by Sharon Rondeau
(Feb. 23, 2022) – Over more than three years, The Post & Email released 49 articles, each its own chapter, relating the experiences of former U.S. Army Capt. Gary Mason, II who in 2000 entered military service with high hopes of a lifetime commitment serving his country, as many in his family had done before him.
Mason grew up as a Christian and relied on his faith and relationship with God as his life journey unfolded, particularly after joining the Army.
His military journey was marked by high and low points, the former emanating from what Mason saw as unresolved racial tensions and even more widespread, “toxic” leadership fueled by politics and raw ambition in the absence of honesty, integrity, and the cultivation of a strong and professional fighting force.
Writing a 2012 “letter of concern” to such leadership, Mason found, spelled the eventual doom to his military career and intention to serve fellow soldiers as a military chaplain. Instead, Mason detailed throughout the story’s many twists and turns, his sharing of concerns about others’ well-being amid their reports of racially-tinged encounters and physical assaults gave way to threats, intimidation, harassment, and discriminatory treatment from his chain of command.
Oddly, while his superiors stateside worked to oust Mason from the Army, his overseas deployments in war zones earned him numerous awards and accolades, encouraging him to remain steadfast in working through the difficulties he would inevitably encounter upon his return.
In addition to his accomplishments in public affairs and as an infantryman, Mason was among a handful of service chaplains ordained in a war zone. Likewise, he completed his Master’s degree in Divinity while serving as a public affairs officer in Afghanistan.
Through sleight of hand on the part of those who wished him ill, Mason’s mental health was ultimately called into question while he was stationed at Ft. Lee, VA, after which he was placed in the Wounded Warrior Transition Brigade at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center (WRNMMC). Suffering from no physical disability, he nevertheless was targeted for removal by his command’s deeming him “unfit for duty” based on erroneous grounds that he could be “suicidal or homicidal.”
A veteran herself, Mason’s wife Shahnaaz and the couple’s children were deeply impacted by the ordeal and benefited from counseling from both military and civilian specialists at Walter Reed who Mason lauds to this day. Several lost their own careers, he recalled, for speaking truth after finding Mason’s medical file tampered with and injected with inaccurate information.
When in 2014 Shahnaaz personally appealed to now-President Joseph R. Biden, Jr., then the vice president, to intervene in her husband’s impending discharge, Biden chose to take no action.
In early January 2015, Mason was involuntarily separated from the Army after 15 years of service. In the years that ensued, he encountered considerable difficulty finding employment and suspected the circumstances surrounding his military discharge were the underlying cause.
Mason’s story is one of faith, fear, hope, betrayal and triumph through personal growth, faith, and what Mason describes as “unconditional love,” which he believes could occur only after turning his own anguish into good by serving other victims of various forms of military trauma.
During a February 2, 2022, interview, Mason summarized his experience and plans for the future.
There was a point in my life where I began to realize that I was running an independent, small media company with my wife where I really wanted to make a change in my community. We were living in Maryland at the time, and I realized that I was limited in what I could and could not do because we were having our first child.
While I had the dream of doing Christian-based film, I didn’t have the funding to support my own business. So in order for me to get involved, I had to become part of something bigger than me. I felt as if in serving my country, I could do all those particular jobs but do it for the country, and I felt good that if I had to give it my all, why not do it for the good of the Army?
My uncle, my grandfathers, my father-in-law – everybody had served in World War II and the Korean War. Over a dozen of my uncles served in Vietnam. My wife had served in the Army as an intelligence agent; that’s where she learned how to speak Russian. So all of that was saying, “You can do this.” It was part of my family history and legacy, and if anything were to happen to me, what greater way to go out than by serving and defending our nation?
I thought this would really mean something, and I thought joining was the greatest thing to do at the time.
Going into the Army, I thought I was going to serve for life; I didn’t want to do four years. I wanted to do a 20-year commitment. If, in fact, I didn’t make the full 20, it would be the basis for me to move into something else.
I came in “enlisted,” and I did my enlisted time, but then I felt as if God was giving me a calling. I went through the toughest training the Army could put me through, but then I felt as if God were saying, “Live out the rest of your life as a chaplain,” meaning serving Him.
After I got in, I was truly shocked at the racism, and I thought, “The best way to fix this is through the Chaplain Corps. Even though I’m at war, I’m serving God and fighting for my country.” In order to fight for God, you have to have love in your heart and believe you’re doing the right thing.
Let me encourage those in the military who are hurting. When I got to Hawaii, I didn’t realize it would be a phase or a point at which my first assignment as an officer – I was a 2nd lieutenant at the time – would be one in which I began to “learn the game.” I didn’t know there were so many politics involved in being in the Army. I just went in thinking, “I can shoot, I’m in shape, I can communicate, I have education; I can do this job and do it according to the standard operating procedures, depending on the environment.” What I did not know is that there were different kinds of cliques within the Army where your affiliations would determine how far your career would go.
I did not know that this was a political organization. I thought we were apolitical and focused on our jobs. In the Army, I was an infantryman, and my job was to learn battle drills. I did not think about the political hierarchy. When I got downrange – my first combat tour was in Balad, the Sunni Triangle, in 2008 – I did not know that being an African-American officer in that unit was rare; there were only 3 or 4 of them in that whole battalion, and I did not know that many felt that African-Americans should not be in command leadership roles. There was one commander, but he was not handling any combat roles as a commander. I had an opportunity to be a platoon leader, but Col. Hodne refused to give me that position; he gave it to someone who was lower-ranking than me. Instead, he put me in the S3 – Training and Operations. That wasn’t a career-building assignment for me. What that did was jerk me around from place to place while serving in a capacity that wasn’t going to help me and wasn’t really going to be a strong bullet-point in my career.
This particular phase in my officer career you could say was “betrayal.” I did not know it was going to impact me emotionally. In Hawaii, with the false allegations that were made, I felt shocked; I was appalled; I was afraid; I felt isolated, and I felt as if I had no one to turn to. I didn’t know if there was anyone I could trust. It felt as if everyone was backing away from me because I held up the flag and said, “Hey, there’s a problem here.”
It seemed as if everyone withdrew from me and didn’t want to be seen engaging with me. It seemed that once I raised my hand and filed a complaint about what happened, everyone at Schofield Barracks and everybody on the island – US Army Pacific Command – wanted to remove me from Hawaii because I had exposed something that the majority knew about but didn’t want to talk about. So now I was left there by myself learning of betrayal and learning about the game.
That, right there, was shocking to me. But then, when I was able to leave Hawaii – and they never intended for me to leave there; they were trying to end my career there – God had another plan. I got to Ft. Lee, and what happened at Ft. Lee was that I began to recognize the truth, realizing that, “Oh, my gosh, it’s not what I thought. I really have to pray.”
My initial thought when I arrived was, “There’s a black command general; there’s a black garrison commander; there’s a black commandant of the university where I took the Captain’s Career course; I’m in good hands. I have shelter from the attack in Hawaii.” That’s when I realized they were part of the problem as well because now they were being used by senior officials in Hawaii to finish the job of ousting me. I didn’t realize that initially.
When I began to recognize the truth, I began to grow and realize, “It’s not about color; it’s about politics, and it’s about character and integrity. It’s the nature of a person’s heart and whether or not a person has the courage to stand up and do what’s right.
At Ft. Lee, which I called Phase 2 of my officer career, I started looking at the heart condition of people, and I began to realize that some people just are not willing to stand up because they can receive retribution and lose their job, and they would rather just go with the majority. It takes courage to expose wrongdoing.
At that point, my level of prayer began to intensify. I had to recognize the fact that the Army did not want me to stay in the ranks, but I did not know to what level they would go to remove me from the organization, especially when they didn’t have any grounds administratively to do it. They were making up false allegations to remove me. In my heart, I think they were trying to make me feel that “We just don’t want you because you’re not a part of what we believe.”
So that’s what I call the “truth” part. I understood the game they were playing. In this transforming process, I was beginning to understand the truth behind what they were doing and why; I just didn’t know how they were going to legally remove me. I was still believing there was some hope, and at that point, I said, “Well, let me at least graduate and finish the Captain’s Career course.”
I graduated at the top of my class and even received The International Society of Logistics’ top award of Demonstrated Senior Logistician through the Army Logistics University; I was one of three or four people who received awards for being at the top in logistics.
So with all of my academics and credentials, my evaluations from downrange at war – how could I come back to a garrison, a non-war environment, where the command tried to find things to destroy my character? It didn’t make sense at all. Again, I had now exposed something that was massive and ugly in the U.S. Army, and many did not want me to be a part of the organization anymore.
Ft. Lee was just me recognizing the truth. My faith began to increase even as I said, “Lord, there’s no way I’m going to get through this.” Then they began to try to force me through an illegal psychological process since they could not say I did anything wrong administratively. When the Army tried to take my security clearance, everything was proven through the intelligence community that the accusations were false. That disproved what they were saying: my being AWOL, “Officer Unbecoming”; they could not use any of those things in the trumped up General Officer Memorandum of Reprimand, or “GOMAR.”
So they determined they were going to say I was mentally unfit, which was not the case, of course. I just kept excelling at everything that I was assigned. People were confounded that I was under attack but never missed a beat with my job performance. Again, God was faithful. As a result, they didn’t know how to assign me for my next duty location. After everyone graduated after six months, they were holding on to me for a full year trying to figure out what to do with me. That’s when I realized I that transitioning to Walter Reed for reassignment was the best move for me. I started getting counseling and treatment for the stress and harassment I was under at Ft. Lee.
This was the third phase of my officer career. Instead of being in a job such as a logistics officer, chaplain, infantry officer or public affairs officer, I was just trying to move on and work, but they wouldn’t let it go. They had determined I had offended them and exposed them, so I could not be a part of that organization. They hoped they could make it so uncomfortable for me that I would not want to stay anyway.
When I got to Walter Reed, I was under the advice of a doctor who will remain nameless because of their safety but told me I should get a psychotherapist and begin to report what was going on to establish the truth so the command couldn’t control the narrative.
I spent almost three years, from 2012 until I retired in 2015, with therapists, counseling, the chaplain; I did spiritual counseling and mental health counseling (psychotherapy). During that time, I began to realize I was in the phase of trusting God. My career was no longer in my hands. At that point, I began to say, “Lord, you are in control of my life; you are in control of protecting me, my livelihood, my family, so I’m going to completely just love and trust you.” And that’s when I started dealing with the idea of having to forgive everyone who was trying to say things and do things to hurt my family and me because I had exposed their abuses. That was hard, but I thank God for so many of the very, very good counselors and doctors at Walter Reed – a lot of them were civilians — they began to see the truth of what was going on and they actually encouraged me. One counselor pointed out the courage it took to shine light and speak up for those who couldn’t speak for themselves. Another apologized to me for all that my commanders had put me through. Three of these courageous professionals lost their jobs even as they documented my experiences. They saw that unauthorized people were inserting things into my health records that were patently false. These were doctors hired by Ft. Lee or Tripler Army Medical Center in Hawaii. One of the doctors was writing the truth about not only me, but she counseled my wife and all three of my children.
Those three doctors were removed from Walter Reed mysteriously; two retired. I spent over a year in counseling sessions where they were constantly recording the story of what was going on with me. They were hurt; there were many tears shed during those counseling sessions.
That’s when God began to recreate my heart and to deal with me in those very silent places where I began to love them because I felt for them and the fact that they were doing this type of thing. I felt as if God was saying to me, “Just trust Me and let go, and let Me shape the narrative – you don’t have to ty to defend yourself — and for all of those who are trying say things to threaten you or harm you, let Me be your guard.”
So I began to release all of that there, through the counseling, the therapy sessions, through the support groups that were there, and I began to heal with my family, and that was the amazing part of all of this. All the while, God was saying, “I brought you through this complete cycle; you learned the game; you recognized the truth; and now you’re trusting me; now I’m establishing something bigger for you to do.”
What I ultimately ended up doing, just before I left Walter Reed, was to start a dissertation program at Regent University, and the dissertation would be a Doctor of Military Ministry, which is what I wanted to do anyway – stay in the Army and finish out my career helping service members. With all the tension and stress I was going through, I could now understand why service members were committing suicide. Service members were being sexually assaulted; they were dealing with post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury. Some were survivors of horrific racist attacks. Some were survivors of subtle, almost covert racism used to stifle careers or simply demean individuals. Service members were now amputees, trying to get their lives in order again. So while I was in the process of transitioning out of the military – I was being forced out; I didn’t want to go – God said, “I want you to now start helping those around you in Walter Reed.”
I never thought about the fact until afterward that I was a civilian in my last job before entering the military working at the old Walter Reed in Washington, DC back in the ‘90s. So the very place that I ended my career – the new Walter Reed in Bethesda, MD, which is only about two miles away from the old Walter Reed — I ended up going full circle. I joined the military as a Walter Reed civilian in administration and ended up coming back and transitioning out of the military at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center as an advocate for soldiers.
In doing that, I remember that as I would walk through the hallways in that huge hospital, I began to see what I was doing as a ministry. The Chaplain Corps might not have endorsed it and would never give me a cross on my uniform to wear, but I wore my infantry cross-rifles on my uniform as a badge of honor that I always loved, and I used that to minister. Because I was in the infantry, I was able to reach more people than I could if I were walking around with a cross on my chest. They respected the cross rifle on the Christian soldier’s collar.
I remember that’s when I began to stand at the bedsides of amputees. I took every course on self-help, self-growth, re-establishing function after brain injuries, and I began to minister to the people who were in those places. And of course, I ended up meeting Casey and Sgt. Jacobo – these were people who had suffered military sexual trauma – and I remember that God said, “This is how I want to use you: you’ve gone through all those phases of your life, and now I’m bringing you right back around to forgiveness and unconditional love for those who did these things, you and other survivors of racism or sexual trauma.”
So this was the message that God was giving to me: it wasn’t to just be angry because of racism or because someone used the “N” word while I was in uniform or because they didn’t like me because I was black; God said, “No, it’s so much bigger than that.”
I was given a retirement ceremony on January 5, 2015. I remember Col. Tankins, who was the Walter Reed commander for the Wounded Warrior Transition Brigade, said to me, “I want you to stand here and tell the truth about what happened to you. I want you to let it out. Because we’re going to celebrate you. I know you wanted to stay, and I don’t even know how you made it this far. You not only had to fight the enemy of our country, but you also had to fight the enemies within our organization. It’s okay for you to share whatever you want on this day, your retirement ceremony.”
At that point I felt God was saying to me, “Just use this entire career as a way to show how much you love everyone.” It’s not about the nastiness that went on, because God is going to deal with all of those matters. Instead, He wanted me to take a look around at the people I worked with, that I went to combat with, and He said, “I want you to begin to see their hearts and see why they are the way that they are, and I want you to love them in spite of what they did, right or wrong.”
So that was the message, and that’s what I want people to receive from reading this. I’m taking you on a journey to talk about what happened with my experience, but ultimately, the central theme of this whole story has to do with God trying to reach my heart, trying to bring me back into a wholesome relationship so that I could love everybody else. And that’s what started me on the journey.
As I was leaving the military, I began to start the journey on my doctoral dissertation, which is entitled, “A Divine Solution: Unconditional Love as an Antidote to Racial Discrimination in the U.S. Army.”
I suffered, but many are still suffering. And the love of God shown through others and through my faith is the solution. Finishing the dissertation drove me and gave me a therapeutic way to continue to seal up all those breaches in my heart. It was God helping me to look within myself rather than looking at the wrong in others, which is why I stand here today.
At that point, Mason paid tribute to a soldier who he pastored, Casey Harrell, a victim of military sexual assault and traumatic brain injury and who in 2020, three years after his discharge, was found deceased in Lynchburg, VA.
At the time we met, I was in a better place to help him through his ordeal. He struggled with what happened in the history of his career with the military. So I poured out my time and my love, and I became his personal pastor. I sat with him in his tears, his pain, as his body began to break down, and when I began to see the injustices that were happening to him right there at Walter Reed. I was able to now take my entire career and what God taught me and then stand alongside him and support him as he was going through his ordeal. The military was treating him the same way, and in some ways, even worse, because he dealt with military sexual trauma. He also dealt with the way the military succeeded, I believe, in destroying his family, his marriage with his wife, and he began to go downhill.
He had some dreams he wanted to accomplish, and I remember him telling me, “I want to go to Howard University and become a lawyer” because he wanted to help people who were suffering and going through what he had gone through against organizations that had the power to control him. So I saw his motivation, and I stood by him and said I would support him all the way. Little did I know he would end up deceased and his remains being found in Lynchburg, VA. To this day, it still presents some sadness for me, but he’s no longer suffering.
These are the types of stories that need to be shared, because it’s not just post-traumatic stress disorder from war; we have post-traumatic stress from “friendly fire,” and that is we get treated terribly by toxic leaders in the organization.
So in order to solve that, we have to talk about it, and we need to utilize unconditional love in order for us to heal and restore one another, which will hopefully one day lead to forgiveness. And that’s what I want to see happen.
That’s the story. It’s amazing at how God will take pain and turn it into love. God is a great God, and I attribute my being here able to talk to you today about the safety that I felt in His arms despite all that I’ve gone through.
On January 27, 2022, Gary Mason was confirmed as a Doctor of Military Ministry (DMin), 12 days after the passing of his mother and two days after her memorial service.
Mason is also in the process of publishing a book about his military story which he expects to be available later this year.
The “defense” of his dissertation, Mason said, was actually a very brief process. “It was not as stressful as I had expected. They asked me to leave the room, had a conference, and then when I was called back in, they all gave me a ‘pass,’” Mason told us. “At that point, they conferred the title, ‘Dr.’ That last part took five minutes.”
“The faculty member who was indifferent at first about the title of my dissertation told me, ‘You have done an exceptional job, and with these credentials now, it’s going to open the door for you to do much more,’” Mason said. ‘It will help you to do the things you need to do.’ That was an exciting day for me, although it was just two days after my mom’s funeral.”
“Congratulations, Dr. Mason,” The Post & Email responded, to which Mason replied with a chuckle, “The name hasn’t caught up with me yet.”
Mason concluded the interview with:
Do you see how God gracefully orchestrated this? I did not want to release the book without being able to put “Dr. Mason” on it. I wanted there to be some testimony behind why I did this. Honestly, if I could have my mother here, I’d love to have her here, but she’s in such a better place…
But I am so elated; it’s bitter and sweet. I’m just so thankful; I feel free. This whole process has been so therapeutic, and I pray that I can be touched by the infirmities of others, and that I can pray for others, and that this can be just the beginning of outlets and different platforms to share this story of a healing method for others to walk through. I want people to say, “Hey, if that brother can go do that, I don’t care what my situation is; I can do it, too.” And that’s what the dissertation did: it helps lay a foundation for you to get to unconditional love.
As he was preparing his dissertation defense, Mason told us, his mother was hospitalized because of the cancer she was fighting. His parents had both contracted coronavirus despite being “fully vaccinated,” Mason said. The main concern, however, was not COVID, but rather, his mother’s cancer and the fact that the hospital initially would not allow any visitors to her room because of the pandemic.
That policy rendered his father distraught, Mason said, after the doctors informed him that his wife was not strong enough to recover.
On that point, the hospital finally relented, Mason said, and his father was admitted under the rule that only one person could visit at a time.
The family had made plans to bring her home to “transition,” as was her wish, Mason said. However, as her condition worsened, he and his family set out on the nine-hour trip to Washington, DC. Upon his arrival, as an ordained minister intending to provide “last rites,” Mason said he convinced the hospital staff to allow him into the room along with his father, where he spoke to his mother for the last time.
She heard his words and tried to respond, Mason said, but the morphine prevented her from speaking.
In the early hours of January 15, Mason‘s father called to say his mother “wasn’t going to make it.” Approximately two hours later, he said, he received the final call.
“She was the motivation behind me finishing [my dissertation]” Mason said of his mother. “About a year ago, I started working on a documentary titled, ‘Black Pioneers of Broadcasting.’ A story of mom’s life and career at the Federal Communications Commission. I have over three hours of interviews with her, and I remember something telling me, ‘You need to do something, and you need to do it now.’ I’m so happy I was able to do that. When God moves upon your heart to do things, just do them.”
Looking ahead, he said, “I look forward to using my story, dissertation and the book as teaching tools. This is not the last conversation we will have…”