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“IF YOU DON’T LIKE IT HERE, YOU CAN GO AHEAD AND LEAVE HAWAII”
by Sharon Rondeau
(Jan. 1, 2020) — In the previous section of this story, former U.S. Army Captain Gary Mason expounded on the increasingly hostile environment in which he found himself after filing a complaint about an assault he suffered while serving in Iraq in late 2008.
At the time, Mason was a 1st Lieutenant serving as night-shift battle captain at FOB Poliwoda’s Tactical Operations Center (TOC) within the 3/4 Cav. unit, a position which required him to gather information from different sources and communicate in real time threats, casualties and quickly-shifting weather conditions. Of that time, Mason told us:
A TOC is like a war room. You look around the walls and you see what’s happening on the ground and in your area of operations. That means a commander should be able to walk in and see how many have been killed — enemies and friendlies — what the weather is, what the intel is, how many Air Force assets we have, and of course, our supply status and communications. We had to set up all these computer systems and make sure they were all connected with one another and we were getting the proper communications back and forth to Joint Base Balad.
Mason explained that his management style annoyed a long-time enlisted soldier who Mason was told “had a problem with African-Americans.” “He had come in as a senior enlisted, which means he had probably been in the military for 18 or 19 years,” Mason said. “He felt like, ‘I don’t care if he’s a lieutenant or not; I’m not going to have any lieutenant tell me what to do. I’m going to let you know that I’m the platoon daddy and I can say and do what I want as a sergeant major. You give me my respect until you earn yours.’”
Further, Mason told us, “I could respect his rank and service, but his ego was getting in the way of us working together. I just wanted him to go in his office and do his job; he had no business coming in to the TOC and telling the battle captain what to do…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.”
The enlisted man assaulted Mason after Mason returned from a two-day medical leave resulting from a severe allergic reaction. As Mason was an officer, the soldier could have been charged with a serious offense, including treason, according to the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). Instead, Mason has related throughout his story, the perpetrator was never disciplined, even though he reportedly assaulted a number of others in 3/4 Cav.
Mason filed a formal complaint to Hodne and the military police (MPs) at FOB Poliwoda, where he was stationed, after which an enlisted soldier revealed an email generated by Hodne’s personal assistant indicating that Hodne wished to find a pretext upon which to expel Mason from the Army, if not the military altogether.
In late November 2008, Hodne ordered Mason to return to Schofield Barracks in Hawaii for medical testing resulting from an allergic reaction he experienced days before the assault. Prior to departing Iraq, Mason had a face-to-face meeting with the commander, relating to him that in his view, the lack of unit’s discipline was “a reflection of your leadership.”
Unprofessional conduct within 3/4 Cav., Mason said, was not relegated to the assault. Upon arriving in-country, Mason said, he observed overt racism invoking the term “niggardly” under the photo of a well-known African-American actor as well as sexism in a slide presentation given at the opening of a mandatory unit meeting. Accompanying that, Mason reported, racially-charged graffiti responsive to Barack Obama’s election regularly appeared in the porta-johns on-base which no one made an attempt to remove.
Desirous of remaining in military service and medically cleared to continue by doctors at Tripler Army Medical Center, in mid-2009 Mason learned of and applied for a position in Public Affairs within the 8th Theater Sustainment Command (TSC). His interview for the job went well, Mason said, and after contacting Hodne about his intended transfer, on July 1 that year he commenced his new duties with high hopes for a long and satisfying military career in which the experience in 3/4 Cav. would become but a distant memory.
Mason’s plans included completing the requirements for ordination as a military chaplain, a calling he decided to pursue in 2003 following three years’ service as an infantryman. His goal was realized when he was ordained, after a harrowing flight from Kandahar Province to FOB Sharana in Paktika Province as well as human-caused obstacles once he landed.
Following his completion of Public Affairs school at Fort Meade and without his unit, Mason was frequently deployed overseas as an individual and placed in what he recognized as circumstances well outside of Army norms. Upon his return to Fort Benning after six months in Afghanistan, Mason learned that he had been sent overseas without official orders and therefore experienced a weeks-long delay in his return trip to Hawaii to reunite with his family.
Mason believes he was the object of retaliation for a letter he wrote to the 25th Infantry Division chain of command regarding not only his own assault, but those from other 3/4 Cav. members who reported similar instances upon their return from Iraq. In one case, Mason said, he feared a disaffected soldier might have been contemplating suicide, prompting Mason to act.
The bifurcation characterizing Mason’s military service was evidenced by the awards and commendations for which he was designated while serving twice in Afghanistan contrasting with the marginalization, disrespect and isolation he experienced once he returned to Hawaii.
After returning from Afghanistan for the second time, Mason was assigned to the 130th Engineer Brigade, which he said did not provide him with a desk or workspace from which to conduct his Public Affairs duties. Having reportedly developed a reputation as a “troublemaker,” the unit commander, Col. Jeffrey Milhorn, meted out a tempestuous verbal attack on Mason upon first meeting him, accusing him of being absent when two subordinate officers were aware of his mandatory medical appointments that day at Tripler.
In late 2011, Mason filed a Congressional Inquiry and Equal Opportunity (EO) complaint with the office of then-U.S. Congresswoman Mazie Hirono, now a U.S. Senator, who responded by asking the House’s Army liaison to conduct a review of Mason’s case. In this chapter of his story, Mason details the results of that investigation on the Army’s side as well as its approach, or non-approach, to remedying it.
At the point when he refused to serve as a photographer when Playboy “bunnies” visited, Mason related:
After I said that, they got mad again: “Here’s Captain Mason telling people what to do.” They were arguing; they were mad; they were upset, but they knew that according to the regulations, I was doing what was right. The problem was that I was a captain, and I figured out later — I’m African-American, and I went back to what Sgt. Maj. Manis said, which was, “I don’t want no black man telling me what to do.” I never thought of it that way; I was holding a captain’s position and as a public affairs officer, I should not be taking pictures of Playboy bunnies and they should get somebody else to do that. But they thought I was not a team player and a troublemaker.
In December of 2009, I received a phone call and an email from a full-bird colonel, Timothy Ryan, who was the head of the 45th Sustainment Brigade down in Schofield Barracks. He was the person overseeing the EO investigation from my formal complaint about what happened to me in Hawaii. He had a Major Jablonski who was the acting investigator who was supposed to talk to Col. Hodne and everyone at 3/4 Cav. and the 25th Infantry Division to gather all the evidence to make a determination as to whether or not the EO complaint was legitimate.
I remember during that time when I was going down there feeling like this was going to be the conclusion: they were going to tell me whether or not they were going to do something or I would receive some kind of vindication. Really, all I wanted was an apology and for them to clear my record to say I wasn’t the one who caused all of this.
When I got to Col. Ryan’s office, the first thing that happened was he stood up and shook my hand and said, “Capt. Mason, have a seat. I know you know why you’re here. I’m here to give you the results of the investigation, but I want to tell you something…” It was strange for him to say this. He explained, “I don’t know if this is something that is going to come back and bite me, but at this point, I need to just be honest with you.”
Ryan, who is white, then blurted out, “I just want you to know I’m married to a black woman.” And I looked at him and I said, “OK.” Apparently he had been read in on something that I didn’t know. I said, “Well, Col. Ryan, first of all, let me explain something to you: I’m a Christian, and it doesn’t really matter to me if you have a black wife or a white wife. All I want is what’s right, and I want people to acknowledge that what they did was wrong. So thank you for sharing, but we can get on with the investigation.”
I guess he was trying to tell me, “I’m OK.” So what he began to say of my complaint was, in essence, this: “After reading this, I was really bothered by it. There’s a lot to this. I kind-of have good news and bad news. I’m going to try to make this as simple as possible. You have truly embarrassed the chain of command and some key leaders at Schofield Barracks. It has been duly noted, but on the other hand, people who you complained against such as Col. Hodne are not really going to be impacted by it. So there’s nothing we can really do to rectify what happened, and you have to make a determination as to whether or not you can move on with your career knowing this.” He then pointed to a thick pile of the EO investigation papers sitting on his desk, and said, “This will eventually become a paperweight on one of your book mantels.”
I just looked at him, and I said, “So, is that it?” and he said, “Well, unless you have any questions… You can take a look at it, but I’m just trying to sum up to you the report. You have people saying different things about what happened. Ultimately, I’m not saying I don’t believe you, but unfortunately, in the military, there’s racism. It goes on, but we don’t have the answers yet and I don’t know if and how it’s going to be fixed.”
And I said, “Well, sir, the basis of filing the EO complaint was that I felt I had been harassed. I was assaulted and harassed. I never filed a report on the basis of racism. They opened up that topic in the investigation.” And I told him, “You-all worked to make that determination. The slide said, ‘niggardly.’ One of your key witnesses said he was afraid for his life and that threats were being made on mine.” I said, “I was told you got the email that I had a ‘little heart’ and to kick me out of the military.” I also said that “one of your S-1s at 3/4 Cav. said he didn’t like the fact that I was a black man in the Tactical Operations Center telling everybody else what to do, and they also said they didn’t like the black president, either. So what do you call that? This is the type of thing that goes on downrange? I thought we should be about the business of defending our nation.”
I did tell them that I had gone to Col. Hodne and that Col. Hodne hadn’t done anything about it. We sat there for about an hour, and I explained to him how this was making me feel — that nothing was being done — but that I was ready to move on in my career but that someone needed to recognize that what was done was wrong. What would have been the problem with having Sgt. Maj. Manis meet with senior leaders to acknowledge the fact that what he did was wrong?
His response was pretty-much that he wasn’t in the position to force people to apologize. He said, “Look, as far as they’re concerned, we need to see if you can focus on moving forward. In other words, we’re not going to acknowledge that what happened was right or wrong here; you wrote this and embarrassed some people.”
At this point, he told me, “Col. Hodne is too high up in the tier to be impacted by this EO complaint.” And I said, “So in other words, you’re telling me that he’s above the law.” He said, “Well, he’s not above the law, but this isn’t something that’s going to impact him.” I said, “Well, this was a report to tell you the truth about what happened. If you want this type of leader in these positions, you’re going to have problems.” And he said, “You’re entitled to your opinion, but at this point, if you want to continue your career, you gotta move on.”
“The problem is that I’m feeling retribution wherever I go because of the fact that I brought this up,” I told him. “What’s the purpose of having an EO complaint if I can’t complain about equal opportunity violations and have the matters addressed professionally?”
I was reading in the report that Maj. Jablonski went to talk to Col. Hodne, who said, “You don’t have enough rank to question me about anything.” He said, “I’ll come and meet with you, but what went on with Capt. Mason and me is none of your business.” And Jablonski put that in the report. In other words, if you can’t talk to Col. Hodne, how can you determine what happened? Hodne’s attitude was, “You can’t talk to any of my people, and my people won’t say a word.”
I recalled seeing a picture of Hodne, Sgt. Maj. Manis, Col. Piatt — all of these guys in senior leadership in 3/4 Cav., Third Brigade, 25th Infantry Division who were in Ranger school together — they all are buddies. It’s one of those things where it’s ‘band of brothers’; no one’s going to come in and separate us. If you’re not in the group, too bad. I knew what I was up against.
At that point, I was feeling pretty disheartened. I told Jablonski I was having problems getting my OER. He said, “They’ll figure that out,” and I said, “Basically, I’m walking out of here and nothing has gotten accomplished; over the last six months I’ve been here dealing with mistreatment and retribution; people are demeaning me; I’ve been verbally attacked by commanders. As a result of me doing what’s right as an officer, I’m being labeled a troublemaker.”
He said, “Well, at this point, you have only a year left; you can always request a transfer if you like.” And I said, “I’m working on transferring to the Chaplain Corps.” So he implied, “We’re not going to do anything about what happened to you here, but we can get you transferred and if you don’t like it here, you can go ahead and leave Hawaii.”