An unidentified African American soldier patrolling in Afghanistan.
On Capitol Hill, the Senate Armed Services Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing today on sexual assault in the military.
And as lawmakers take a closer look at that issue, one local Army captain says he's the victim of another form of harassment from fellow service members.
In 2008, shortly after the election of President Barack Obama, Capt. Gary Mason was sent to Iraq as a member of the 3rd squadron, 4th Calvary Regiment, 25th infantry division. Mason is African American, and not long after his arrival, he and a handful of other black soldiers allegedly found themselves the target of a racist prank.
Army regulations prevent Mason from speaking to the media, so his wife, Shauniss Mason, speaks on his behalf. As she recalls, the incident happened during a briefing in which a slide show was being displayed.
"[A]nd at the beginning of the meeting a huge slide pops up on the screen and it's a picture of the black actor Ving Rhames and across his chest is written the word, 'niggardly". And so my husband is shocked and he looked around the room and he's wondering...'What's going on?'"
Retired Captain Rod Meyer, who is also African American, was present at that briefing.
"[A]ll of a sudden we see Ving Rhames on a slide and the word 'niggardly.' Nobody attempted to run up and turn it off or shut that down or get it off the screen, it just cycled through as normal and everyone got their laugh on about it," he said.
Capt. Mason filed an equal opportunity complaint about the incident. One week later, his wife says, Mason was assaulted by a white soldier named Sgt. Major Royce Mannis for no apparent reason.
"He said that the guy came up to him and just started cursing at him and saying that we're not happy with your work, and he says that the mans started hitting him in the chest over and over again, and my husband told him that he'd better stop," she recalled.
Mannis did not respond to requests for comment.
Capt. Mason reported the incidents to his commanding officer, Colonel David Hodne. According to Shauniss Mason, Hodne took no action. Hodne also did not respond to phone calls and emails from WAMU.
"We got a copy of the report and within the report Col. Hodne states; '...I don't have to answer your questions, I'm a colonel, I have too much rank and I don't have to answer these questions.' We have a copy of that report and it's in writing," she said.
Following a second combat tour in Afghanistan, Capt. Mason returned to Schofield Barracks in Hawaii to discover he was being reassigned to a position of lower authority, despite two successful tours abroad. About this same time, Mason and his wife brought their concerns to the attention of then-Congresswoman Mazie Hirono. An aide for Hirono looked into the matter and soon phoned Shauniss Mason with dire advice.
"He said, 'Tell your husband don't let anyone provoke him, because that's what they want. Once he does something or says something that discredits him, then that invalidates his case,'" she recalled.
Shauniss Mason says the harassment continued. In June 2012, Mason was reassigned and cleared to transfer to Fort Lee, just south of Richmond, Virginia. When Mason arrived with his family at the Honolulu airport to depart for Virginia, he was told his ticket was canceled.
Soon after, Shauniss Mason says, two army officers, Major David Acker and Maj. James Staiano, appeared at the terminal, out of uniform and without documentation, to inform Mason that he was considered AWOL. Neither Acker nor Staiano responded to requests for comment about the incident, which was captured on video by the Masons' oldest son.
"[M]y husband talks to our attorney, and he says if you don't get on that plane, you are really going to be AWOL because Ft. Lee is expecting you," said Shauniss Mason.
Mason buys his own ticket, arrives in Richmond and never hears anything from army officials about being AWOL.
"[W]e realize if he had not gotten on that plane he would have been considered AWOL. He was given an unlawful order by two soldiers who were out of uniform who had no official paperwork," she said.
Col. Michael Donnelly is the spokesperson for the U.S. Army Pacific. Donnelly says that right now, the Army can't and won't respond to the individual charges made by Capt. Mason and his wife.
"While things are still under investigation, and I believe he has filed some lawsuits. It's probably not prudent on our part to put a characterization on any of those charges whether it's past present or future," he said.
Retired Army Major Ricardo Finney is an authority on the Army's Uniform Code of Military Justice. He's working with Capt. Mason to resolve his legal actions, which include an equal opportunity complaint filed with the U.S. Inspector General, and a request for protection under the Whistleblower Protection Act.
"There's dozens of incidents where he, or his family have been targeted by people who figured if they did it he eventually was going to fold, going to go crazy, or shoot somebody, " he said.
Since arriving at Ft Lee, Mason's wife Shauniss says her husband has been treated poorly and has received veiled verbal threats from certain service members on base. Capt. Mason moved his family off base to Maryland, out of concern for their safety. The off-base housing allowance he's given by the army is not enough to cover two apartments, so his wife and children rent a room from friends while he commutes 150 miles most days, sometimes sleeping in his car. Today the entire family is in counseling and Shauniss Mason says their dilemma is a cautionary tale for those who question the military's record suicide rate of 349 deaths in 2012.
"There are many people committing suicide who have suffered as we have. You want to know why the army's rate of suicide is so high? This is why, and I have the answer. Toxic leaders, and people who are stuck in the dark ages, abusing people and not being held accountable for it," she said.
U.S. Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland is pursuing a congressional inquiry into the charges made by the Mason family.
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