U.S. Army Veteran Shares Painful Experiences of Military Racism, Part 31

“YOU’RE TRYING TO PROVOKE ME TO ANGER”

by Sharon Rondeau

Gary Mason and daughter Jessy at the Battleship Missouri Memorial, Honolulu, between WIAS deployments

(Jul. 31, 2019) —This segment continues former Captain Gary Mason’s story at the point where in late 2010, he returned to Hawaii from Afghanistan  for medical reasons and was immediately assigned a press briefing to an international military audience with virtually no preparation time.

While in Kabul, Afghanistan on a “WIAS” (“worldwide individual augmentation system”) assignment, Mason worked in the field of Army Public affairs, training enlisted soldiers and providing support to generals and other commanding officers.

His time in Afghanistan, though dangerous and ever-changing, earned him a “superior” Officer Evaluation Report (OER) with a recommendation for immediate promotion, Mason told us, with mentoring from a full-bird colonel who took an interest in his career and abilities.

Mason’s military service, begun in 2000, had taken him from basic training at Ft. Benning to infantry war games at Ft. Lewis to full-time Divinity student and promotion to 1st Lieutenant.  Shortly after his resumption of active-duty status in 2008, he deployed to Iraq with the 3/4 Cav. unit, where he was assaulted by an enlisted soldier.

Mason had just returned from a short medical leave stemming from an allergic reaction he suffered from breathing combustion from a burn pit, now known to have sickened hundreds of U.S. soldiers during recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Mason filed a formal complaint about the assault but was ultimately told by his commanding officer, then-Lt. Col. David Hodne, that without any witnesses, it was one man’s word against another’s and no punitive steps against the perpetrator could therefore be taken.

Less than a month later, Hodne made the decision to send Mason back to Hawaii ostensibly for additional medical evaluation, although based on an email Mason was later provided by an enlisted soldier close to Hodne, he believes it was Hodne’s attempt to end his military career altogether.

In a frank, face-to-face meeting with Hodne prior to his departure from Iraq, Mason informed Hodne of the sexism and racism he observed at the outset of his deployment with 3/4 Cav., attributing the lack of discipline to Hodne himself.

Once returned stateside, Mason was medically reviewed at Tripler Army Medical Center and declared fit to serve. He subsequently deployed to Japan and South Korea on what materialized as “bizarre” individual assignments, he told us.  While in Japan, he was told of an opening in Public Affairs at his home base in Hawaii, for which he immediately applied.

On July 1, 2009, Mason made a fresh start by transferring to the 8th Theater Sustainment Command as a Public Affairs officer.  Shortly thereafter, Mason’s assignment was to cover the return from Iraq of his previous unit, 3/4 Cav.

Upon greeting his former soldiers-in-arms, several members reported having been assaulted by the same enlisted man who had targeted him at FOB Poliwoda.  Their outlook grim, at least one soldier refused to answer when Mason asked him if he were feeling “suicidal,” Mason recalled.

The soldiers’ predicament prompted Mason to write a letter of concern to the command of the 25th Infantry Division, which encompassed 3/4 Cav. and the 8th Theater Sustainment Command, among other units.

In the spring of 2010, Mason was sent to Ft. Meade, MD for Public Affairs training, during which time he was promoted to Captain.  Shortly after his departure for the East Coast, his wife Shahnaaz met with his commanding officer, Gen. Terry, about her uneasiness that her husband could become the object of retaliation as a result of the letter he wrote.  She was assured that his safety was not at risk, Mason told us.

Just prior to leaving for Ft. Meade, Mason attempted to obtain a copy of the report he filed in Iraq from the 8th Military Police Brigade in Hawaii about his own assault.  Surprisingly, he was told the report could not be located.  “Apparently Col. Piatt, who was Hodne’s supervisor, chose to come down and take this police report off the record to handle it personally,” Mason told The Post & Email.  “I was told he used his command authority and took it.  They were bombarding me with deployments so I couldn’t spend time in Hawaii with my family. The goal was to keep my wife and me separate, keep me off the island so I couldn’t bring up this stuff anymore, and prevent me from getting hold of all of the materials I filed downrange while all the time, they were putting in counter, false claims against me.”

After completing Public Affairs training, in an unusual development, Mason was almost immediately sent to South Korea.  Normally a 30-day “R&R” period would have been in order following a family separation, Mason said.

The South Korea assignment lasted a brief few weeks, Mason recalled.  However, later that year, he was deployed to Kabul, Afghanistan for what would be a six-month stay in a war zone.  Although the command there was not expecting him, he found a niche training enlisted service members in the field of Public Affairs.

At the same time, Mason completed his studies for the military chaplaincy.  Following a life-threatening flight to Paktika Province and unexpected hostility on the part of a senior chaplain upon his arrival, he received his ordination from a group of chaplains who warmly welcomed him to the Chaplain Corps.

In an earlier interview, Mason told The Post & Email that he believes he is probably the only military chaplain to have received his ordination outside of the United States in a combat zone.

Upon Mason’s return to Kabul, fate meted out yet another twist when he suffered two more allergic reactions.  An Army medic described his situation as “life-threatening,” and Mason was told he would be flown to the Army medical center at Landstuhl, Germany for evaluation.

In another unusual development, he ended up at Ft. Benning, GA.  It was there that he was informed that his orders to deploy to Afghanistan were “not approved” and that he would therefore be required to pay for his own return flight to Hawaii.

Mason was baffled by that development and took steps to discover how he could have been sent into a war zone without official orders.  Further, while staying at Ft. Benning, Mason learned that his 8th TSC PAO supervisor, Lt. Col. Garner, was preparing to retire and that Maj. Parker had been given Mason’s Public Affairs position during Mason’s absence.

Mason was finally able to rejoin his family in Hawaii after his wife informed the director of the Soldier Support Center of his situation and the director issued the necessary orders for his return.

In Part 30, Mason described how upon his arrival in Hawaii, he was immediately tasked with providing a press update on operations in the Pacific to an audience of 200+ U.S. senior military members and others from South Korea and Japan participating by video-conference.  As Mason stepped to the podium to provide the requested report, he recalled Gen. Terry blurting out, “Capt. Mason, when did you get here?”

Mason recalled that no one inquired as to why he was returned from Afghanistan and that his wife was not provided with updates as to his deployment activities, as would have been expected.  “No one was there to greet me; no one was there to say, ‘Welcome back,’ Mason told us. “No one said a thing. In other words, business as usual: he’s back. No one said anything; no one did anything. Here I had received a great OER; ‘Promote immediately,’ and I’m medivaced back for ‘life-threatening’ conditions. No one had a clue, asked me about my concerns, nothing. All I was asked by Gen. Terry was, “When did you get here?”

Mason continued his narrative:

Over the next couple of months, I was trying to get my administrative affairs together.  Lt. Col. Garner was coming back and forth, taking things out of his office.  Now they didn’t have a Lt. Col. in his slot, and Maj. Parker said, “We’re trying to figure out how we’re going to run our office now.  We were thinking maybe we could switch you out and you could go and take my billet down at the 8th Military Police Public Affairs office.”  Apparently there was a problem with Maj. Parker down at the MP station, and he was in a bad fix. Lt. Col. Garner was doing a favor for him, so he moved him out of that situation and gave him my slot.

I responded, “Maj. Parker, this is my billet,” and he said, “We’re thinking we could transfer you down so you can get some more experience someplace else.”  And I said, “That doesn’t make sense because according to my orders, I’m assigned that billet at the 8th TSC by the Army’s Human Resource Command (HRC).”

So now he was basically saying that administratively, 8th TSC would switch the billets so I could go someplace else. And I said, “I’m assigned here and not interested in going someplace else; my goal is to eventually transfer into the Chaplain Corps branch, but I’ll finish my assigned time in Public Affairs while I’m here.”

Again, the doctor at Tripler cleared me; they gave me all kinds of allergy tests and said, “You have idiopathic angio-edema urticaria and anaphylaxis.”  They gave me a long list of medications to take consisting of antihistamines and steroids and said that as long as I took those medications, I should be OK.

While trying to figure out where to place me, they began to say, “Look, just go to the doctor; get your stuff together and do your medical things; don’t worry about coming in here.  We’re going to figure out where we’re going to send you and what you’re going to do.”  And I was thinking, “That doesn’t make any sense to me right now.”

After about a month, they sent me on another individual WIAS task to Japan.  In other words, they were still keeping me off-island. When I got back, I went down to the Military Police station again and found a civilian there this time, and I said, “In late 2008, when I got back from Iraq, I filed a police report about an assault; I still have the report number.”  And she said, “Let me look,” and then, “Here’s a copy.”  So I said, “What happened to the investigation?”  She said, “Oh, Col. Piatt took purview; he took it and just did an internal thing.  So it all falls under him now.”  And I said, “I just want a copy of it,” and that’s when I found out that Sgt. Major Manis said he didn’t mean to do any bodily harm; he was “just poking me with his finger.”

I wanted a copy to put in my file because I knew there was some funny business going on that wasn’t good for me.  While this was happening, all of a sudden, they began to ask me about my administrative affairs, if I had an OER, and other things.  So I went in to my officer military personnel file, which is an internal file kept under the Army HRC website. It gives you a list of all your orders, your history, where you’ve been deployed, everything you’ve done.  That file is what the HRC processes and submits to the Pentagon for review and then determines whether or not you are eligible for promotion.

Well, lo and behold, I looked in my Officer Military Personnel File (OMPF) and saw that my OER was uploaded from Afghanistan, but right above that file was an AWOL notification. And I said, “What is this?”

I was able to open up the files and confirm that it belonged to a specialist assigned at the 8th TSC, an E-4 enlisted person, who had gone AWOL, but someone there in personnel put it in my OMPF file.

You don’t put an AWOL in a captain’s file; captains almost never go AWOL.  They have a system:  green, yellow, red and amber, meaning “Go” or “No-go.”  When you have a red flag in your file, a lot of times it automatically starts the HRC system at the Pentagon which says, “Flag or discharge this service member.”

So, in other words, if somebody didn’t pay attention, something can be put in by omission or mistake, and because you don’t do your homework, you could be discharged or have something negative occur in your personnel file.

It was just by chance I went in there and I saw the AWOL.  So now I walked into Maj. Parker’s office and asked, “Why is there an ‘AWOL’ in my military file?” and he said, “What?”  I opened it up and showed it to him, and he said, “Make a copy of that.”  So I made a copy of it, and I remember going in to see the chief of staff, Col. Perkuchin — the guy who got mad at me because I was down there trying to get a copy of the police report.

Well, Col. Perkuchin was sitting in his office.  Maj. Parker and I walked both into his office.  He got off the phone, looked up, and said, “What’s up, Captain Mason, welcome back.” And I said, “Col. Perkuchin, I have ‘AWOL’ in my personnel file, and I want to know why it’s there.”  He looked at Maj. Parker and me, then appeared to get angry.  He said, “OK, I’ll deal with that later, but I’m busy, so I need you both to leave my office.”

Maj. Parker left, and I looked at him; I didn’t leave. I said, “Col Perkuchin, there’s a lot going on and I need some answers.” And he said, “Capt. Maosn, I told you I’ll get back with you at a later time.”

So I did an about-face and walked out.  Now I was really mad.  I was thinking, “You just left me in Afghanistan with fake orders; you have an AWOL in my file; now I’m thinking you’re trying to provoke me to anger or what they call “behavior unbecoming.”

 

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