“IT DIDN’T MAKE ANY SENSE”
by Sharon Rondeau
(Jun. 12, 2019) — The Post & Email’s previous chapter of this story detailed Captain Gary Mason’s 2010 deployment to Afghanistan and ordination as a U.S. Army chaplain, a goal to which he had aspired for nearly seven years between deployments and attending Public Affairs school at Fort Meade, MD.
A man of many interests and abilities, Mason graduated from Howard University in 1997 and began a career in media. In 2000, he took the unusual step of entering the Army as an enlisted soldier, with Boot Camp, weapons and battle training, and becoming part of a cohesive unit all before him.
As a devout Christian and one who often felt drawn to mitigate tensions among soldiers, by 2003, Mason felt his true calling was to become a military chaplain. Once accepted into the program, he went on “reserve” status, was promoted to the rank of 1st Lieutenant, and was soon immersed in the Master’s of Divinity program which, he hoped, would quickly see him ordained and ministering to his fellow soldiers.
Earlier in Mason’s story, he described his surprising finding that military chaplains are not encouraged to “preach and teach the Word of God,” as he had expected, but rather, to become “subject-matter experts.” However, he remained committed to completing the curriculum and assisting other soldiers in a spiritual way.
His growing family and financial needs placed that path on hold, and in 2008, Mason made the decision to return to active duty. He was stationed in Hawaii with the 3/4 Cav. unit, then deployed to Iraq’s Sunni triangle that fall. As we reported, it was there that Mason observed unexpected racism and sexism which he said did not deter him from the mission but were raised in a frank discussion with then-3/4 Cav. Unit commander Lt. Col. David Hodne in late November that year.
In 2004, Hodne commanded the unit where the late Pat Tillman and former professional football player lost his life by what the Army eventually admitted was “friendly fire.” Like Mason, Tillman began his training at Ft. Lewis, WA and served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, where he was killed.
Mason believed that had Hodne’s leadership approach been more disciplined, neither racism, sexism nor the physical assault to which he was subjected by an enlisted man in Iraq would have occurred and his military career not ended precipitately as it did in 2015.
Hodne is now a general. The Army spokesman we contacted did not respond to our request for comment on this continuing story.
While working in Public Affairs for the 8th Theater Sustainment Command in 2010, Mason was sent to Afghanistan by what he discovered were unofficial orders, similar to his deployments to South Korea and Japan earlier that year. However, Mason applied himself, completing the assignments he was given even if unrelated to his Public Affairs duties and training enlisted units in gathering information for fresh military articles.
It was during that time that Mason completed the last two courses he required to become ordained as an Army chaplain. He continued to work in Public Affairs but soon received multiple requests for his skills in that area and as a chaplain, once ordained.
From there, Mason told us:
Now that I had taken on the Pentagon press corps, on a weekly basis, I would go down and sit in front of the Canadian general and give her a run-down of all the Pentagon press pool questions: the agenda; the time, date and place of when the regional commanders were going to have the press pool covered. I started the process, but because they didn’t have anyone else doing it, no one knew how to do it. So I said, “I need to travel to Paktika to go through the ordination process.”
Their response was, “Well, that’s not part of the mission,” and I said, “I’m transitioning.” So I had to fill out what they call a “conditional release” which must be approved through the command. I don’t think Adm. Smith wanted to lose me because I think they began to see my value, but I had made up my mind to accept the calling on my life, which was to preach the Gospel.
I guarantee you to this day that if you called the Chief of Chaplains’ office and asked them, “How many chaplains were ordained in a combat zone?” they would probably tell you, “Not many at all,” or they might say, “One” — me.
Suddenly, I was very valuable — “Well, we don’t know if we can release you to do that…” At first, I was very insignificant. “Go do this, go do that.” Now that I wanted to become a chaplain, they said, “Well, we can’t lose you. Can you come back in two days? Are you going by land?”
And I said, “No, I’m going to get on a military plane at Bagram Air Force Base and come back.” So they said, “You’re just going to hop on a plane and fly around Afghanistan?” and I said, “Look, you sent me here by myself. I have my weapons and sensitive items. I’ll take my rifle and 9mm and will travel the country as if I know what I’m doing in any country.” I wasn’t a foolish contractor or civilian in a combat zone; I’ve been trained to get around in combat zones and had already done it in Iraq.
After a bunch of arguing up in Command, they said, “Look, let him go.” But they told me, “Before you go, we want you to train someone to do the Pentagon press pool. So I began to train a Navy Ensign; I gave him line-by-line instructions on how to do the Pentagon press corps. I laid it out for him; I gave him all of my dates, forms and questions, and I gave him the names of every regional commander and contact.” He said, “Aye-aye, sir; I got it!” “Aye-aye” is Navy.
I had trained him up and he was capable, so when I left, I didn’t care about what was going on there. But I learned later that he really messed it up.
We were in a plane trying to get into Paktika, and the Taliban knew the route we were using to land the plane. The pilot had to keep turning around because some insurgents were trying to shoot the plane down. So while we were flying, the plane was being shot at. They turned it around and came back at nightfall. The same thing happened, and I wondered if it was a spiritual thing. I remember thinking, “Maybe the devil does not want me to transition and become a chaplain.”
The pilot said, “It’s going to be a rocky ride, but we’re going to try to force this plane to land.” I remember thinking, “This is not the way I want to go out, but I have to get on the base.” That was the only way in.
The plane was able to make it through the barrage. I got in there about 3:00 in the morning. I remember getting down to the chapel and going in to talk to the priest. Surprisingly, he was very unfriendly and unkind, saying, “You don’t really know the nature of this business.” I don’t know if he was upset or had been there for a long time without any contact with people. He then said, “There’s one thing you’re going to have to understand about the Chaplain Corps: you need to remember my rank. Just don’t call me ‘Chaplain.’ I’m a colonel.”
So I said, “OK, Colonel, but to my understanding, you are a man of God and a chaplain…”
“Don’t call me ‘Chaplain;’ you can call me ‘Colonel’ or ‘Sir.”
At that point, I said, “Roger that, Sir,” and I gave him the “Hooah.” And in my mind, I was thinking, “What is this about? You don’t know what I’ve done to get here, and here I go with this ‘chaplain’ stuff again.”
In my gut, I knew it was a spiritual battle. I would not say it was “racism,” but I was thinking, “Wow, how ignorant” and wondered why he was the chaplain of that chapel. I was back in his office because he had to interview me, and he said, “These other chaplains have to come up from other bases; they’re not here yet. You’re just going to have to wait until they get here, because I’m getting ready to go on my R&R, so I will not be overseeing your ordination process.”
When he walked out, there was a young lady, a specialist and an E-4. She was the chaplain assistant, part of what you would call the unit ministry team. I remember leaving the interview and she asked, “Sir, can I help you with anything?” and I said, “Well, I’d like to use the phone or the internet so I can contact the base in Kabul to let them know I got here safely. I don’t have any comms to let them know what’s going on.”
So she said, “Sure,” and sat down at a desk and had me sit down across from her. I began to use the internet to try to send an email. While I was sitting there, the chaplain came out of his office, called her in, and I heard him yelling at her. She must have gotten what we call “a butt-chewing.” Then he came out and looked at me, and I said, “Sir, I’m on the phone making some communication back to Kabul to let my command know…”
He looked at me in a very nasty way and said, “When you finish, I need you to get out of my office and go sit out in the chapel.” And I said, “Sir, I have no problem going out and sitting in the chapel. I’m a chaplain candidate; I have a clearance. But I need to use the computer in order to let folk know I made it here.”
He said, “Well, you can go down to the USO or someplace else, but you’re not going to come back here in my chaplain office.”
I called him “Chaplain” again, then I said, “I understand now why your chapel is empty, because the attitude you’re displaying with me is ungodly and unkind. There’s nobody here to see you because of the attitude you have. Maybe if you change your attitude, you’ll have some people coming to see you.”
He looked at me and stormed out, slamming the door. At that point, I looked at the young specialist and said, “Are you OK?” and she said to me, “I’m embarrassed. He just went off on me and cursed me out because I allowed you to come back here in the chapel office area and use the computer. I’m a chaplain assistant; I’m just here to assist the chaplain and others. He’s getting ready to go on R&R and is upset because he couldn’t get his flight. I’m sorry, but once you finish your emails, I have to ask you to leave.”
And I said, “I’m sorry you had to go through that. We as chaplains should not act like this in any fashion.” She said, “Well, he’s always this way.” And I said, “Well, I’m sorry; not every chaplain acts like that, so please don’t have a negative impression of who chaplains are.”
She said, “That’s OK; I understand,” and went and sat down.
I sent out my emails, then left, and I found myself thinking, “Wow, is this even what I want to do? This man doesn’t know what I’ve been through; he doesn’t know the journey I took to get here; he doesn’t know the four years I put in, studying, while serving active duty, leaving a job and a family. He has no clue that he just took my hope and excitement about joining the Chaplain Corps, folded it up like a piece of paper and threw it into the garbage can. He doesn’t know how he made me feel.”
I remember all of a sudden looking around at the dust and dirt all over the place where I was…I was in the middle of the desert, a barren valley. It was flat land, dry and hot, sweaty and nasty, and I remember thinking, “Why am I putting up with all of this?”
Internally, I had a gut-check, and I was upset.
The base was so big that you would have to ride in a jeep or truck to drive from one side to another. It could have been two or three miles long. At the time they were still building combat housing units, and I was in a tent with sandbags around it out near the runway. So for me to walk would have taken 35-40 minutes. I remember I was so upset that I considered contacting my wife to say, “I’ve decided I’m not going to become a chaplain.”
I was really, really upset at how I was treated. I marched across the base, thinking, “This is happening too many times; every place I go in uniform I’m disrespected. And even the Chaplain Corps is acting this way?” It just didn’t make any sense; in the midst of war, while I’m fighting and defending this nation, I’m dealing with this type of person in uniform with this kind of rank? Is everybody this nasty and ornery? Everything I did I tried to do in service to my nation, and I always felt as if I was working harder than everybody else in the command, trying to strengthen the command. But at that moment, I felt no “Army of One“; I felt no “Be All You Can Be…”
All those advertisements did not mean one thing, and I started having flashbacks of the word “niggardly…” All of that started coming back at once. I started seeing red. I was in this “zone,” and I was really, really hot and mad. I remember as I was walking on that dirt road trying to find the tents — I didn’t even care where I was at that point — and I remember a little truck stopped in front of me, and a guy rolled down the window and yelled, “Captain Mason.”
That was a low point for me. I looked up, and I didn’t recognize him, and he said, “Capt. Mason, what are you doing walking on this road? What are you doing here?”