U.S. Army Veteran Shares Painful Experiences of Military Racism, Part 25

“IT WAS ABOVE MY PAY GRADE”

by Sharon Rondeau

Weapons training in Afghanistan, 2010

(May 7, 2019) — Our last installment of the story of former U.S. Army Captain Gary Mason recapped a number of “bizarre” overseas assignments he was given following his successful completion of Public Affairs school at Ft. Meade in the spring of 2010 while serving with the 8th Theater Sustainment Command in Hawaii.

After his deployment, made without his unit, to Kabul, Afghanistan, Mason discovered that the “orders” he received were unofficial and not relayed to personnel on the ground.  He arrived approximately one month before Gen. Stanley McChrystal was called to the White House as a result of an interview he gave to Rolling Stone magazine, published June 22, 2010 and written by the late Michael Hastings.

In the interview, McChrystal expressed a measure of disrespect for then-Vice President Joseph Biden and other administration figures.  Upon meeting with Obama, McChrystal submitted his resignation, which was accepted, and he was permitted to retire.  “McChrystal retired from the Army on July 23, 2010,” Business Insider reported late last year. “Though he did not complete the requirement of three years as a four-star general to retain his rank in retirement, the White House made an exception. The Army’s chief of staff awarded him the Distinguished Service Medal and the secretary of defense awarded him the Defense Distinguished Service Medal.”

While deployed to Iraq in the fall of 2008 as a first lieutenant with the 3/4 Cav. unit, Mason had been physically assaulted by an enlisted soldier who faced no consequences.  Mason filed a formal complaint with his command, then led by Lt. Col. David Hodne; it was that complaint, and Mason’s subsequent efforts to assist others from the unit who reported similar situations, which Mason believes became the fuel for retaliation against him resulting in frequent overseas and out-of-the-ordinary deployments.

As Mason has explained previously, the career path, or “billet” to which he should have been assigned was abandoned as a result of the solo assignments he was given and his unexpected arrival in each overseas location.

In Part 21, Mason related that a military-police report on the 2008 assault was “taken off the record” by Col. Piatt, Hodne’s then-supervisor, so that he could “handle it personally.”

After suffering an allergic reaction to fumes from a burn pit in October 2008, Mason was returned alone to Hawaii to undergo additional physical examinations.  Having been cleared for continued service shortly thereafter, he was deployed to Japan, where he learned that an opening in Public Affairs was available with the 8th Theater Sustainment Command.  Upon his return to Hawaii, Mason interviewed for and was awarded the position, beginning his new duties on July 1, 2009.

Having begun his military service as an enlisted soldier with a college degree and media experience, Mason viewed his time in Public Affairs as a stepping-stone to his ultimate goal of becoming a military chaplain, the coursework for which he had nearly completed before deploying to Iraq.  Early in his military career, he recognized that his strengths lay in listening to others, diffusing tensions, and preaching the Gospel.

While working in Public Affairs under Gen. Terry within the 8th Theater Sustainment Command, a part of the 25th Infantry Division, Mason sent a letter of concern to the one-star general of the unit on behalf of others in 3/4 Cav. who told him upon their return from Iraq that they, too, had been assaulted by the same enlisted soldier and that nothing had been done.  It was after that, Mason said, that he was singled out for solo deployments in unusual circumstances, including housing in a South Korean brothel rather than in standard Army barracks.

Just after he left for Ft. Meade, Mason’s wife, Shahnaaz, an Army veteran herself and then-civilian employee on-base, met with Terry to express her concern that her husband might experience retaliation for speaking out on behalf of his former unit members.  According to Mason, she received Terry’s personal assurance that there was nothing to fear in that regard.

In 2015, Mason was discharged honorably from the Army as “disabled” after 15 years of service, a determination with which he disagrees and which he believes has prevented him from obtaining gainful employment.  Although achieving his goal of becoming a military chaplain before his separation, he no longer had the opportunity to serve his fellow soldiers, including those dealing with various addictions, PTSD and instances of military sexual assault.

Mason’s story continues:

In Part 23 I had begun to explain that I was assigned to Kabul working with the International Security Assistance Forces, U.S. Forces Afghanistan.  In this particular location, I was at the main headquarters in Kabul, in a compound right next to the U.S. embassy.  It was a major fortification with “rings of security.”  We would have assigned contractors and gate security which manned certain security access points.  We were on the headquarters compound where General David Petraeus had come in right after General McChrystal had been placed in a position where he had to step down after the Rolling Stone article came out.

While I was there, I was assigned to the Public Affairs office, and that was within maybe 30 meters to where General Petraeus was in his headquarters compound.  I was someone who didn’t really have a billet because they were not really expecting me to be there. When I walked in, they were heavily-manned in public affairs, and we were under a senior navy admiral, Adm. Smith.  I remember when I went in, he was the senior public affairs officer, which was run by a Navy admiral, and we had a full-bird colonel, who was the deputy public affairs officer, and he was Army.

So when I came in, I remember having to meet the full-bird colonel, and then at some point, in one of the public affairs meetings which we would have daily, I got to personally meet the Navy admiral.  There was a lot going on because Gen. McChrystal was in a position where he had to resign.  The public affairs officers were being looked at as, “Hey, you weren’t doing your jobs because if you had, you would have reviewed protocols and Rolling Stone wouldn’t have come in here and gotten this information.”

I think I was under Gen. McChrystal as a Public Affairs officer for maybe just about a month.  When I came in, it was very fast-paced.  There was a command sergeant major, and she was in charge.  She was Army. I remember her saying, “We didn’t have any idea you were coming; you were not on the radar, but we can always use extra personnel.  So give me some time to figure out how we can plug you in.”

I didn’t quite understand what she meant by that; I was thinking, “How did you not know I was coming?”  I found out later that when you are assigned as an individual augmentee, or a WIAS task, a lot of times they can use you.  When you have personnel who can be asked to go on a special assignment, a lot of times they will pull a person and give them this assignment, because they might not necessarily be in a direct Key & Development billet at their particular unit.  So sometimes administrative affairs will take someone and send them away, and then they have no sight of them; they lose them in the administrative shuffle.

On my level, I was working as a functional-area command officer in Public Affairs. Because of this, I began to believe that, “Hey, I’ve ruffled some feathers, stepped on some shoes, and they’re not happy with that,” and that they were thinking, “So we have to just put him in an administrative shuffle and get him out of here, because this is beginning to cause problems, having to go through an investigation, a police report…At the time, I hadn’t quite begun to think that it was necessary for me to file an IG complaint or EO complaint, because I filed one when I was downrange.  Hodne had purview over it and did it internally through Col. Piatt.

After I filed the police report with the 8th Military Police Brigade when I returned the first time from Iraq, they said they did not want to give me the full report because Col. Piatt had ordered them to give him the report and then he was going to investigate the matter himself.  I had to go in and really talk to some people to get it; JAG did not want to authorize it, but I remember filing a Freedom of Information Act request to get it. I shouldn’t have had to go through all of that; all I wanted was a copy of the police report.

I found that all of that made them uncomfortable, and the 8th Theater Sustainment Command was now beginning to understand; it was in the open now.  At first, this was all down on the 3/4 Cav. battalion level, and then it reached the 25th Infantry Division level, and now all this news transferred to the 8th Theater Sustainment Command.  It went from Lt. Col. to Colonel to one-star general, and then it transferred from Schofield Barracks, HI all the way down to Honolulu, which is U.S. Army Pacific Command.  There is only one tier higher than U.S. Army Pacific Command, and that is PACOM, which was run by a four-star, a Naval admiral.

In Honolulu, they have a place called Camp Smith, which is at the peak of a very high mountain.  You can look down and see all of Pearl Harbor, Honolulu, and Waikiki, and that place is called the Pacific Command.  Pacific Command is one of the largest commands in the U.S. military because it covers over 11 regions throughout the Pacific.  It’s a very large logistical hub going from Alaska to Asia to the islands as far down as Guam; it spans Hawaii and all the way across to the coast of California.

While I was in Kabul, I didn’t really understand why I was being individually tasked at first, but then while I was there, it became very clear to me that the Public Affairs office at the 8th Theater Sustainment Command did not want me up there working with Gen. Terry.  He was the one-star general there, and I was working for him as a command-group officer.  They didn’t want Gen. Terry knowing about my letter about what happened in 3/4 Cav.

However, after he became privy and after speaking with my wife, I’m sure he discussed it at a “Council of Colonels,” where a lot of the full-bird colonels get together on an island and discuss every problem, deficiency, and demerit.  They then put everything on a blotter and talk about what the “fixes” are for these situations.  I’m sure my issue was on there, and because of that, I think one of the fixes was, “Send him overseas.  Get him out of here, and by the time he finishes his yearlong deployment to Afghanistan, when he comes back, he’ll be deployed and moved to another location.  We’ll get him assigned someplace else and he’ll be out of our hair.”

They had no concern for whether or not I was with my wife and children in Hawaii.  They printed up a set of orders that I found out later did not have an approval stamp from the Soldier Support Center and Personnel, which was assigned at Schofield Barracks.  At the time I had no clue.

When I arrived at Ft. Benning and then in Kabul, they looked at the orders and said, “We didn’t really have a need; we’re overstaffed.” They had close to 10-15 full-bird colonels working in the Public Affairs building where I was.  They were considered heavy brass.  There were so many seniors working in that building:  a one-star Canadian female general and a two-star admiral from the U.S. Navy.  When I got in there, they said, “You can set up the Marketing & Plans Department,” which was not even in existence, “as to how we can market and plan what we’re doing here in Kabul at the Public Affairs office.”

At the time, there were two lieutenant colonels who were German. I began to spend time with them, and they would be there all day in this empty office kind-of doing nothing.  They would go to meetings and then get on the phone and talk to their German counterparts, our NATO allies.  It made for long days.

All of a sudden, I was assigned as a driver, and they trained me on different checkpoints all throughout the city of Kabul and out to the boundaries of where the rings of security ended. I would go to different compounds with NATO partners, who normally had their own smaller outposts.  I was the go-to guy for transportation, airport runs, lumber.

During that time I was out on a run at another outpost doing recon and supply runs, and I remember slowly but surely, every time we came back, there was a full-bird colonel placed in my office who took over my desk and computer, and there were two Naval people assigned.  I began to ask, “Who are you guys?”

So the Marketing & Plans office started filling up while I was out on missions.  I noticed these guys didn’t seem to be real military; they didn’t have military haircuts and were all white males. I would ask the German guys about it, and they would look at me, smile and kind-of shake their heads as if to say, “These guys don’t know what’s going on.”

I started talking to some of the enlisted personnel, who are the worker bees.  The enlisted soldiers will tell you, “I never want to be an officer because they’re on the dark side.  We work for a living.”  They even said to me, “You transferred to the dark side, sir,” even though they respected me for at one time being enlisted.  But I asked them, “Who are these guys, and where do they come from?” and they said, “Oh, these are the part-time service members from the National Guard/Reservists.” Of the three guys they brought in, one of them, a full-bird colonel, was an executive at Lockheed-Martin. Some of them were major contractors on the outside full-time, and they decided they wanted to get an assignment to come and work in Kabul.  So this was like a six-month mobilization for them to work in Public Affairs.

I was surprised because they placed them in Marketing & Plans.  So all of a sudden, the task they had given me to develop standard operating procedures was taken from me, and I was told, “You go down and manage the enlisted service members down in the social-media trailer.”  So I was removed from the Marketing & Plans headquarters building in my office and told, “You’ll just be responsible for combat runs, recons, supply, and taking the enlisted folk out to do media runs.”

So I went down there and began training a lot of them.  I got to the point where I wasn’t too concerned about the “political” hierarchy and people getting moved around, and why Gen. McChrystal resigned.  I felt as if it wasn’t combat-oriented; it wasn’t military readiness to me.  It was more senior officials sitting around having conversations about what was going on in politics and when they could get over to the embassy for a drink.  That wasn’t my mission.  I can use this term:  it was above my pay grade.

As a captain, I should have been assigned a billet as an infantryman or public affairs guy and I should have been out there doing the things a public affairs officer should do at the rank of captain.  But because I didn’t have a billet and was thrown into an administrative shuffle, no one in the command really cared.  They actually even forgot about me, as you’ll find out later.

 

 

 

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