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“IF ANYONE CAN MESS WITH YOUR EMOTIONS, JOIN THE ARMY!”
by Sharon Rondeau
(Jun. 21, 2019) — Continuing from Part 27 of our series, U.S. Army Captain Gary Mason found himself on a huge Army base in Paktika Province, Afghanistan, where he was sent to acquire his ordination into the military Chaplain Corps. Encountering a hostile chaplain who made it clear he was anxious to take his scheduled R&R, Mason learned that a number of chaplains were to be flown in to the remote location to complete the process.
Discouraged beyond words after the chaplain’s boorish behavior, Mason considered abandoning ordination, even after more than seven years of first concentrated, then intermittent, coursework, with his final classes completed while he was deployed to Kabul as a public affairs officer in 2010.
Prior to his reaching this final step, Mason served in Hawaii, Iraq, Japan, South Korea, and finally, Afghanistan. Since writing a letter in 2009 to his command expressing concern for his former unit members in 3/4 Cav., with whom he deployed to Iraq in 2008, Mason noted that he was sent on a number of bizarre, solo assignments which did not support his career path, known in the military as a “billet.”
While in Iraq in 2008, Mason suffered an allergic reaction from a “burn pit” located just outside of his combat housing unit (CHU). As a result of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, a significant number of American soldiers have reported dire effects from exposure to burn pits, including severe illness, cancer and premature death in some cases.
Trained as an infantryman and public affairs officer, Mason adapted to service in Afghanistan by establishing a program by which he taught enlisted soldiers how to gather information for timely, relevant articles on conditions there, including among native Afghanis. When an opportune time arose for him to leave Kabul temporarily to receive his ordination, Mason learned that despite the circumstances which generated his deployment, he had become a valued member of the Public Affairs unit managing the Pentagon press corps and was sorely missed during his ten-day absence.
His trip to Paktika was punctuated by a “barrage” of enemy fire, during which time Mason found himself thinking, “Maybe the devil does not want me to transition and become a chaplain.”
Part 27 concluded with Mason’s having been unexpectedly recognized and greeted by a soldier with whom he had served briefly in Kabul, a welcome voice in what had become a very dark time.
His story continues:
Out of the blue, when I reached my low point, here comes this angel in disguise. The guy rolled the window down and said, “Hey, man, hop in this truck.”
So I hopped in his truck and he said, “Remember me? We were stuck at Bagram together and had to take the convoy out to Kabul. I was assigned here and you were up in Kabul.”
We got to talking, and he asked what I was doing there. I told him I was here for an ordination process. And he said, “Well, this is my base; I run all the logistics here. If you need anything — clothes, sheets, laundry, a pillow — you let me know.”
So I said, “Well, how about you give me a tour and tell me what’s going on on this base? Right now I’m really angry — I just had kind-of an argument…”
He said, “Don’t worry about it.” He introduced me to some of the staff, and he said, “Wherever you have to go, contact me, and I’ll come get you and take you where you have to be. How long are you going to be here?” and I said, “Just a couple of days.” So he said, “Well, you’re not walking anyplace. If you don’t mind running around with me to do a few things, I’ll drop you off.” So I said, “I need to find a way to get in contact with my wife. Is there a USO or a computer center here for me to get a phone call out?”
He said, “Well, we can’t get phone calls here, but we have an internet space where you can send some email back.” I remember he took me to a computer and I emailed my wife and said, “I’m done. I’m done with this place. I just want to do my time, my 12 months, and I want to go home. I’m tired of this.” I explained what the chaplain said to me.
My wife responded — it came back fast — and she said, “Gary, the enemy is just trying to discourage you. You go back; I don’t care if you have to walk back there to that tent — and you go through that ordination process.” Now she was the commander. She said, “Gary, they were shooting at you so you couldn’t get there; they didn’t want you to leave Kabul; they didn’t want you to be here in Hawaii; you go complete something and let God deal with the rest.”
I remember that all of a sudden the red lenses I was looking through began to go full-color again. I found some hot water and cleaned myself up, then I found a meal on the base, and then I laid down and slept at a place they called “Tent City.” I got up early and decided to walk and think. I didn’t know how the ordination process was going to go. I remember praying the whole way as I walked for three or four miles and got to the place.
When I walked into the chapel, there were three chaplains sitting there. They were the complete opposite of the chaplain I had come into contact with. Here I was getting ready to make a decision based on one person’s nasty attitude. I recalled Lt. Col. McCaffrey – “You’re going to meet some nasty people.” But then, these guys had no clue that I was getting ready to say, “Toss this ordination out the window; I’m not going to do it.” They didn’t know that. They greeted me with respect and said, “We just got here. We had to take a nasty convoy to get here. We made it here for you. Are you ready to start this process?”
I was in no way prepared based on the mixed emotions I was feeling. I was run-down. But I sat there; we went through about an hour and a half process. We talked, discussed, went through the ordination process. They asked me to step outside while they convened, and then about 20-30 minutes later they asked me to come back in. They shook my hand and said, “Rev. Mason, we’d like to congratulate you on being ordained here in FOB Sharana.”
I went from seeing red to thinking I was walking on clouds. If anyone can mess with your emotions, join the Army!
This is where it gets interesting. I then finished up; it took me a couple of days to schedule a flight out to get back to Bagram. From there, I had to get a flight to Kabul International Airport. These processes took a while because of the conditions – sandstorms, the heat – the threat levels had to be right. So it wasn’t something where you just hop a flight and go. It could have been an Air Force plane, helicopter, or sometimes you had to hop a convoy and go by jeep or tank.
I eventually made it back. I had a renewed sense of strength. I remember coming back and talking to my senior commander. I had been gone for a week or two; they gave me ten days. I remember talking to the full-bird Army colonel who was acting as a mentor. He said, “Man, when you left, things kind-of fell apart with the Pentagon press corps. This guy did not do the job while you were away.” He also shared with me that there were other colonels questioning why he was so kind to me and why he was helping me so much.
He was the only African-American full-bird colonel there, at the time. There was also a Marine who was a major; he and I knew each other, but the full-bird colonel was the senior who had begun to mentor me. And he had slowly begun to discuss how things were and recommended that I go ahead and become a chaplain. I respected him. In turn, I remember him telling me, “You’re doing some things for me that have nothing to do with rank, so in so many ways, I’m serving you. You might be a captain and I’m a colonel, but the level of insight and love you’ve given me scripturally is helping me.”
So he said, “Bring your reports, your evaluation summaries to me, and I will help you put this in the format it needs to be in so that you can be in the top notch, or above center-mass for promotion to Major when it’s time.” So that’s how he repaid me, by teaching me that in the evaluation system, there are certain adjectives that have to be very strong when describing who you are in relation to competition with your peers. If they use terms such as “Job well-done,” or “Good,” that’s a hidden sign for you not to be promoted.
If you say, “The top-tier person in this command in public affairs” or “Excellent, must be promoted immediately,” that is a “go” for promotion. Those are the adjectives you have to use to tell the Pentagon that you must be promoted now.
There are forms where they have to check off boxes as to tasks completed which a “rater” and the senior rater, normally the commander, fill out. At the time my rater was a Public Affairs full-bird colonel, but my mentor helped me generate the billet points for all the responsibilities I had while in Afghanistan for the first six months. The senior rater was Adm. Gregory Smith, the two-star Naval admiral. The colonel helped me document the budget I handled, the Pentagon press corps; my leading of the first interview with Command Sgt. Major Marvin Hill, who was Gen. Petraeus’s right-hand man. I reached 54 African-American radio stations throughout the U.S. because Sgt. Major Hill was African-American. I devised a plan to have him interviewed.
I knew I was going to get promoted, yet I did not know that they were more fearful of the fact that I would not yield as the stereotypical African-American officer would. There is a norm, and that norm is to be a “Yes, sir” boss. I just read an article the other day about “transactional” leaders vs. “transformational” leaders. A transactional leader is someone who just takes orders and does what he’s told, and he gets a paycheck and you get rewarded for it. A transformational leader is more creative, team-building; inspirational. In the job I was in as an infantry officer, you’re told what to do. Even when it’s wrong, you’re going to be told what to do, and you will comply and follow the mission set.
You have to understand the environment that I was in.
Some of the illegal activity that went on I couldn’t comply with, because if I had — if someone had said, “See that woman and child right there? Shoot them with that 50-caliber because they are obstructing our interest in getting into this compound,” that’s an order to deploy a weapon. Now the average person would take that weapon and deploy it, killing the woman and child. This might be a default in my system, but if you ask me, I would think, “Rules of Engagement.” I cannot deploy a 50-caliber on a person; I need to use a different caliber. I need to use a 9 mm, a 5.56 mm, an M4, and that person has to have presented me with deadly force. So when you get into acts of murder – let’s say I did deploy that 50-caliber and shredded them in half and was found by the community to have committed murder — they would contact the embassy; the embassy would do an investigation and say, “Who was the one who killed this woman and child?” and then it would come back to that commander and it would come down to the situation report – the sitrep. And it would say, “Capt. Mason received an order, but he should have known the Rules of Engagement.” So guess who does the jail time? They would now punish me for obeying the order and say, “You should have known.”
When they do it under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), this is what happens.
When I returned to Kabul, I noticed that they were trying to figure out “what we do with Captain Mason now he’s a reverend.” All of a sudden something strange occurred: the command sergeant major called me in to the office and said, “Capt. Mason, the 101st Airborne is getting ready to take regional command down south, and we were thinking that you could go there and become their public affairs officer.” That meant they were going to move me from senior command headquarters working for Gen. Petraeus to a southern region, where they had a captain’s billet.
So I was thinking, “Why all of a sudden now?” and she said, “It’s a yearlong assignment.” This is what was key: I said, “I’ve already been here for 5-6 months; now you want to assign me an additional 12 months?” and she said, “We thought that maybe it would be good for you to go down there and take a billet.” So that would be 18 months’ deployment away from my family.
Then she said, “Technically, we can’t conditionally release you unless the Chaplain Corps receives you.” So I said, “Well, Sgt. Major, I have to get in contact with the chaplains’ office and see what my next step is, because if they approve my packet, I’m going to transfer as a chaplain. There will be no need for me to go down as a PA officer for another 12 months.”
For me, it was very strange, it was like, “Here we go with a curve ball again.” And I asked her, “Did I step on someone’s toes? Did I do something wrong?”
All of a sudden, she started breaking down and crying, and I asked her, “Something’s not right here. What’s going on?” She shut the door, and I don’t know what happened, but it seemed there was some type of personal life situation that was going on with her. She said, “I’m getting ready to leave, and I want to make sure you’re taken care of before I go. I don’t really know what’s going on, but my thought was that you should probably go ahead and take a job somewhere else.” That was like a red flag, and she couldn’t really say why. What she did say was, “You’ve been taking care of us, and I want to take care of you. You’ve been doing Bible studies and preaching and teaching…”
I replied, “Well, Sgt. Major, thank you, but I need time to get in contact with the Chaplain Corps.” So, I got on the phone from the USO and started sending emails out to the West Coast Region Chaplains’ recruiting office in southern California. I remember sending all of my information and endorsements from the Evangelical Church Alliance there. So when the West Coast chaplains’ office got it, I remember talking to him and his saying something like, “OK, we have your packet here, but you haven’t been pastoring for two years, so we can’t transfer you.” I said, “Chaplain, I’m on active duty pastoring.” He said, “No, no, no, our requirement is that you need to be pastoring in a church for two years.” I said, “No, it’s the need of the Army; there are jobs here right now to be filled by chaplains. Can you transfer me?” and he said, “Well, I’ll review your packet.”
I noticed a few weeks later he refused to return my phone call; nobody from that office would contact me back while I was in Afghanistan. The most I got was, “We don’t transfer people when they’re on deployment downrange.” And I said, “I’m not asking to leave downrange; I’m asking to stay in combat with a combat assignment. I’ve already been here six months.”
What I found out later was that this particular chaplain was cherry-picking chaplain packets and choosing who he wanted to send before the Board to get picked up for chaplaincy. So again, he saw that I was African-American; I was with the Evangelical Church Alliance, which is a spirit-filled endorsing agency. At the time, they were looking for more Methodists/liturgical/Catholic chaplains and female chaplains. They were looking for Buddhists and Muslim chaplains. He still had to push my packet up, but he claimed that he did not send my packet – here I am waiting downrange to transfer, and his first excuse for not “Boarding” my packet was that it was signed off by a captain and not a colonel.
In the Army, a captain is an O-3. In the Navy, a captain is a full-bird colonel, an O-9. He said, “Oh, I thought that Captain…” and I said, “Now waiting a minute, Chaplain. You’re a lieutenant colonel. You know very well that a captain in the Navy is an O-9 and has the authorization to sign off on my release and my packet.” He claimed it was an omission: “I didn’t know; I made a mistake.” And he said, “In three months, when we have another Board, I’ll send your packet up.” So I was thinking, “Wow…”
I was told I had to make a decision because they were getting ready to assign me for 12 more months. I was thinking, “No way…why is this happening now?”
So guess what happened? I don’t know if it was stress, but I was sleeping in a CHU near a burn pit, and I woke up and my lower jaw and lips swelled up like a camel. I went to the clinic and was told, “I’m going to have to put you on medication, and if you’re having angio-edema or anaphylaxis, I’m can’t treat you here; I’m going to have to medivac you out to Germany, Landstuhl, Germany.”
This is where something very interesting started. He gave me a big bag of steroids and said, “If this happens again, I’m going to medivac you out of here.”
It happened again exactly a week later, and it came back worse. So he said, “I’m putting you on the manifest and we’re getting you out of here.” For some strange reason he said my condition was life-threatening, but he did not send me to Germany, which would have been protocol before returning to the States.