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ON TO ORDINATION
by Sharon Rondeau
(Jun. 10, 2019) — This part of former U.S. Army Captain Gary Mason’s journey takes the reader through the perils of service in Afghanistan during time of war. While Mason mentored and taught others in the field of Public Affairs, he continued to work toward completing the ordination process to become a military chaplain.
With a college degree behind him, in 2000 Mason took the unusual step of enlisting in the Army as an infantryman. He trained at Ft. Benning, after which he was stationed at Ft. Lewis, WA, where he perceived a calling to become a military chaplain.
Mason’s goal was nearly attained when, as a first lieutenant in 2008, he returned to active duty and was deployed to Iraq’s Sunni Triangle at one of the most volatile times since the beginning of the Iraq War in 2003.
Upon arriving in Iraq, Mason witnessed a specific incident where sexism and racism were literally on display. While he did not file a complaint nor speak to anyone about it, it would become an issue he ultimately raised with his commander, Lt. Col. David Hodne, during a rare, face-to-face meeting just before he was sent back to Hawaii.
Racially-charged graffiti within the unit went unaddressed, Mason said, against the backdrop of the November 2008 election of Barack Obama.
Shortly after the frank meeting with Hodne, Mason was returned to Hawaii, ostensibly for medical reasons from an allergic reaction. However, he discovered later that his command, in the persons of Hodne and his immediate staff, desired to see him discharged from the military. Their animus, Mason believed, was a result of his having filed a complaint for a physical assault by an enlisted man which went unpunished.
According to the UCMJ, an assault on an officer by an enlisted soldier is considered “treason” and could incur the death penalty. Mason told The Post & Email that he was seeking only an apology from the soldier and recognition by the command that the incident had occurred.
After receiving medical clearance to remain in military service in early 2009, Mason changed course, determined to put the negative experiences in Iraq behind him. Despite a number of bizarre, solo deployments without his unit and not part of what should have been his career path, or “billet,” he transferred from 3/4 Cav. to the 8th Theater Sustainment Command, where he was accepted as a Public Affairs officer.
Commencing his new duties on July 1, 2009, Mason eventually was assigned to cover the return of his previous unit, 3/4 Cav., to Hawaii. Unexpectedly, a number of men informed him that they, too, were assaulted by the same enlisted soldier, that no disciplinary action was taken, and that they felt “intimidated” by Hodne’s leadership.
One soldier, Mason said, would not respond when he inquired if he were feeling “suicidal.” Concerned for the men’s well-being, Mason wrote a letter to his then-superior, General Terry, which found its way to the top officers of the 8th Theater Sustainment Command.
The following spring, Mason attended and successfully completed Public Affairs school at Ft. Meade, MD. Almost immediately, and during what he was promised would be a 30-day “R&R” period, he was sent to South Korea, where he and another serviceman were forced to sleep in a brothel rather than in military housing. During the bizarre deployment, Mason said, a well-meaning officer observed to him in private, “You shouldn’t be here.”
Shortly after his return to Hawaii, he was sent to Japan, again on a solo assignment without anyone in his unit. Following that, Mason deployed to Afghanistan, an assignment he had agreed to complete after Public Affairs school.
As with his previous two short-term assignments, Mason’s orders again appeared to be off-the-record given that no one in Afghanistan was expecting him upon his arrival. Nevertheless, Mason found a niche instructing enlisted soldiers in strategy, safety and the procuring of thought-provoking stories from the war-torn country which had served as Osama bin Laden’s base to plan the 9/11 attacks.
His story continues:
During that time, I started going out on missions; I started taking the enlisted folk out. I told them, “Your experience is going to be gained walking outside the gate. You don’t need to be staying here on this Forward Operating Base (FOB). You need to get out to Kabul, build relationships.”
Being in war involves danger, but as public affairs officers, we were responsible for making sure that the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF)-U.S. Forces Afghanistan social media page was up-to-date. There were only so many stories one could get by interviewing people on that FOB. “You need to go out and talk to some of our allied partners, some of our outposts,” I told the soldiers. “You might need to go out and do a story on the children of Afghanistan. You might need to go out and film our work with the Afghan security forces and Afghan national police. You had to go out and find out what President Karzai was doing in the community. Kabul Bank was shot up and bombed on more than one occasion; you have to get out and report on these stories.”
So I began to take them out and teach them things they were surprised an officer knew. They did not know that I was already trained in broadcasting prior to coming into the military. So I think it was good for me, a good relationship, and the enlisted folk respected the time I spent enlisted and the skills I had as a PAO. A lot of military Public Affairs officers do not have the background I had when I entered the military; I already had 8-9 years of broadcasting experience. The military was not responsible for training me even though I went to Defense Information school at Ft. Meade; a lot of that material I already knew. But I brought my skills to the table to assist them and now teaching them to do it while in harm’s way. While my military training was a great asset, I was able to teach them how to do their job and at the same time, avoid getting themselves hurt, killed or captured.
Initially, I didn’t mind doing it because it helped me to understand the country, get involved with the people, understand where the activities were and what the Taliban was doing. Then we moved into something called counterinsurgency. I had to learn the definition of that, and then suddenly I was assigned to handle the Pentagon press corps. This is where things got a bit interesting, because the Pentagon press pool would contact me through a system called DVIDS, which stands for “Defense Visual Information Distribution System,” formerly known as the “Defense Video & Imagery Distribution System. The Pentagon would have a press pool just like the White House, and the Pentagon press corps would set up a satellite feed with us in Afghanistan, in Kabul or any of the major regions, whether it was Kandahar, Logar, Wardak, or Bagram Air Force Base. We would take the DVIDS satellite systems, go to these regions and talk to their commanders, who were often generals or full-bird colonels. The full-bird colonels were normally regional commanders.
I would have to get on the phone, the satellite or the internet and contact the Public Affairs officers who were there with those colonels or whoever the executive officers were. Normally they were majors, higher-ranking than me. I would begin to tell them, “On this month and this date, you need to prepare your commander for a Pentagon press pool.” A lot of times they would ask, “Who are you, and you’re a captain calling up here telling me what to do? You don’t tell me what to do.”
So I would say, “OK, I have a schedule and a job to do. If you don’t like what I’m asking you to do, then you need to explain to General Petraeus why your commander is not prepped and ready.”
I started getting cursed out on the phone. This was a new job for me. They would ask, “Why is Capt. Mason calling down here to Kandahar telling us what our base commander is going to do?” I won’t repeat what they said, but they would curse me out, have an attitude, and then I would send them an email and I would copy it to Admiral Smith, who I worked for, or sometimes even General Petraeus’s aides and suddenly, it forced them back into a relationship with me. So I began to understand how this hierarchy worked, the game and the language necessary to make sure our commanders were doing what they were supposed to do.
I must have orchestrated 11-15 different Pentagon press pools with just about all of the regional commanders. I was also given a budget of approximately $11 million to handle the media press people we had there. I was overseeing the Afghan interpreters who spoke Pashto or Dari. I did not want to be a contractor at all or be in charge of that, and I felt as if people were giving me jobs to see if I was going to fail. I just continued; I had a natural way of talking to people. So I went to the bases and talked to people, whether I was getting verbally abused or not. At that point, I just said, “Whatever the job is, I’m going to do it and do it well.”
I had multiple Officer Evaluation Reports downrange, and they were great. Because I was individually tasked and it was not something done through a chain of command, I didn’t know how to write up my own evaluation. This was the first lesson that I began to learn.
There was one African-American colonel, a male, who went to West Point. He was there in that building, and he didn’t know the whole story of what I’d been through. He began to realize that what was happening to me seemed to be a bit unfair. And he said, “Look, I need to help you get your career under control. You should be getting your evaluations done.” So he took me under his wing and said, “I’m going to help you write up your Officer Evaluation so you can get everything you’ve done on record, because you’re doing a lot of things above your pay grade.” At the same time, he realized I was also studying to finish my Master’s degree so I could transfer into the Chaplain Corps.
For the first time, he said, “Something just doesn’t sound right about your being here and doing all the different types of things you’re doing.” I told him a little bit about what was going on; I still didn’t know who I could trust and how it might get back to the 8th Theater Sustainment Command or 25th Infantry Division. I remember the more we talked, the more he began to realize I had a minister’s heart. So he asked, “What are you doing in the Infantry? Why aren’t you pursuing the chaplaincy, because you’re helping people on a different level.”
And I said, “I am; I’m over at the chapel down here in Kabul.” And he said, “Don’t wait on finishing that class. Go ahead and contact the chaplains’ office and let them know that you’re ready to transfer into the Chaplain Corps.”
The Chaplain Corps was being very strict; they wouldn’t even let me approach them until I finished the requirements to transfer over. I had started as a chaplain candidate but didn’t finish within that certain window of 3-5 years. I was deployed full-time while trying to get it done.
I’m one of the few chaplains who graduated from Chaplain Officer Basic Course (CHOBC) who was ordained in Afghanistan. No one really knows that, but chaplains normally take time off. They go to school full-time; they finish their coursework; they pastor for two years, then they apply to the Chaplain Corps. Once approved, the Chaplain Corps assigns them as a chaplain at the rank of captain at the battalion level.
I did it the other way around; I was working active-duty as an infantryman, and now public affairs officer, and serving my country in combat zones while finishing my classes to meet the requirements. At the same time, I had started preaching the Gospel at the Gospel services all around Afghanistan. I started going to different places as extra duty.
Some of the chaplains found out that I was a chaplain candidate, and they said, “Why don’t you come and teach?” So while I was working as a Public Affairs Officer, I picked up the extra duty ministering, holding study groups and Bible studies. I even started having men’s groups, because I found a lot of men downrange struggling with adultery and pornography. I saw that there was a need, a problem, and I jumped on it.
I had to request that the Chaplain Corps give me an ordination process. It was coming up in November or December 2010, when I had been there for 3-4 months. In my fifth month, I started realizing that there was more I could do there than just running around doing non-billeted combat missions. It was great that I was building my military résumé, but it was unofficial because I was not assigned a billet. It wasn’t going to help me get promoted to Major.
I received my “aha” moment. It was time for me to move on. I was isolated, targeted; the command in Hawaii was doing its own thing. It would benefit me to become a chaplain now. Let me go ahead and kick the dust off my boots and request a transfer.
So I began the process. I got in contact with the Pentagon and the Chief of Chaplains office, and I said, “I’d like to go through my ordination process.” At the time, there was a committee called the “Ecumenical Church Alliance.” They are an ordaining body. You have to go through an ordination committee recognized by the Pentagon in order to receive an approval to become a chaplain in the U.S. Army. I couldn’t just say, “I go to Second Baptist in Silver Spring, MD. We don’t have an ordaining body, but I’m a minister there and I preach and teach, so I want you to make me a chaplain.”
This particular ordaining body sent recommendation letters to the Chaplains’ office, which had to find chaplains in Afghanistan to come from different places to convene an ordination board. It had never happened before. So they told me they wanted me to go to a place called FOB Sharana, and that was in Paktika, Afghanistan, a base with a very large logistical hub with supplies. Down there in that region, we were building it from the ground up, and they were receiving a lot of mortar attacks. They were trying to fight and build a fortification at the same time.
Apparently there was a Catholic priest who was in charge of the chapel, and he approved the ordination process. They must have found three chaplains who were available to hold the ordination board. I had to preach different sermons while being overseen by a full-bird colonel who was a lead chaplain, then I had to go through the full ordination process.
I had to go upstairs at the PA headquarters and advise them I had decided to request a transfer from Public Affairs to the Chaplain Corps. They didn’t have a clue, because they didn’t know my history, and said they had to check with the admiral. So all of a sudden, I began to say, “Well, wait a minute: it’s not going to harm anyone for me to transfer as a chaplain.” I was already working down at the chapel in Kabul; everybody coming there knew I was teaching courses, doing supply runs as sort-of a jack of all trades.
As I would travel around to different places, I started asking if they needed a chaplain. Sure enough, they were undermanned and said, “We could use you over here as a chaplain.”
Now there were people asking me to come and work for them as a Public Affairs officer, and there were others saying they needed me as a chaplain. So I started forward-thinking and forward-planning.