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“WE HAD A TARGET ON OUR BACKS”
by Sharon Rondeau
(May 18, 2020) — Less than a year after former Capt. Gary Mason received a “medical” discharge from the Army under duress, his wife, Shahnaaz, also an Army veteran, was informed she had been selected for consideration to join then-First Lady Michelle Obama on a trip to the Invictus Games in the United Kingdom.
Over the past three years and in more than 40 parts, The Post & Email has related Capt. Mason’s military narrative describing the treatment he received after filing a report over a 2008 assault by an enlisted soldier. Upon hearing similar reports from fellow soldiers, Mason wrote a letter of concern to his chain of command, after which he began receiving bizarre, solitary assignments and an overseas deployment which later proved to have occurred without official orders.
The Invictus Games, an athletic competition for disabled former service members, are normally held in the spring every year or every other year, with the 2020 games postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
In late 2011, Gary Mason requested a congressional inquiry stemming from the Army’s withholding of his combat awards, Officer Evaluation Report (OER), an increasingly hostile environment and unwarranted reprimands from superiors falsely accusing him of being “AWOL,” among other grievances. Not one to allow her husband to fight his battle alone, in 2012 Shahnaaz wrote letters each to Barack and Michelle Obama requesting an executive review of her husband’s treatment and the restoration of his good name so that he could continue to serve the Army as a chaplain, for which he had received his ordination while serving in Afghanistan in 2010.
In May 2016, Shahnaaz, who goes by “Shay,” was elated to have been selected to go through the vetting process to be part of the First Lady’s trip delegation. Her selection came about, she and her husband told us in separate interviews, as a result of her relationship with the Dog Tag Bakery and its Georgetown University fellowship program for disabled veterans, spouses, and caregivers in which Shay was active.
Barack Obama and former Vice President Joe Biden appear in photographs together on the Dog Tag Bakery’s website. At the conclusion of the Masons’ December 2014 Christmas dinner with the Bidens, Shahnaaz personally related to Biden her husband’s placement in the “Wounded Warrior” program at Walter Reed in preparation for involuntary discharge after 15 years of service.
Mrs. Mason detailed her concerns in a follow-up letter to Biden dated December 9, 2014.
Several weeks prior, the Masons met Barack Obama at the White House with a group of Wounded Warriors.
As to how his wife came to be selected, Gary Mason told us:
Michelle Obama or someone in her office must have seen Dog Tag Bakery and my wife’s picture and bio. I don’t think she recognized that they were Mrs. Mason, the wife of Captain Mason. It’s all-expenses-paid; you fly with the First Lady; you have a hotel room next to hers; you’ll be her guest; you’ll be with her as she serves as a judge for the Olympics.
After she received the invitation, she said, “Gary, isn’t this a blessing?” and I told her, “Sweetheart, you’ll probably get an opportunity; this is the Obamas trying to respond to us about what happened.”
We were all excited. My wife filled out the questionnaire and sent it back. Two days later, the White House attorney called and asked her, “Are you the wife of Captain Gary Mason?” and my wife said, “Yes.” The attorney started asking personal questions like, “How are you all doing?” Then she said, “Would you have a problem working with the First Lady and would you bring up the personal events that happened to your husband?” And Shahnaaz said, “Well, no; if the First Lady would like to talk about it, yes; I did write the First Lady and her husband a letter.” So the attorney asked, “Where are you working now?” My wife was a schoolteacher. Then the attorney asked, “Do you intend to file a lawsuit against the Army?” and my wife said, “No. Everything we asked for we put in the letter to the First Lady.” So it went from my wife being invited to an interrogation about what our position was about what happened with my situation.
Two days after that, we got another phone call, and guess what the attorney said? She said, “Mrs. Mason, regretfully, we want to say that we’ve chosen to take another spouse of a wounded veteran. Thank you for being willing to go through the process…” It wasn’t a process; they had told her she was going.
My wife was hurt. She said, “I would have been willing to go and not talk about it unless the First Lady brought it up, but I actually thought I was going to be able to spend time with Michelle Obama. Because of what happened to you, I feel as if I’m being demonized, too.”
Gary and Shay produced a video about the Dog Tag experience and fellowship which is posted on the organization’s website. Shay is currently launching a non-profit aimed at assisting military veterans who have been victimized by sexual assault or other abuses while serving.
On Friday morning, Shay recalled of the invitation and its rescission:
In 2016 I was doing a fellowship at Dog Tag Bakery, which is well-connected to the media and politicians. The Invictus Games were coming up, and they were asked to choose someone to go with the First Lady to the Games, and they chose me. I just happened to be one of nine people in the cohort. They liked the way I carried myself and I guess they thought I would represent the organization well. I had no part in it; it was like a shock. As I recall, the CEO said, “We want you to do this. Don’t talk about it; you will go through a vetting process, but we don’t want the other fellows to feel like, ‘Why didn’t you choose us?'”
I thought, “Wow; this is an honor.” I don’t remember the time frame, but maybe a few days later, I got a call from someone at the White House. First she asked me basic things. Then she asked, “Are you married to Captain Mason?” and I said, “Yes, Gary Mason.” Then she asked, “Are you involved in litigation against the Army?” which took me by surprise. It was totally not what I expected. But I realized they had no idea who I was initially when they were given my name. I’m sure they were told, “She’s a former Army intelligence person and the spouse of a wounded warrior; she’s articulate, she’s this and that” …my picture was on the website — black female — you never know…
Editor’s Note: An email dated May 3, 2016 from Joanna E. Ray, Boards and Commissions Director for Presidential Personnel at the White House’s Presidential Personnel Office confirms her phone call with Shay Mason. The email reads:
It was great speaking with you. This email is to confirm a conditional invitation for the Presidential Delegation to the Invictus Games. We’ll be in touch in a couple of days. Please continue to keep this confidential until you hear from us. Please let me know if you have any questions. Thanks so much!
A second email from Ray dated May 4, 2016 reads:
Thanks again for your continued interest in joining the Presidential Delegation to the Invictus Games May 11th-12th. The next step in our vetting process is an interview with one of our vetting attorneys, Rukku Singla, who is copied on this email. She will work with you to set up a time to speak with her to go over some questions. As we are still working on our selection process we ask that you continue to keep this confidential. Thank you and have a wonderful evening.
So they saw me, they picked me, and then they were like, “Oh, my goodness; this is Mason’s wife.” So I answered, “No, we don’t have any lawsuits against the Army.” And they said, “Do you plan to?” and I said, “No.”
I went through that and thought, “That was kind-of weird.” I don’t know how people think, but perhaps they were wondering, if I were to sit next to the First Lady, if I would make a scene. I assured them we were not suing and that I was in the fellowship because I wanted to be an entrepreneur and the program was a perfect fit for me.
A few days later, I got a call which basically said, “You can’t come.” I was devastated. I feel selfish to say that, but I was thinking, “This is such an honor.” I really wasn’t even sure if it would be an opportunity for me to talk to Mrs. Obama about what we had gone through. I wasn’t thinking that way; it was something positive after all the negative we had gone through. By that time, I had written my Military Accountability and Justice bill and it had gone nowhere after I sent it to Vice President Biden. I thought, “If I feel led, maybe I’ll share with her; maybe I won’t.” I was thinking there was no reason that I wouldn’t go; I was just thinking, “Wow, this is an awesome opportunity.”
It hurt my feelings; I thought, “What’s wrong with me?” I had to process it. I hadn’t shared with anyone in the fellowship what had happened to us. I first felt as if my name was tarnished and the people at the fellowship had no idea why and they were probably thinking, “Why wouldn’t they let Shay go?”
I decided that I would go and tell the CEO what had happened with Gary and why the White House didn’t want me to come. She just happened to stay late one evening, and that’s when I decided to tell her. It was very difficult for me; I had never really told anyone in the program, and the only people we had spoken to were those in different venues.
So I said, “Meghan, do you have a minute?” and she said, “Sure, come on up.” I’m not a very emotional person; I’m a passionate person, but I’m not a person to cry. I just burst into tears. I was so shocked; it was as if everything that had happened just came flooding out. The whole “Invictus rejection thing” made me realize we had a target on our backs. This was real; I’m not going to be able to do certain things because we’d spoken out about these abuses. I thought we were doing the right thing, and we could still move forward. I was hoping our lives were not going to be destroyed by the whole process.
So Meghan said, “Shay, is everything OK?” I wasn’t hyperventilating, but I was trying to get myself together, and I didn’t see it coming. I had to get it all out, and finally it stopped. Meghan brought me a bottle of water, and I looked at it, drank it, and took a deep breath. Over the next 20 minutes, I told her the whole thing: that Gary was in the Wounded Warrior program because of racist attacks and he exposed the fact that he was assaulted, and others were suffering, too, and he just wanted to speak out and asked for a congressional inquiry…
In the end, I said, “I guess I was too controversial for the White House.” And Meghan said, “Well, Shay, you’re not too controversial for us.” That made me feel so much better.
She ended up being late for a meeting and didn’t have her car, and I did have a car, so I gave her a ride to wherever she was going. She said, “If there’s anything we can do, just let us know.” And I said, “Well, Meghan, I don’t necessarily want to talk about this; I don’t want this to be my conversation in the fellowship unless I decide I want to bring it up.” And she said, “I respect that, but we’re here to support you. We know you; we know who you are as a person; we know your family; we support you in whatever way you want us to support you.”
That made me feel better about the whole thing, but it was a big wake-up call. Fast-forward to the end of the program, when we had to do a presentation called “Finding my Voice,” and I decided when I did my presentation that I was going to talk about the Military Accountability and Justice Bill and give some background about myself. It kind-of hit me that I went to school to study journalism and Russian, but this is what I’m called to do. I’m called to stand up, to defend those who can’t defend themselves, to be a mouthpiece for people who are afraid. You can pray, but you also have to do something, and I believe I was called to hold people accountable so that people will not be abused in the military. I was kind-of shocked at how it all ended, but I was also liberated and empowered and came into the reality that, “This is part of what I’m here on this planet to do.” So I got over the rejection and realized that it was all a part of me becoming who I was called to be and doing what I was called to do: to protect and defend the weak.
“You’re a strong woman,” The Post & Email commented at that point, to which Mrs. Mason replied:
The process of getting to that point was not pretty and not easy. You’re right, Sharon; I am a strong woman, and sometimes I don’t like the fact that I’m a strong woman, because “to whom much is given, much is required,” and a lot is required of me. But every time I pray about it, I am encouraged that I can do it because I have Christ. I can do it because I was called to do it. Not everyone is called to do what I’m called to do. I did not see it coming. I always tell my husband that had I known what was coming down the pike, I don’t know that I would have signed up for it.
My father used to say, “This was planned before the foundation of the world.” And we used to laugh at him and say, “Daddy, what do you mean ‘it was planned before the foundation of the world?'” But now I understand; it was planned before the foundation of the world. Before my spirit left heaven, God already knew this is my assignment, so now I understand about things being ordained and planned. You don’t see it coming, but when it happens, you recognize it.