“I DECIDED TO GO”
by Sharon Rondeau
(Aug. 21, 2019) — In Part 31, former U.S. Army Captain Gary Mason told of his return to Hawaii at the end of 2010 from an individual assignment to Afghanistan which was cut short due to an allergic reaction and medivac back to the U.S.
Mason experienced a similar reaction while serving in Iraq with the 3/4 Cav. unit in late 2008. Both then and in 2010, he was eventually tested, treated and ultimately declared fit to continue his military service by doctors at Tripler Army Medical Center.
Entering the service in 2000 as an infantryman with a Bachelor’s degree, Mason trained in weapons use and combat for three years, when he felt a calling to become a military chaplain. Initially he attended his Master of Divinity program full-time while working as a diplomatic security officer at the U.S. State Department, then completed the curriculum while serving on an individual assignment to Afghanistan seven years later.
Early in 2008, Mason requested a return to active duty for financial reasons. That fall, he was deployed to Iraq’s Sunni Triangle with the 3/4 Cav. unit. It was there that he observed unrestrained racism and sexism which went unaddressed by the unit commander, then-Lt. Col. David Hodne.
In Iraq as a 1st Lieutenant, Mason was assigned the post of night-shift battle captain, a challenging administrative position in the Tactical Operations Center (TOC). While far removed from the military chaplaincy career he hoped to someday achieve, Mason worked to excel in the mission to locate and neutralize terrorists.
According to the UCMJ, the assault perpetrator, a sergeant major, could have faced court-martial and much worse but was not disciplined, despite formal reports Mason filed with the Military Police and Hodne’s office.
In Part 9 of our series, Mason gave his view as to what might have initiated the assault:
Apparently what was going on was that on the day shift, the young lieutenants, who were white males working with the sergeant major, were telling him things that I was doing at night that they didn’t like or they felt as if they were doing more work during the day and I was on the night shift and there wasn’t much going on at night. So they bad-mouthed me to the sergeant major and created an issue. There was still the racial thing; the graffiti was getting worse. I kind-of ignored it, because I had a lot to do.
Shortly thereafter, Mason was relocated to the region’s main operating base, LSA Anaconda, ostensibly for further medical testing. With symptoms cleared and the ability to work, Mason assumed a similar position to battle captain while awaiting further orders.
His sense that his renewed equilibrium would be short-lived was proved correct, as he was ordered to return to Hawaii for more medical tests. Mason learned later through an email provided to him that Hodne had resolved to end Mason’s Army career on the pretext that he was medically-unfit to serve.
However, away from Hodne and 3/4 Cav., Mason remained in the service, completing individual assignments in South Korea and Japan. In July 2009, he began a new career in Army Public Affairs with the 8th Theater Sustainment Command, a division of the 25th Infantry Division along with 3/4 Cav. With prior experience in broadcasting and print media, Mason led a Public Affairs unit, covering military events in Hawaii.
A short time later, 3/4 Cav. returned from Iraq at an event Mason was scheduled to cover. Hodne did not wish to provide an interview, Mason recalled, a decision Mason did not question. Unexpectedly, several service members confided to Mason that they, too, were assaulted by the same enlisted soldier with Hodne taking no corrective action. The soldiers appeared anxious and intimidated, Mason said, with one failing to deny that he might be feeling “suicidal.”
Out of concern for their well-being, Mason felt compelled to write a letter of concern to the 25th Infantry Division chain of command.
While attending Public Affairs school at Fort Meade in the spring of 2010, Mason was asked to complete a short assignment in South Korea. Normally a 30-day “R&R” period would have ensued upon his return to his home base, Mason said. The bizarre experience, where he was forced to sleep in a brothel rather than in military barracks, was followed by another individual assignment to Japan and a third to Afghanistan.
In Kabul under difficult circumstances, Mason excelled in Public Affairs and received a superior Officer Evaluation Report (OER) with a recommendation for promotion. It was in Afghanistan that he was also ordained as a military chaplain after a dangerous and potentially-fatal flight to Paktika Province.
From Kabul, while still working in Public Affairs, he began applying for stateside positions within the Chaplaincy Corps, eager to begin a new chapter in his Army career. However, two subsequent allergic reactions necessitated his departure from the combat zone to obtain further medical treatment.
Having completed the first leg of his journey back to Hawaii via Ft. Benning, Mason was stunningly informed that his service in Afghanistan took place without official orders. That revelation led to an extended stay at Ft. Benning until new orders were issued so that he could complete his trip back to his family in Hawaii.
While at Ft. Benning, Mason was told that his “billet,” or career-path position in Public Affairs, had been given to Major Parker.
Within 36 hours of his arrival in Hawaii, Mason was tasked with providing a press update on activity in the Pacific to high-ranking U.S. commanders and their counterparts in South Korea and Japan with virtually no preparation.
After Mason stepped to the podium to give his report, the commander at the 8th Theater Sustainment Command, Gen. Terry, claimed not to have known where Mason was during his six-month deployment. After providing the press update, Terry’s aide-de-camp told Mason, “You weren’t on anybody’s radar; nobody knew where you were.”
Amidst growing unease with recent events, Mason checked his military file and discovered an inaccurate “AWOL” notation which no one appeared able to explain. He received no satisfaction upon speaking with Col. Perkuchin, who had once encouraged him to fulfill the requirements of his chosen career path in the ministry.
From there, Mason told The Post & Email:
At this point my wife said, “Gary, let’s go to church; let’s relax. Thank God you’re home and we have some time together; let’s go to the beach. We will address it in writing.” And I said to her, “If they don’t fix this, I’m going to file a congressional and I’m going to report this to somebody. I’m going to let someone know what’s going on.”
I started sending emails to everybody asking to see General Terry. His schedule was busy; he couldn’t see me or my wife. She asked to go up there to ask why I was sent to Afghanistan with no orders. No one wanted to address that.
So now guess what happened? They sent me to Japan. I came back, then all of a sudden, I got an email from all the way back in Kabul from the Public Affairs office where I was working. Guess who it was? It was the sergeant major. She came back after her time off and said, “Captain Mason, we have a job for you; you know you’re still on orders.”
No one wanted to address these concerns. I started explaining this to Maj. Parker, and come to find out, Maj. Parker was going back telling Lt. Col. Garner, and I’m sure Garner was talking to the chief of staff and an assistant commander, Col. Maskell. Apparently, they did not want to let Gen. Terry know what was going on. The general doesn’t just have you come in and explain your complaint to him. The assistant commander and the chief of staff were supposed to mitigate the problem before it went farther up the chain of command.
I was starting to have a problem with all of this. I was thinking that I might have to find out a way to talk to JAG, the IG, to EO, but I wasn’t sure if it was time just yet. That email said to me, “You technically still have six months on your deployment; if you’ve been approved medically, you can come back and finish or cut your tour short. What is the status?”
So I got in contact with her and asked, “Sgt. Major, what is going on?” She said, “Capt. Mason, I don’t really know how you’re doing and all, but Special Forces had a lieutenant colonel get promoted, and they need a public affairs officer there. It would be a great opportunity and great job. They’re asking for you.”
And I said, “What do you mean, ‘asking for me?’ Do you know I was there without orders?”
She said she didn’t know anything about that. And she said, “Captain Mason, I need you to take a week and let me know if you’ll come back. It’s a really high-profile job working directly for Gen. Petraeus and with Special Forces.” It was with the International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) Special Operations Forces (SOF) at KIA, Kabul International Airport.
I talked to my wife, and I asked, “Should I go back?” and she said, “I’m not thinking about you going back right now. We need to fix these problems.”
When I was over in Japan, I had met a lieutenant colonel and shared with him a little bit about what was happening; we were working an operation together. He said, “Capt. Mason, right now, because you have so much stuff going on, if it were me, I would take the higher road and go back and do another combat tour with Special Forces.” I think he gave a good reason: “If you sit here and go back and forth with this stuff, it’s not going to turn out good for you. Go back there, get another very good combat OER and put yourself in a position where you’re going to be promoted to Major. If they’re trying to move you out of your billet, this time you will have an assigned billet. You’ll be working with NATO and Special Forces; this would be your second NATO campaign. A lot of people don’t get that opportunity. Technically, you’ll be doing a lieutenant colonel or colonel’s job. You should consider it.”
I was waiting on the Chaplain Corps; they weren’t getting back to me. They would give me a hard time, saying it was going to be another 3-6 months. So if I went, it would be a third combat tour. Every time you get new orders, it’s considered a new tour. All the combat tours in the beginning were 18 months, then 12 months, then six months. They said they would cut a new set of orders stating that they wanted to receive me at ISAF SOF.
I talked to my wife; we prayed about it, and I decided to go. The hospital gave me a clean bill of health. They gave me bags of medicine.
Guess what? I went back to Ft. Benning with an approved set of orders this time, went through the retrain again; I went back down and got assigned to the Kabul International Airport (KIA) with NATO and a Special Forces unit.
Special Forces was a roller-coaster ride. A lot of it I can’t talk about because it’s classified. I successfully finished that mission, and when I came back, I was moved to the 130th Engineer Brigade. I’d been gone for a year, Maj. Parker was in my billet, and I was getting emails saying that that billet didn’t belong to me. My time in Hawaii was up, so now they were trying to tell me I needed to get in touch with my branch manager at Public Affairs and ask for my next assignment.
My oldest son was going into his senior year in high school, and according to regulations, when you have a child moving into his senior year, they allow your family to extend where you are to accommodate the graduation. I filled out the paperwork to stay an additional year before I redeployed to Afghanistan. The 8th Theater Sustainment Command didn’t like that. My wife and I wrote to ask for an extension on our orders from three years to four years. Prior to coming back, they approved it. All the command had to do was extend my orders, but they did not extend my orders until I got back and my wife went up there and complained about it. They were still going to try to ship us out of there when I got back.
According to the regulations, they had to extend us for another year, but they made it known that I was no longer assigned to the 8th Theater Sustainment Command. I was sent down to a lower echelon to work at a brigade level where there was no billet for a public affairs officer. So it would just be me sitting at a unit where there’s no assignment, no billet, no office; I would just be there taking pictures at their unit events. That’s not what a public affairs officer does; that’s an enlisted job.
Eventually, they were forced to remove the error made in my military file. Someone up there at the 8th Theater Sustainment Command claimed they made a mistake. I figured someone had tampered with my file. When the promotion board sees a flag triggered by certain negative marks in your file, they won’t even look at you for promotion. They never explained to me why Gen. Terry didn’t know I was gone; they also didn’t have a clue as to where they were going to put me when I returned because they were hoping that I would just leave Hawaii. I never thought my own unit would make me feel like an outsider.
A lot of people would have just taken their family and run. But we didn’t.