“THOSE ORDERS WERE NOT LEGITIMATE”
by Sharon Rondeau
(Mar. 19, 2019) — Part 22 of our series about the military experiences of former Capt. Gary Mason concluded with Mason’s having returned to Hawaii from a strange temporary assignment in South Korea, where his accommodations, to his surprise, proved to be “a Korean whorehouse” rather than standard Army housing.
In a conversation with a superior at Schofield Barracks, HI, Col. Perkuchin, Mason said that he intended to put the unpleasant experience of 3/4 Cav., wherein an enlisted man assaulted him in Iraq and paid no consequences, behind him; continue his work in Public Affairs for the 8th Sustainment Command; eventually pursue a career in the military chaplaincy; and continue to “tell the truth.”
While in Korea, Mason was bluntly told by a major, “You shouldn’t be here,” suggesting that something was amiss with the orders and treatment Mason received.
A recent graduate of Public Affairs school at Ft. Meade and newly-promoted to Captain, Mason was eager to prove himself an outstanding media officer and ultimately, complete his studies in the chaplaincy program so as to minister to his fellow soldiers as a final career move.
His Army career began in 2000 as an infantryman after he earned a bachelor’s degree in Communications from Howard University. In 2003, he entered the chaplaincy program, during which time he was promoted to First Lieutenant. While on “inactive” status to complete the curriculum, he was employed as a diplomatic security officer at the US State Department, receiving a top-secret clearance.
During the summers, Mason attended military-training courses with the intention of acquiring the same skill sets as the soldiers to whom he would be ministering.
In fall 2008, Mason was deployed to Iraq with the 3/4 Cav. unit commanded by then-Lt. Col. David Hodne. With a growing family and finances tight, Mason had asked to return to active duty and was sent to Schofield Barracks for several months of preparation for combat.
In 2004, Hodne was the commander of the battalion in which former Arizona Cardinals football player Pat Tillman was serving when he was killed by “friendly fire,” information not immediately divulged to Tillman’s family. Hodne was nevertheless promoted and is now a general.
Stationed at FOB Poliwoda just before the 2008 election, Mason observed what he perceived to be a stunning example of racism and sexism during a unit meeting which Hodne later explained away as originating from equipment left behind by the 101st Airborne Division, the unit 3/4 Cav. replaced in Afghanistan.
Racism was also exemplified by graffiti in the portable bathrooms, Mason said, which was never addressed.
Mason had barely settled in to his new surroundings and responsibilities as night-shift Battle Captain when he suffered an allergic reaction from a burn pit in close proximity to his containerized housing unit (CHU). Burn pits have reportedly sickened many Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans, with some having succumbed to premature death.
Two days later, upon returning to work, Mason was assaulted by the enlisted man, Sgt. Major Manis, without provocation, after which he filed a formal complaint with Hodne, several MPs, and the inspector general of 3/4 Cav. Mason said he sought only an acknowledgement of the incident and an apology from Manis rather than the punishment the UCMJ states can be meted out when an enlisted soldier assaults an officer.
Ostensibly because of the allergic reaction, Hodne ordered Mason returned to Hawaii for further medical examinations, after which Mason was declared fit to continue his service if he so chose.
In early 2009, Mason was deployed to Japan, where he learned of an opening in Public Affairs with the 8th Theater Sustainment Command in Hawaii. The 8th TSC and 3/4 Cav. were components of the 25th Infantry Division, ultimately reporting to the same general. Given his degree in Communications, Mason applied for and was awarded the job, beginning his new duties on July 1, 2009.
As he committed himself to excelling in Public Affairs, Mason’s original unit, 3/4 Cav., returned to Hawaii from Iraq. To his surprise, a number of soldiers related stories of intimidation stemming directly from Hodne’s perception that the soldiers might lend their support to Mason once the unit was reunited in Hawaii.
Some also said that Manis had assaulted them in the same manner, Mason said, and that Hodne dismissed it by claiming it was the manner in which Manis “expressed himself.”
“Man, we can’t talk with you,” Mason said the group told him after returning stateside. When a soldier hesitated after Mason asked if he were “suicidal,” Mason felt compelled to write a letter to the general of the 25th Infantry Division expressing his concern.
In 2010, while Mason was at Public Affairs training at Ft. Meade, 8th TSC commander General Terry met with Mason’s wife, assuring her that Mason would not become the object of retaliation for having written the letter.
Toward the end of the training, Mason received unexpected orders to deploy to Afghanistan after a 30-day R&R period with his family in Hawaii. Mason agreed to deploy following the break. However, he was again surprised when, during the R&R period, he was told to report to South Korea on a short assignment. It was in Korea that the major indicated his opinion that Mason “shouldn’t be here.”
Before leaving for Ft. Meade, Mason had sought a copy of the Army’s documentation stemming from his report of the assault but was stonewalled by Col. Piatt, Hodne’s supervisor, Mason said. As he spoke to Perkuchin upon his return from Korea, Mason recalled explaining of his requests for the report, “I wanted to find out what happened.” He was not seeking retribution, Mason said, or to continue to make an issue of the assault.
“The only thing it said was that Manis said he did not intend to do bodily harm and he was poking me with his finger,” Mason told The Post & Email. “And I remember thinking, ‘Brother, you weren’t poking me.'”
After Korea and as planned, in June 2010 Mason reported to Afghanistan by way of Ft. Benning, GA. His story continues:
When I got on that plane by myself, they sent me down to a place called the CRC (Conus Replacement Center) in Ft. Benning. That was the transfer point. When you go as an individual or a small group, you go to Ft. Benning, GA as a transfer point out of Atlanta, and you go by way of Ireland and then Kuwait before entering Afghanistan. I had to go for a week of training: firing range, contamination classes, protocols. I had to go through all of this and get my combat gear from Ft. Benning.
I was issued everything I needed, transferred, and then reported to Kabul. We had to take a long convoy for six hours through country because it was too dangerous to land at the Kabul airport. It was shut down because IEDs kept going off. I was chosen to go on a long combat convoy, and I was thinking, “Why does it always seem as if I have to be the one going through the convoy?”
They picked out a combat team, and we set out for Bagram and to Kabul, which was a long, bumpy, nasty trip. When I got to the Public Affairs office – at the time, Gen. Stanley McChrystal was the senior commander in Kabul for U.S. Forces Afghanistan, and I was with NATO – I went upstairs to check in with the command sergeant major. There were about ten full-bird colonels there; everybody was senior-ranking in brass, and here I come, a captain. So they said, “What are you doing here?”
My immediate reaction was that I just don’t travel from my unit all the way to Kabul, Afghanistan to be asked, “What are you doing here?” Apparently, they sent me on bogus orders. Those orders were not legitimate. They were not official; they did not have an official code on them. Somebody went into the computer, entered orders, and never got them approved. When I got there, the sergeant major managed, “Well, we’re glad to have you; we can always use people, but we have no official billets here.”
Whenever you’re assigned a billet, you get approved in the Army system. You have to fulfill that billet in order to get promoted. When I arrived at Ft. Benning, they saw the paperwork but didn’t check the orders thoroughly. I was in Afghanistan, but they didn’t have a position for me. So one of the senior full-bird colonels said he would create a position called “Marketing & Plans.” So I asked, “What is Marketing & Plans?”
I began to realize that this was an attempt to displace me until my assignment was up in Hawaii. “Out of sight, out of mind.” This was an administrative lynching in which my previous unit in Hawaii was trying to destroy my career. When they do that, they give a person bad assignments, and you get to the point where you just want to quit. Thank God, I was so good at public affairs and establishing great relationships downrange. I always managed to succeed at every assigned task given by military leaders in Afghanistan. Every time those back in Hawaii set me up to fail, I ended up excelling and receiving great officer evaluations. The new command I was assigned to in Afghanistan didn’t know the background.
I didn’t know exactly what was going on in Hawaii until I got back because it all came out before I left for Ft. Lee. And sure enough, while I was in Afghanistan, there was a burn pit right outside where I was staying. It would burn all night, and I was staying in a containerized unit again.
They didn’t really have an assignment for me, so I was working with two Germans, the equivalent of lieutenant colonels. They didn’t speak English well, but we got along. I was also working with a Canadian female general. They were our NATO partners.
The German men were very sarcastic, making comments such as, “There are too many chiefs in the house. The Americans are doing things carelessly.” We would never secure our top-secret computers; we were committing a lot of computer breaches.
So I said, “You guys are becoming apathetic; you need to practice security measures.” So here I was, a captain, telling colonels and seniors what to do. And they were like, “Why do we have this captain here telling us what to do?” And I said, “For security measures, there are foreign service members here who should not be able to access our computers.” And they said, “Well, Mason, you don’t work in our department; you just build yours.”
So all of a sudden, I was told, “You are being reassigned; you’re not going to work up here in the main Public Affairs office anymore. You will be assigned to the media trailer with some Air Force and Army enlisted people. You can go down and manage them.” Further, I received extra duties, “I was trained and certified as a combat driver.” I was assigned to do recon and learned 21 checkpoints all around Kabul and throughout the outer rings. I was also responsible for traveling back and forth to the airports and all the NATO bases transferring people and running security on out-of-the-gate missions. The staff there knew I was identified as an infantryman, so I was armored up and introduced to the security personnel and FOB mayor, the Sergeant Major. I ran everything from personnel to lumber outside the wire. I learned a little bit of Pashtun and Dari, and did the best I could to communicate with the locals.
That’s when it started getting wicked. People were going missing; they found some guys in the Air Force who got their heads cut off by the enemy, and here I was, in the middle of Afghanistan, in Kabul, avoiding IEDs and those who considered us as American infidels.
I began to feel as if this deployment was just an attempt to get rid of me in Hawaii and sabotage my military career. I remember spending long days fighting traffic and angry mobs in the crowded streets of Kabul.
After much prayer and reflection, I thought to myself, “This is ridiculous. I’m going to go ahead and put in my paperwork to become a chaplain.” So I started taking my last two classes while I was deployed. I got in contact with the Chaplain Corps and started preaching at field services.
Right after that, Gen. McChrystal got fired. I was working for him when that happened; he did an interview with Rolling Stone which landed him in trouble.
I remember McChrystal came in in the morning and said, “I’m a big boy; whatever I said I will take full responsibility for.” I remember that morning when NATO helicopters flew in, and McChrystal ran out to jump on the chopper. I remember the talk in the war room was that he was going to go down there and tell Obama who he is and what we were doing; that came from those who were rooting for McChrystal. I was the only African-American standing in the war room, and everybody was saying, “He’s going to go down there and give Obama a piece of his mind.” And I said, “Maybe you guys are from another planet.” And they all looked at me like, “What does this black captain have to say?” and I said, “General McChrystal is going to show up at the White House tomorrow morning and get fired.” And they said, “Oh, Mason, shut up; you don’t know what you’re talking about.” But there were some of them who said, “Mason could be right.”
Within 13 hours, I remember we turned on the television in Kabul. The black SUV was parked in front of the White House, Gen. McChyrstal got out in full dress blue uniform, and I remember saying, “Yup, he’s done.” In my spirit, I felt, “He’s going to get fired.” I think he said something bad about [Vice President Joe] Biden.
He offered President Obama his resignation. Obama could have fired him but he didn’t. Turns out, President Obama was like any other commander-in-chief. He expected loyalty and discretion. He would lead with his actions more than his words. This infuriated some and they seemed to want to take their frustrations out on me. I had to stay prayed up. I was realizing more and more that the war was both outside the wire and inside.