U.S. Army Veteran Shares Painful Experiences of Military Racism, Part 36

“SOMEONE GOT MAD”

by Sharon Rondeau

Photo taken by Gary Mason:  Col. Milhorn and newly-promoted Maj. Gen. Terry at a community relations event at the Mililani Middle School, Oahu, 2012

(Dec. 9, 2019) — Part 35 of our series described the building tension among former U.S. Army Captain Gary Mason; his unit in Hawaii, the 8th Theater Sustainment Command; and the 130th Engineer Brigade to which he was temporarily assigned after returning in 2011 from his second deployment to Afghanistan.

Mason believes the increasing hostility he experienced beginning in spring 2010 stemmed from a complaint he filed over an assault he suffered while deployed with the 3/4 Cav. unit to Iraq under then-Lt. Col. David Hodne.  Adding to the deteriorating relationship, Mason believes, was a subsequent letter of concern he sent to his 8th TSC chain of command regarding the well-being of other soldiers who later told him they, too, were assaulted by the same enlisted soldier, who suffered no consequences for his misconduct.

Shortly before the assault, Mason experienced a severe allergic reaction to fumes from a burn pit.  After filing his complaint with Hodne over the assault, Hodne ordered Mason’s return to Hawaii ostensibly for extensive medical testing. Mason did not leave Iraq before meeting with Hodne in person, telling him that the lack of discipline within 3/4 Cav. was “a reflection of your leadership.”

Just prior to his departure from Iraq, an enlisted soldier provided Mason with an email sent by Hodne’s personnel assistant, Capt. Johnson, expressing Hodne’s desire to oust Mason from not only 3/4 Cav., but the military altogether.

Medical doctors at Tripler Army Medical Center found Mason fit to serve, and he chose to remain in the Army.

Mason’s letter of concern, written after 3/4 Cav. returned to Hawaii from Iraq and some of its members shared their distress with him, made its way through the ranks of the 25th Infantry Division, of which the 8th TSC was a part, and was apparently not well-received by top commanders.   While he was completing Public Affairs training at Ft. Meade, MD in April 2010, Mason was informed that he was to be sent overseas before his graduation at the Defense Information School (DINFOS), and without returning home to Hawaii to see his family.

Mason was eventually sent on multiple individual-assignments into war zones, bizarre and awkward situations, and in one case, without official orders.

Upon his second return from Afghanistan, Mason was met with particularly poor treatment. Within hours of his arrival in Hawaii, again for medical reasons, he was expected to provide a formal press briefing on Army engagement in the Pacific, after which he was told by the general’s aide-de-camp that while he was away, “Nobody knew where you were.”

His subsequent reassignment from the 8th TSC to the 130th Engineer Brigade began with an excoriation by the unit commander, Col. Milhorn, after two subordinate officers failed to inform Milhorn that Mason’s absence on a particular day should have been excused due to scheduled medical appointments.

As the workplace friction and hostility continued to build, Mason eventually filed a request for a congressional investigation into what he said were civil-rights violations on the part of the Army against him. Although dreading the move for fear of additional retaliation, Mason saw no other option open to him, and Sen. Mazie Hirono’s office was responsive to his complaint.

Nevertheless, in 2015, after 15 years of service, Mason was discharged from the Army as “disabled,” a diagnosis he disputes.  Hodne and Milhorn have both been promoted.

Both Obama and former Vice President Joseph Biden became aware of Mason’s Army experiences, and, despite face-to-face encounters with each, took no action, Mason and his wife Shahnaaz told The Post & Email early in the narrative.

From Part 35, Mason’s story continues:

When they sent me to the 8th Theater Sustainment Command for public affairs, that was a tier above 3/4 Cav.  They never expected me to look back at the assault investigation or to ask any more questions about the incident involving Lt. Col. Hodne and 3/4 Cav. In order to cover this situation up and distance me from General Terry, I was abruptly assigned to the 8th TSC’s 45th Sustainment Training brigade which handled all of the personnel actions. Their first duty was to assign me somewhere else on the island.

Photo taken by Gary Mason: General Terry during a community-relations event in Hawaii, 2012

In the meanwhile, I was working directly for the one-star general, Gen. Terry, as a public affairs officer. So, wherever he was going, I was there to work on command information, top-down, for him and the troops who served in his command. We also had community relations where I would work in the local community.  If Gen. Terry had a meeting somewhere in Hawaii, I would grab a camera and snap a few shots of him throughout his engagement or with other commands within Hawaii.  Sometimes we would go off-island and they would send another crew with him. It was for document purposes.  They also had a newspaper, Army Hawaii Weekly, which both my wife and I would also write for.

I remember that the G1 and the S1, who were the personnel officers — one a Captain and one a Major — started sending me emails telling me they could not give me my combat awards from downrange.  We had been attacked and rocketed by the enemy in Afghanistan on numerous occasions, and I had to give them a report of what happened. Because I had been assigned to a Special Forces unit, a lot of times the Special Forces unit would give out the awards only to Special Forces.

I received my Permanent Change of Station (PCS) awards for being there; I received a Defense Meritorious Service medal, two NATO medals and Overseas ribbons, but I was supposed to receive a combat infantryman badge, and I never received that.

So, when I got back, I began organizing my officer military personnel files.  I was informed by the brigade that they would correct my files and update errors that were mysteriously reported in my OMPF. I came to realize that the G1 there was Capt. Johnson’s wife, a lieutenant colonel, the brigade commander.  Remember Capt. Johnson was the S1, personnel officer for Col. Hodne.  I didn’t know while I was away that they had assigned her husband to work under her at the 45th STB.  I thought this could be some type of nepotism going on — you’re not supposed to be in the same command as your spouse. While I was away downrange, they had given Capt. Johnson a job at the Training Brigade where I was now assigned.  I began to wonder if this was the reason why my files and administrative affairs were being sabotaged.

They were trying, without my knowing, to push me somewhere else other than working for Gen. Terry because we had established a rapport where I could go in and talk to him; he talked to my wife on two occasions to assure her that nothing would happen to me for reporting the incidents.  Every time I would request an appointment or request to get on the General’s calendar, I’d be sent away or assigned off post.  While this was occurring, they took Maj. Parker from Schofield Barracks 8th Military Police Brigade and assigned him to my PAO billet. Unexpectedly, they then told me that I never had a billet assigned to the 8th Theater Sustainment Command.  I knew that was not right or true, because I had seen in my orders that I was assigned to the 8th Theater Sustainment Command as a public affairs officer.  What they were trying to say is that the billet was for a Major and not a Captain, and they wanted to fill it with a Major.  That wasn’t true because one rank up or down can always fill the billeted position.  If it were a Captain’s billet, that means a 1st Lieutenant or a Major can sit in that billet.

I guess the excuse from command was, “Capt. Mason keeps getting assigned overseas; he keeps getting individually tasked.” But I said, “I’m not getting tasked; you keep assigning me.  There are other people in this command who can take individual tasking.” I began to let the command and G1 know that I felt as if I was being purposely moved because of the investigation and the EO complaint I filed.

Before I was sent down to the 130th Engineer Brigade, my time was coming to an end on the island.  The 45th STB was saying, “You have a three-year assignment here in Hawaii; we now have to get you a new billet off-island.”  But I said, “According to the regulations, I have a high-school senior stabilization form on file, and we’re allowed to stay until my son graduates.”  I had the paperwork done before I left Afghanistan, and I noticed that the S1 at the 45th STB supposedly misplaced my paperwork.  So when I got back they were trying to get orders for me to leave Hawaii, but I reminded them of the email I sent three months before I returned.  And I said, “No, it was already approved for us to stay.”

So apparently they were hoping I would just leave Hawaii.  I decided, “No, my son’s going to graduate from here, so you’re going to have to give me a properly assigned billet.”  But that wasn’t what happened.  I received an e-mail from a senior PAO on island stating that I was never assigned to the 8th TSC.  According to military regulations, the only person who can move you from a billet is the Human Resource Command (HRC), my resource manager.

The 8th TSC was responsible for filing my Officer Evaluation Report (OER).  They forced me out of my assigned billet and sent me down to the 130th Engineer Brigade and tried to deny giving me an official evaluation.  They persuaded the 130th to generate an OER without me being assigned an official billet.  More importantly, they pulled me out of my billet illegally.

That’s where the problem lay, and that’s why I determined to file the congressional because I figured they were trying to ruin my career.  I was doing my best not to go there, because I felt that if I did file a congressional, it would ruin my career.  So I tried to fix that first.  I was in the office of the 45th, trying to get them to fix it.  I was being treated really nastily; the personnel officer was very impatient.  I was trying to find someone I could talk to, in order make sure I was going about it the proper way, to make sure that I was following up with the proper people and through the proper chain of command, because I was not trying to ruin any relationship I had with them.

I noticed that whenever I would go in and talk to them, it seemed they would want me to talk about what happened with 3/4 Cav., and I just looked at them with, “No, I’m not having that conversation.”  While they were supposed to be helping me, it was almost as if they were saying, “You ought to be happy that we’re even allowing you to be up here because you could be back down there with them.”  It wasn’t a professional conversation; in other words, if I was there to discuss my OER, that was not the proper place to ask me about what happened.

I think what really pushed me overboard was when I asked Lt. Col. Johnson, the wife of Capt. Johnson (Col. Hodne’s assistant who sent the email expressing that Hodne wanted me out of the Army) to please look into me getting my combat awards from downrange.  She waited about two weeks, said she would check on it, then came back and said she could not approve my combat awards because she was not the commander assigned there; I’d have to get someone from downrange to approve it.   I had all of my witness statements, incident reports and everything; all she had to do was sign off on it, but she decided she was not going to do it.

I saw that I was now being pushed out of the command; no one wanted to speak with me, and they were trying to figure out where they were going to send me.  I was sent to the 130th Engineer Brigade and got cursed out and mishandled by the commander there, Col. Milhorn.  We had a long conversation in which he said that the 8th TSC said I was a troublemaker. So here we were, and although the last thing we discussed was that I was there to help them – he told the soldiers under his command to “treat me with respect” – right after he did that, I was set up under the S3.  Normally a public affairs officer is a companion to the commander’s group, so I should have been working directly for Col. Milhorn.  But they didn’t have a position or place for me, so they put me in an S3 with no place to work and no office.

As I mentioned earlier, I went to the Schofield Barracks, TV2 station where the civilian manager provided a desk and production workstation for me.  I made that my official PAO office.

I began getting calls from the 130th and the 8th TSC, assigning me tasks that were supposed to be assigned to enlisted broadcast photographers.  The 130th held SITREP, a situational report, and a meeting every day which goes over all the assignments – they call them “do-outs” – for every department and everybody in the brigade.  Because Col. Milhorn didn’t have me working close to him as his PAO, he put Major David Acker, again the S3, in between him and I, and he was using the S3 to supervise me and tell me what to do because he was a Major.  The S3 didn’t have any idea about public affairs guidance and didn’t care too much for me as a branched infantry officer.  He was an engineer.  Often, engineers have an ongoing problem with infantrymen because engineers want to be like them.  I call it “sacrificial,” because you die in the infantry.  It’s a tough-guy thing, so a lot of times, the engineers have their own units that are going to be near combat.  They even take a special course to prepare for combat situations and earn their own tab, the Sapper Tab.  I personally, respect all military training, especially when it’s tough and you become an expert in what you are trained to do, but they’re still engineers.

So I think they felt like, “We’re not going to let this young captain, infantry guy and troublemaker come in here and do what he wants to do; we’re going to micromanage his time.  So, they would do things without my knowing, just like when I told them through email that I had medical appointments.  The S3 would purposely ignore me and make me feel if I was not a part of the unit.  “So what; we’re not going to tell Col. Milhorn about them.  He’s not here in the office; we’ll write him up for not being here.”

They’d often downplay or dismiss the high profile productions I’d complete for the 130th Engineer Brigade, and at the same time not inform me of important events involving our commander. This, of course, caused Col. Milhorn to believe that I was negligent in my duties as his PAO. I trained others in the unit to use the cameras to take basic photos for what we’d call minor events or happy snaps throughout the unit.

I reminded them, “If you need camera people to shoot, there are other people in the unit who are also trained to go out and take photo-ops.”  For instance, there was one photo-op where a Miss Playboy centerfold was coming up and visiting the unit.  I don’t know why she was there; sometimes they’d have the professional cheerleaders visit; at such times, the soldiers all wanted pictures with them.  That was not a central task or mission to me or any PAO.

They would make it a habit of waiting until the last minute and then call me and tell me to be somewhere, not knowing that I had an official shoot with a commander someplace else.  The Playboy centerfold was deemed by members in my unit as a very important shoot.  I disagreed.  I decided to bring another soldier with me to take pictures for members who wanted photos with the centerfold.  I simply explained, “that’s not my official job.”  So, when I said that, someone got mad and went back and complained to the commander, Col. Milhorn, again.  And I said, “Hey, sir, that’s not my job.”

So I called back up to the 8th TSC and told Maj. Parker – the one they had put in my billet – and said, “You need to send a billet list with a procedure of all the duties of a public affairs officer, and until I get that, I’m not going to be taking pictures of Playboy bunnies.”

 

 

 

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