U.S. Army Veteran Shares Painful Experiences of Military Racism, Part 24

WHAT MAKES AN EFFECTIVE “LEADER?”

by Sharon Rondeau

Alone for a second deployment to Afghanistan. WIAS Tasking – Ali Al Salem Air Base in Kuwait, 2011. (Worldwide Individual Augmentation System)

(Apr. 14, 2019) — In Part 23 of our series, former Army Captain Gary Mason told of his 2010 deployment to Afghanistan, independent of his unit in Hawaii, while working in the field of Public Affairs for the 8th Theater Sustainment Command.

Mason’s military career began in 2000 in the Infantry stationed at Ft. Lewis, WA and, as will be related in future installments, came to a precipitate end in 2015 after the Army termed him “disabled,” a designation with which he disagrees to this day.

In 2003, he left Ft. Lewis to pursue his Master’s degree toward the designation of military chaplain, which he came to believe was his calling.  As a chaplain candidate, he left “enlisted” status and was promoted to second lieutenant.

In 2008, Mason returned to a combat role for financial reasons, deploying from Hawaii with the 3/4 Cav. unit to Iraq’s Sunni Triangle.  While working as night-shift battle captain, Mason reported an unprovoked assault on his person by an enlisted soldier, who was never disciplined.  Mason believes the complaint he subsequently filed, as well as his expression of concern to his chain of command for others in the unit who related similar experiences, led to his having been singled out for bizarre, solo assignments in South Korea, Japan and Afghanistan with the intent of pushing him out of the service.

While not the focus of his complaint against the enlisted soldier, Mason told then-3/4 Cav. commander Lt. Col. David Hodne of his observations of racism and sexism early in his deployment.  Mason related earlier for this series that he was shocked to see unrestrained hostility and racism expressed toward the winner of the 2008 presidential election, Barack Obama, with no command-level intervention. At the time he observed it, Mason said, he said nothing to anyone about it.  Rather, he said, he resolved to stay in the military and pursue the path he chose upon departing Ft. Lewis:  ordination as an Army chaplain, achieved while he was stationed overseas.

Returning from Iraq without his unit ostensibly as a result of an allergic reaction he suffered from a burn pit, Mason was medically cleared to remain in the service.  After deploying to Japan on a short assignment, he learned of an opening in Public Affairs within the 8th Theater Sustainment Command in Honolulu, which remained his home base.

In 2010, Mason applied and was accepted into Public Affairs, attending training at Ft. Meade, MD the following spring.  It was after his successful completion of the course that the “bizarre” assignments began, Mason recalled, leading to a downward spiral of events in which he was sent on dangerous overseas assignments without official orders, unbeknownst to him at the time.

Mason has met personally with Obama at the White House and Joseph Biden and his wife at his then-vice-presidential residence as a result of his unwelcome military discharge, the results of which will be reported later in our series.

As a still-practicing chaplain, Mason has since been approached by veterans who have reported sexual assault and other causes of PTSD and trauma while they were serving.  During his now-numerous interviews with this publication, Mason has said that sexual assault in the military is a much larger problem than most Americans know.

One of Mason’s current goals is to improve the lot of soldiers currently serving.

Despite his subsequent and current unemployment, Mason said he “unconditionally still loves those” in the military who wronged him. In a recent interview and on a positive note, he recalled that Lt. Col. Todd McCaffrey, his battalion commander at Ft. Lewis, had served as a role model and mentor to the enlisted men at Ft. Lewis.

Mason then said:

When I came back from Iraq, before I went to Afghanistan and before I was transitioned as a public affairs officer, Todd McCaffrey had become a full-bird colonel.  Col. Piatt was the 3rd Brigade Commander full-bird colonel.  Col. McCaffrey, who was my supervisor when I was enlisted, had now become the brigade commander for 2nd Brigade, 25th Infantry Division in Hawaii.  I was with 3rd Brigade 25th Infantry Division.

There are four brigades with the 25th Infantry Division.  The division is a larger unit. The brigade is one tier down from the division.  The difference between division and brigade is that there’s normally a one-star general who is in charge of the division, and then at the brigade level is a full-bird colonel. At the battalion level, like Hodne, it’s a lieutenant colonel.

When I came back and was leaving the 3/4 Cav. unit to work in the 8th Theater Sustainment Command, I remember walking through the quad at 3rd brigade and saw a sign in front of 2nd brigade, and it said “Col. Todd McCaffrey.”  And I said, “I wonder if that’s the same Todd McCaffrey that used to be my lieutenant colonel in Ft. Lewis.  So I went over to see him.  I had sat before him once before as an enlisted personnel exposing that they were committing racist acts at Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Infantry Regiment, writing “n****” on the huge rocks on post.  When I spoke to him as an enlisted person, I didn’t want to make it a racial matter.  I didn’t really think he was going to accept what I was saying.  I told him they were doing some illegal things over at the unit that were very hateful, unbecoming conduct.  Had I been a little more knowledgeable, I would have come right out and said it.

He had the wisdom to ask me, “Specialist Mason, do you believe there’s racism over at the company?”  I didn’t come right out and say “Yes”; I gave him a roundabout answer.  He still went over and scolded them; whatever he did, he called them in there and gave them what they call a classic military butt-chewing.  He met with the entire leadership at company and battalion level and reprimanded them by stating, “I’m not going to tolerate this here in my unit.”

That’s what any battalion commander is supposed to do; that’s what Lt. Col. Hodne should have done.  He called the leaders and said, “I’m not going to have it here, and you’re going to clean it up.”

I left that unit and became an officer, so when I saw his name on that sign, I went back over there and I asked if I could come in and see him.  They said, “We’ll take your name and number and set up an appointment.”  Sure enough, Col. McCaffrey remembered me and said, “Have him come see me.”

I remember I was a bit nervous, because I was getting ready to go in there and tell him what had happened with me.  I didn’t know how he was going to take it, but I was going to sit down and talk with him.  It’s funny how you can survive abuse and somehow feel bad about reporting it.  Anyway, he was my company commander back in 2001, I left in 2003, and here it was 2009.  So six years later, I walked into his office as a first lieutenant, and he was a full-bird colonel.

I walked into his office, and he said, “Mason, have a seat.”  So I sat on the couch in his office, and he came from behind his desk and sat in a chair in front of me and shook my hand.  He said, “How’re you doing, and what’s going on?”  In other words, I think he could tell something was wrong.  He didn’t know; at least I don’t think he knew.

I said, “Col. McCaffrey, I don’t know where to start, but do you remember when I came to see you when I was a specialist?” He vaguely remembered, and I told him, “There was a big issue over my not getting some awards when I was there because of people not liking me because of who I was, and I explained to you that there was a lot of badge-protecting and certain service-members were trying to deny my achievement awards.  Do you remember you addressed the matter?  Well, Col. McCaffrey, I just came back from downrange as a first lieutenant, and I suffered some severe racism with my commander.”

He looked at me and said, “Where were you at?” and I said, “3/4 Cav.”  He knew Lt. Col. Hodne, who was one step down from him.  He listened intently, and I said, “Now I’m looking for a job and I’ve been treated unfairly,” and I just told him, “Sir, it is racism.”

You know what he said to me?  He said, “First of all, I’m sorry this happened to you; it’s very unfortunate.  But listen to me, if you want to come over here and work for me, you can come.”

Normally, as a second lieutenant, you have your own platoon and are in charge of them. You go out and train them; you’re their leader and you go to combat with them.  He said, “Because you came in as a first lieutenant, they skipped over your platoon leader time because you took a direct commission as a chaplain.  So you didn’t get some of that time.  I don’t care about rank; if you missed some time, as a second lieutenant, you can still work for me as a platoon leader.  I have a position right now.  If you want it, it’s yours, but I don’t know if Lt. Col. Hodne is going to release you to come here.  So you tell me what you want to do, and let me know. Every lieutenant should have these jobs at every rank to make sure they are on course to keep getting promoted.  They should have put you in a platoon leader position, not some S-3 position.  You’re an infantryman, so you should have been down on the line doing infantry work.”

Whenever you come in, you have to have key & developmental positions (jobs that set you up for success and promotions).  3/4 Cav. did not assign you with an infantry line unit.  They had vehicles to go to war.  The cavalry used to go in on horses; today they come in on trucks, helicopters, humvees and light armored vehicles.

So Col. McCaffrey said, “Within that 3/4 Cavalry unit, they should have sent you down to Charlie Company,” which was an Infantry line unit.  “They should not have sent you to Headquarters Company.  Wherever the infantry men were, you should have been.  You should not have been in an office doing anything else except what you were trained to do as an infantryman.  They did not properly place you where you should have been.  If you want to come over here, I’ll put you where you need to be so that you can develop in your career.”

This is what I told him:  “Since I’ve been here and gone through what I’ve gone through, I’ve been offered a job in a functional area, which was public affairs. He said, “Well, OK, you do what you think is best for you.  Let me give you some career advice:  If you’re going to stay in the Infantry, you probably need to go on to Ranger school.  Go on and get more specialized training. If you’re going to stay in the Infantry, you’re going to need platoon-leader time and key & developmental billets. If you don’t, at some point, they’ll say, ‘He skipped over this and skipped over that, so it’ll kill your career progression.’

Basically, he said, “Look, I don’t care what they did.  If you come over here, I’m going to give you the training you need, and I need a good infantry officer.”

McCaffrey is white.  To this day — and he probably doesn’t know what he did for me — he was one of the only white males who said to me, “Mason, no matter what happens; I’m not going to tolerate it.  If you want to work for me, you can work for me.”

He is now a general.  He’s the kind of leader you want, and he should be a general.  When you are a leader, you have to be non-biased and strictly-trained.  You have to be transactional and do the job.  I think because of who he is, he moved through the ranks accordingly.

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