U.S. Army Veteran Shares Painful Experiences of Military Racism, Part 43

“YOU HAVE BEEN PLACED ON AWOL”

by Sharon Rondeau

Gary Mason and family in Hawaii prior to departing for the airport en route to Ft. Lee, VA. Photo supplied by Gary Mason, taken by Ricardo Finney

(Jun. 22, 2020) — This section of former Capt. Gary Mason’s story continues at the point when he was departing Hawaii’s Schofield Barracks for Ft. Lee, VA to continue his Army career after several years of discriminatory treatment and his filing of both congressional and Equal Opportunity (EO) complaints against the 25th Infantry Division for what appeared to him to be retaliation on the part of his superiors.

An enlisted soldier’s 2008 unprovoked assault against Mason while he was stationed in Iraq as a 1st Lieutenant, rather than leading to discipline for the soldier, gave way to the effort by then-Lt. Col. David Hodne to oust him from military service, or, at a minimum, from the Army.  Following that were frequent, dangerous and unusual individual deployments lacking standard military protocols and customary R&R periods.  As tensions increased, Mason received threats against his person and was the subject of false allegations of “AWOL” while he attended documented medical appointments, accompanied by obscenities on the part of officers within the command.   Further, he discovered through his personal physician the entry of false information in his medical file affecting his ability to be promoted.  Finally, for unknown reasons, command leadership was unwilling to complete his Officer Evaluation Report (OER), which also hampered his ability to promote to Major despite recommendations from his overseas commanders that he be advanced in rank.

After transferring out of the 3/4 Cav. Unit to the 8th Theater Sustainment Command (TSC) in 2010, Mason pursued a longtime interest in media production by seeking a position as a public affairs officer.  Granted the position, in that capacity he served two tours in Afghanistan, with the second earning him accolades from Gen. David Petraeus, who is now retired. Mason also earned a number of combat medals which became a point of contention when the 25th Infantry Division and the 45th Sustainment Training Brigade refused to process the awards.

During his second Afghanistan tour, Mason completed his remaining online requirements to achieve ordination as a military chaplain, a process completed after nearly nine years of both full-time and part-time study, a treacherous flight to Paktika Province and a surprisingly hostile military chaplain upon his arrival.

From that point, Mason continued in Public Affairs while applying for opportunities to begin ministering formally to his fellow service members.  Upon his return to Hawaii, he was transferred from the 8th TSC to the 130th Engineer Brigade, which was less than welcoming.  In an initial meeting with Mason, the unit commander, Col. Jeffrey Milhorn, relied on incomplete information provided by two subordinates, Maj. Acker and Maj. Staiano, when he meted out a humiliating dressing-down while the two officers looked on.  During his tirade, Milhorn accused Mason of being out of place, only to later offer a private apology and attempt at reconciliation after reviewing emails Mason provided proving Milhorn’s premise incorrect and the two officers’ failure to relate all of the relevant facts.

Mason did not receive satisfaction from the EO or congressional complaints filed with then-Hawaii Rep. Mazie Hirono, now a U.S. Senator; and the late Hawaii Sen. Daniel Inouye. According to Mason’s account and video taken at the scene, Acker continued to “retaliate” against him, including as he was readying to board his flight with his family to Ft. Lee.  Of those events, Mason recounted:

Whenever you move out of your on-post housing, they give you up-front money to move into a hotel temporarily.  So I found a hotel down in Kapolei away from the post where my family and I could rest and spend the next 5-6 days preparing for our flight to Virginia.  I had a cell phone and turned it off.  On that island, Mobi phone was the best choice for service.  I had all of those things turned off during this period, and I told my mom and dad, who lived outside of Washington, DC, that we were coming.

I talked to Ricardo Finney about what was going on.  He knew what was happening and said, “Good, you got your congressional in.”  He was giving me advice all the way through this.  I had also hired an attorney by the name of Anthony Bothwell.  He was a local Hawaii attorney but also had an office in San Francisco, and he was dealing with the $20 million lawsuit against Tripler Army Medical Center which I found out my personal doctor was involved in. They were referring to my doctor as a “gorilla,” part of the basis for his complaint.  The case is still in litigation.

It was down to the last week.  The day before I was set to leave, I received a letter from Mazie Hirono’s office saying they did everything they could to get the Army to respond to my discrimination allegations and the physical assault, but unfortunately, the Army was not able to find Sgt. Maj. Manis, the perpetrator, in order to interview him. The Army claimed he was nowhere to be found on the post where he was last known to have been assigned.  So I drove onto the post and past the 2nd Brigade, 25th Infantry Division, and sure enough, he was named the Command Sgt. Major, which was a promotion.  The commander lied and said they couldn’t find him; they refused to respond to the congressional inquiry.  Hirono’s office said that was their response, and that was the last that I heard from her.

In response to Hirono’s inquiry, it was up to the chain of command to find out what happened, send up a report describing what happened and whether or not there should be some sort of reprimand.  Instead, they basically said they couldn’t find him. Col. Bjarne Iverson, the chief of staff for the 25th Infantry Division, said they couldn’t find the Sgt. Major when all the time he was the Command Sgt. Major for the 2nd Brigade of the 25th Infantry Division.  So the legal assistant, someone named Barbara Sakamoto in the Honolulu office, said they were writing to apologize and that it was probably not the response Mazie Hirono’s office wanted, but the Army was closing out its investigation and “this is all we have.”

At the time, my complaint had been transferred over to Sen. Inouye’s office, and the Army was saying the same thing.  So Sen. Inouye and Mazie Hirono just wanted to wash their hands of it by saying, “There’s nothing more we can do; you’re moving to Virginia and won’t be our constituent anymore; sorry we couldn’t help.”

As that happened, the inspector general’s office was trying to do an investigation, but it was too late.  I had already signed out, left the post, and it was two days away from my flight. We had already shipped our household belongings, and my wife, children and I were already in a hotel.  I remember on that particular day, Ricardo and his wife had picked us up and taken us to the airport because “we want to make sure that no funny business occurs.”  And I thought to myself, I wouldn’t be surprised if they show up at the airport in Honolulu and try to give me an OER or some type of reprimand before I leave the island.

Sure enough — and there is a video — I was at the check-in counter, and the lady there said, “Captain Mason, we had someone call in from Schofield Barracks and cancel your flight.  Your wife and children’s flights are still on time and ready to board in about an hour, but yours has been canceled.” And I said, ” Well, what do you mean?  Here are my orders to go, and I have my ticket through the travel office.”  And she said, “Well, somebody called from Schofield Barracks and canceled your flight.”

All of a sudden, I turned around, and Maj. Acker and Maj. Staiano were standing about ten feet away from me off to the right with two airport security officers.  Maj. Acker said, “Capt. Mason, may I please speak with you?”

Ricardo had dropped us off in the front and left, and I said to my eldest son, “Take your I-Pad and record this interaction, because there will probably be some foolishness or some lies going on here, and I want to make sure this is on tape.”  So my son started recording, and I walked up to Maj. Acker and said, “Maj. Acker, what’s going on?” and he said, “Capt. Mason, I just want to let you know that by order of the new commanding general at 8th TSC, General Lyons” (Gen. Terry, who I had worked for, had transitioned out, and Gen. Lyons was his replacement), “we just got word that you have been placed on AWOL.”

I said, “AWOL? AWOL for what?  I have orders; I signed out…” and he said, “You didn’t properly sign out of the unit.  You didn’t clear the installation.”  I said, ” Maj. Acker, here are my clearance papers; what are you talking about?” and he said, “I haven’t been able to reach you for the last week.”  I said, “That’s not true; I told you, and you have my address on file where I’m staying at the hotel.  My cell phone’s been turned off, but you have my wife’s number.  Did you call her?”

He looked at my wife and said, “Well, we tried to reach her.” And she said, “You didn’t try to reach me.  No one called me, and you didn’t come to the hotel where we’re staying.”  And he said, “Well, we’re giving you an order not to leave the island.”  I said, “Maj. Acker, where am I supposed to go?” and he said, “You’re to immediately report to Gen. Lyons back at the 8th Theater Sustainment Command.”  I said, “That’s an unlawful order; am I under arrest?  Do you have a warrant for my arrest?  Did I do something wrong?” and he said, “You didn’t sign out on leave.”

We as officers don’t have to sign out; we call in and have the person at the front desk in charge of quarters (CQ) the book and sign us out.  So I called the CQ and they signed me out at the desk.  Well, guess what happened?  After that little back-and-forth, I called the CQ — as a matter of fact, the CQ called me — and said that Maj. Acker came down to the desk and pulled the signature sheet out of the book where the CQ signed me out so there wouldn’t be a history of their signing me out.  So he said, “We didn’t technically sign your leave personnel action form.”  I replied, “Maj. Acker, you approved it; here’s your approval; you and Col. Milhorn dated and electronically signed it.”  And he said, “It’s not legitimate unless we put our personal signatures on it.”  And I said, “No, it doesn’t matter, because I left prior to.  Do you have an OER for me and my awards?”  He said, “No, Capt. Mason, but I’m just giving you…”

I said, “Look, you have now violated the Whistleblower Protection Act.  You were told to stay away from me because of the threats you were making.  You called me into your office last week and told me you didn’t have anything for me.  You and I had a meeting.  So you knew where I was the whole time.  At this point, this is retribution because I filed a congressional.  I have nothing further to say to you.”  And I turned around and walked away from him and went back to the counter.

Maj. Acker turned to my wife and said, “Mrs. Mason, could you please tell your husband not to leave the island?” and my wife said, “Let me ask you a question:  are you here on official business?  Why are there security officers here?” And the security officers were standing there looking like, “Well, they asked us to come over here.”  They didn’t know what was going on. So while my wife was talking to them, I went over to the lady behind the counter and said, “These folk are trying to harass me and have illegally called and canceled my flight.” It was a $1,600 flight.  This was the interesting part of it.  The finance office of the 25th Infantry had already reimbursed me for the hotel by putting the money in my account.  In other words, they approved me; they paid for me to stay at the hotel and gave me ten days of spending money between assignments.  So I told her, “They illegally canceled my ticket; can I go ahead and purchase my own ticket?” and she said, “As a matter of fact, yes; there’s another flight leaving three hours later going to Richmond International Airport.  The only problem is we can’t put you on the same flight with your wife and children. You’ll have to fly by yourself.”  So I said, “Let me ask you a question:  Is that seat next to my wife on the plane still available?” and she said, “Yes, it is,” but unfortunately, you can’t purchase it because they canceled it.”

So I said, “Can you tell me who canceled it?” and she said, “I can’t see it, but someone from the travel office actually called and canceled the flight.”  I then went ahead and purchased a flight out of my own money that the Army reimbursed me for the lodging at the hotel.   At the same time, I called Anthony Bothwell and Ricardo and explained to them what was going on.  All the while, my son was recording everything.

Maj. Acker and Maj. Staiano were standing there, both wearing T-shirts, shorts and sandals.   The whole time they were saying, “Capt. Mason, are you going to report back to Gen. Lyons?”  And I turned around and looked at them and said, “Maj. Acker, if this was official business for the general, you would be here in full uniform with military police.  I’m not AWOL, so you’re making something up in order to keep me from leaving the island.  The problem is, you didn’t do my OER and now you’re in trouble.  Maj. Acker, I no longer work for you; I’ve been assigned to Ft. Lee command, and I’m going on to my command.  Have a nice day; I’m not going to carry on any more conversation with you.”

He kept saying, “You can’t leave,” and I just ignored him.  My wife was having a conversation with him and the security guards.  My attorney said to me, “Look, if they don’t have a warrant for your arrest or anything that you’ve done, you need to get on that plane and go to your next command, because if you don’t show up and sign in, you’re going to officially be AWOL there.”  So at that point, I walked my wife and children to the gate and watched them get on a plane by themselves.  Of course, my children were upset, as if their dad was under arrest and wasn’t leaving.  Everyone was traumatized.  It was a very sad occasion.


Editor’s Note:  The video of the events Mason described at the Honolulu Airport can be viewed here.

 

 

 

 

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