U.S. Army Veteran Shares Painful Experiences of Military Racism, Part 39

“THEY KEEP SAYING YOU ARE UNFIT”

by Sharon Rondeau

Training in Afghanistan, 2010

(Jan. 29, 2020) — This section of Gary Mason’s story continues from Part 38, which described increasing tensions between his assigned unit, the 130th Engineer Brigade, and him once he filed a request for a congressional inquiry with then-Rep. Mazie Hirono’s office. In the following section, Mason details how intimidation and retaliation reached a pinnacle wherein he reached out to those in the Army medical community for help.

Having begun to serve in 2000, Mason at the time had served in the military for more than a decade in various capacities, including Infantryman, Chaplain Corps candidate, combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Public Affairs.

As part of the 3/4 Cav. unit deployed to Iraq’s Sunni Triangle in late 2008, Mason was working as night-shift battle captain when the enlisted soldier attacked him.  Mason filed a complaint with the commanding officer, Lt. Col. David Hodne, who would later attempt to oust Mason from the military on medical and other pretexts.

At the close of the previous section, Mason recounted a telephone call he received from a Major at the 130th Engineer Brigade. He took the call while at a scheduled doctor’s appointment during which the physician clearly overheard the officer spewing obscenities and insults and accusing Mason of being out of place.  In his response, Mason reminded Major Acker that he had notified the chain of command, including Acker, as to the date and time of the appointment.

Mason was regularly seen by an allergist after suffering a reaction classified as idiopathic angioedema in not only Iraq, but also in Afghanistan while serving in Public Relations under then-Gen. David Petraeus in 2010.

Acker’s angry call closely resembled a previous incident involving the company commander, Col. Jeffrey Milhorn.  Just after Mason’s reassignment to the unit following an overseas deployment, Milhorn excoriated him in front of Acker and another subordinate, accusing him of failing to appear for duty at a particular date and time.

Once Mason proved that Acker and the second officer had failed to inform Milhorn of Mason’s scheduled medical appointment during the time in question, Milhorn apologized, but the rocky footing on which he began his time with the unit as its Public Affairs grew into a highly-volatile situation.

Mason had been moved to the 130th from the 25th Infantry Division’s 8th Theater Sustainment Command (TSC) after filing an Equal Opportunity (EO) complaint.  Mason’s contentions were that the command stonewalled the release of his report of an assault on his person by an enlisted soldier while both were stationed in Iraq in late 2008 as well as the 45th Sustainment Training Brigade’s failure to award him the medals he earned in Afghanistan.

After discovering in 2009 that the same soldier had assaulted others in the unit, particularly African-Americans, Mason wrote a letter of concern to the 25th Infantry Division command which apparently angered them, a fact confirmed by the officer who eventually conveyed to Mason the outcome of the EO complaint.

Seven years after beginning his studies, Mason was ordained a member of the Army Chaplain Corps during his second tour in Afghanistan. In an earlier part of his story, Mason reflected that while his overseas service was highly commended and he was promoted, his stateside service was perceived as the exact opposite as the command attempted to end his military service.

As his relationship with the 130th deteriorated through early 2012, Mason was seeking the opportunity to transfer to the Chaplain Corps off-island and spend the remainder of his military career ministering to fellow soldiers.  As readers will discover, that plan did not materialize.

From the point at which he hung up on Acker in the physician’s office, Mason said:

I told the doctor that I knew I could have been in a place where they were upset with me because I filed a congressional, and he said, “Yeah, that will cause them to act this way.  I can’t write you a letter and tell your command to have you moved — that’s up to your command — but maybe you can take this as a letter of support to be moved someplace else.

I was looking around for another job.  There was one position on the island where the 25th Infantry Division needed a captain, but they didn’t want me because I had filed an EO complaint against them.  So they were saying, “We need a captain, but we don’t want Capt. Mason.”

The only thing I could do at that point was sit back and wait for the congressional investigation to take place.  After the phone call, I left the doctor’s office. I remember talking to Ricardo Finney, the former military man to whom the doctor had referred me, and explaining what was going on.  He said, “Draft a letter as to what happened and make sure you keep an ongoing journal – time, date, place – and email it to the people involved, including your chain of command, so they know what’s going on.  Email everybody; let them know what happened, when and why.”

So I started emailing what happened with Maj. Acker on the phone, that I was cursed out; I used the language he had used.  When I began to do that, everybody started panicking: the 130th Engineer Brigade, which didn’t want to be involved with the 25th Infantry Division, and the 25th Infantry Division, which didn’t want to be involved with Hodne.  So everybody was trying to stay away from each other and claimed, “That’s spilling over into our command.”

I would be at the commissary, and people would say, “Oh, you’re Capt. Mason?”  In other words, they were having meetings.

There’s something they have on every major post called the Council of the Colonels.  Colonels are in charge of all the major brigades.  I don’t know if it’s quarterly, but they all come together and discuss what’s happening, and that information goes to the senior-command general.  He hears all the problems, good things, bad things and major concerns; how many accidents, domestic abuse, DUIs have occurred.  If anything is going on, that commander has to bring it to the general, and the general determines what’s going to happen.

I was asked to go up and sit in place for one of the commanders as a Public Affairs officer. We didn’t have a PAO colonel, but I had to go and represent the 8th TSC command.  I remember walking in and seeing the USAPAC PAO and all of the top PA officers. When they saw me, they were surprised.  Here I was, a captain, and I had the highest clearance in the military – TS SCI – based on my work with the State Department.  If you don’t have certain badges, you can’t get into certain meetings.  I had a badge and certification that even some of the generals didn’t have.  They looked and asked, “What is a captain doing in here and everybody else is a colonel or a general?”  But I had the authority to be there.  I found it very interesting and thought maybe I was there for a reason.

So when I walked in, sure enough, they put a blotter on a jumbo-tron of the things they were going to talk about.  I sat there for about an hour; there was nothing for me to do except represent the command.  At one point, I looked up, and there they had “Congressional,” — there were two or three of them — and my name was beside them, “Capt. Gary Mason.”  I didn’t know if they intended for me to see it, but I saw it.  At that point, I realized that every commander in Hawaii knew I had filed a congressional.  When I saw it, I thought, “I’m kind-of  a labeled man now.”  In other words, there was nothing I could do about it.

I did think, though, that I was doing everything with the right attitude.  I wasn’t making things up; I wasn’t trying to hurt anybody; I just needed help.  I was assaulted; I wanted my OER; I didn’t want to be referred to as “niggardly” or “n*****.”   All I wanted was to get my promotion, transfer as a chaplain, and move on with my career.  I wasn’t trying to hurt Hodne, Maj. Acker, Col. Milhorn, or Gen. Terry.  All I wanted was for someone to realize that the way I was being treated was wrong.

I wanted to move on and help other service members who were going through this type of thing, who were suicidal because they didn’t know how to handle it as I was handling it.

Mr. Finney became a very good mentor and someone I could talk to who was out of the military.  He was local in Hawaii.  We would sometimes meet and pray about things; sometimes I would craft a letter and he would review it.  We would talk about things and he would give me good advice.  The best advice he ever gave me was, “Make sure everything you do is in black and white. Do not allow yourself to become emotional.  Make sure that you keep a straight face and stay professional, and remember your military courtesies. No matter how they treat you, give them their salute, about-face and walk away; no cursing, no yelling, no fighting.”

As hard as it was, I did just that.  I even had one person yell at me and almost spit in my face.  I took a few steps back, heard what he had to say, and said, “Sir, are you done?” Then I saluted, did an about-face, and walked away.  People were shoving me, putting their hands on me.  This is what was going on.  Inside of me, I wanted to respond in the same manner, but I believe the spirit of God was telling me not to do it.  Even though they were doing this, He was telling me, “No, you have to forgive them; you have to stand fast.”  I felt as if the moment I decided to do something wrong, they would use that to discredit my whole case, and I did not want to give them that.

After Maj. Acker’s call in the doctor’s office, the doctor gave me a note, saying that I was going to take three days off to rest.  The doctor told me to take it to the commander.  When I walked in to Maj. Acker’s office to give it to him, I also took him a copy of the retribution clause.  In other words, when there’s a congressional filed, the command cannot use any type of retribution against me and cannot ask me any questions about what is going on.

So I put a copy of that in there with the doctor’s note.  When I got there, this is what he did:  he looked at me and said, “I don’t have anything to do with that congressional.”  And I  said, “The way you’re talking to me, I believe that’s a form of retribution.  So I’m giving you this letter now, and I’m going to advise you never to do that again, or I’m going to include you in the congressional.”

And he said, “I don’t know anything about what went on up there before you got here…” and I said, “Maj. Acker, here it is in writing.  I sent you an email and told you where I was going to be.  You called me on the phone cursing me out for no reason. The doctor was sitting there and heard you.

Then Maj. Acker said, “Well, I have something for you,” and he wrote up four counseling statements saying I was disrespectful, not showing up at my place of duty, and he wanted me to sign them.

They knew I was waiting to get my OER.  I had never had any negative reports or counseling statements.  All I had was great OERs.  But in one day, he wrote up four counseling statements.

This is what I told him: “Maj. Acker, you can keep all four of those counseling statements. That’s a form of retribution.  As a matter of fact, I’m giving you notice:  I’m going home.  See you later.”  So he yelled, “You sit down right now.  You don’t get up and walk away…”  And I said, “Maj. Acker, at this point, I’m feeling threatened.  Sir, I’m going to go ahead and report this; I’ll talk to the chain of command about your behavior.”  And he said, “You don’t tell me what to do!  I’m a Major; you sit down in that chair!”

I opened up the door; there were about 15 people in the office, and they all just dropped their heads.  And Maj. Acker said, “You better not walk out of my office!”  Then he jumped up and started slamming stuff.

I turned around and just walked away.  I realized I was in a very volatile situation where people were threatening me.  I got in my car and drove home and told my wife what was going on.  At that point, my wife and I felt it had gotten to the point where I better let somebody know.  So I called the congresswoman’s office again and explained to them what was going on.  I called my doctor to report it.  Finally, what happened was that one of my doctors recommended, for my own protection, that I go up to the ER and report myself and check myself in overnight because of the stress levels, keeping in mind my idiopathic angioedema and anaphylaxis.  “It seems like they’re trying to provoke you into some sort of confrontation which could be physical or something that could get you in trouble; you should probably just check yourself in and rest,” the doctor told me.  As a matter of fact, Mr. Finney met me at the ER as a witness.

I explained to the nurse that my heart rate was up; I had an extreme headache; I was receiving verbal threats.  I told her I had just gotten back from a deployment, and it was really causing me stress.

The nurse put me in a room; two doctors came in, and they said, “Look, we can’t just let you stay overnight in the hospital, but we can admit you to the Psych Ward. Are you homicidal or suicidal?” and I said, “No, I don’t have any suicidal or homicidal ideation, but I am concerned; people are threatening my life.  I’ve been assaulted once, and if someone is going to jump on me, I feel as if I might defend myself.”

So they said, “We’re going to go ahead and check you in and let you stay because we don’t want you going back to the command.”  Now they didn’t tell me, “You’re psychotic.”  They saw I was upset and said they were going to give me something to calm me down.  But they took my belt and my shoelaces, which I assumed was standard protocol for someone they thought might be suicidal.

My doctor had said, “Gary, trust me; it’s going to look bad, but it’s not.  You’re going to have to go in and tell them what’s going on, because if you get yourself on the behavioral health/mental health side, all of your medical records will be classified.  I’m looking in your medical file, and I noticed that your brigade surgeon from the Engineering Brigade, the 8th TSC, and the 25th Infantry Division, keep going into your files and manipulating them. They keep saying you are unfit for duty, trying to pursue you with this ‘medically unfit for duty’ label.”

I hadn’t known that.  It goes back to what happened when I first came back from Iraq and the full-bird colonel, the senior allergist, told me, “Your command doesn’t want you to stay in.  They want you out.”  Remember that Capt. Johnson said in the email, “We have to find a way to kick him out.”  They didn’t even want me to move on to the Chaplain Corps.  At the time, the first sergeant came to me, said Hodne was in a meeting and that he said, “Whatever we have to do, I want this ****bag out of the unit.” I knew the word was already out, but I didn’t know it had gone to that extreme.

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