife spilled her guts to him. She said, “My family was traumatized by what happened at 3/4 Cav. and are concerned for Lt. Mason’s safety.”
Gen. Terry said, “I’m very sorry that this happened; we’re looking into it. Your husband has done an awesome job here. If there is anything you ever need, come see me personally. My chief of staff knows what is going on, and I’ll have him email your husband so he knows what’s going on. A lot of these service members belong to another chain of command. Gary no longer works for that chain of command. We don’t really get involved in that chain of command’s business, so they’ll have to direct that concern to their people. Right now, your husband is our responsibility, so we’ll do everything we can do take care of him and his family.”
At the time we believed he was sincere. This was the type of information that isn’t supposed to get to a general. A general is not supposed to know about this. It’s like me walking into President Obama or President Trump’s office and saying, “Hey, Trump, did you know that these guys down at this unit did this?” It’s not supposed to happen that way.