Julie A. Weisberg
After enduring months of homophobic harassment and slurs, a decorated soldier with an exemplary service record may have been targeted for dismissal by his Army superiors because they think that he is gay.
PFC Christopher Mastromarino, pictured, a military policeman and member of the Army's prestigious Old Guard -- a regiment that serves as an honor guard at White House functions, services at Arlington Cemetery and Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, as well as security at private functions for top Pentagon officials in Washington, D.C. -- was court-martialed in May after indecent assault charges were filed against him in February.
The charges alleged that Mastromarino sexually harassed other male soldiers in his unit with unwanted touching and verbal comments. He was ultimately convicted of three counts of simple assault. The military court's ruling, however, has yet to be approved by the regiment's commanding general, and Mastromarino has appealed the decision.
But the Maryland native told PageOneQ during a recent interview that he is innocent of the charges. And that the prosecution's case was filled with conflicting testimony, here-say and rumors, and a questionable timeline.
In addition, according to sworn testimony during the trial, two prosecution witnesses said that they did not consider the physical contact between themselves and Mastromarino to be an assault, although the command chose to bring those charges forward against him.
|JULIE A. WEISBERG is an award-winning reporter and freelance writer based in Newtown, CT. She is a regular contributor to publications in both the mainstream and alternative press. In addition to her freelance work, Ms. Weisberg has spent several years as a reporter in the newsrooms of three weekly newspapers in Connecticut.
Julie may be visited on the web at: http://www.julieaweisberg.com.
"You are supposed to have some kind of credible evidence," Mastromarino said. "That leads me to believe that they were on some kind of agenda."
After requesting interviews with Mastromarino's regimental commander, as well as his equal opportunity officer, PageOneQ was told by The Old Guard's public affairs office that Army officials cannot comment on "a pending case."
Lack of Don't Ask Don't Tell evidence doesn't stop prosecution.
According to the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, soldiers can be dismissed from the service by telling others they are gay or lesbian, engage in homosexual activity, or marry or attempt to marry someone of the same sex.
But Mastromarino's command did not use the policy to court-martial him. That is because the investigators and prosecution did not find or present any credible evidence to the jury that Mastromarino has violated the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy, according to Steve Ralls of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network.
SLDN, a national nonprofit legal services and watchdog organization dedicated to ending discrimination against and harassment of military personnel affected by "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," has been assisting Mastromarino with his court-martial case.
Instead, Ralls said, the unit's command used rumors and hearsay during their investigation and trial to suggest that Mastromarino was gay, in an effort to cast his physical and verbal contact with other male soldiers as inappropriate.
Ralls argued that Mastromarino was targeted not because his actions were outside the realm of acceptable behavior within The Old Guard, but because of an intolerant, hostile and homophobic climate within the regiment.
"If this had been anyone else, there would have been no trial," he said.
And this is not the first time Mastromarino has been targeted on questionable charges related to his perceived sexuality. Similar indecent assault charges were brought against Mastromarino in January 2007, but were quickly dropped for lack of supporting evidence after they were separately investigated and reviewed by the military police and the Army's Criminal Investigative Command (CID).
Some of the same soldiers that were involved in this earlier case, were involved in the charges that led to Mastromarino's later court-martial.
Ralls said if his conviction is left to stand, and he is permanently discharged, it could ruin both the soldier's military and civilian career.
"It's very clear that there was no evidence," he said, adding that it appears that his command used the assault charges as "a convenient way to get rid" of who they perceived to be "the gay soldier" in the unit.
Rumors fly: ‘Mastro is a faggot'
Mastromarino enlisted in the Army in 2003, with hopes of becoming a military police officer. Two of his older brothers also have served in the military, one in the Air Force and another as an Army chaplain.
"I kind of look up to my brothers," Mastromarino, the youngest of six boys, said.
The Maryland native said he decided to join the Army not just to walk in his brothers' shoes, but also to help forward his opportunities after his service.
"I want to be a police officer, and I was hoping to get some good police training" in the military, he said. "And, I also wanted to serve my country."
After being stationed at Fort Wood in Missouri and then on the Korean peninsula -- received numerous awards, medals and accolades for his service and volunteer efforts at both stations -- Mastromarino decided to try something different, and closer to home. So, he applied to The Old Guard.
And, due to his spotless and outstanding service record -- as well as glowing letters of recommendation -- he was one of a small handful of soldiers that are handpicked to join the regiment each year.
"One of the most prestigious honors is to be a member of the honor guard," he said. "I have been very honored to do it."
But, Mastromarino said within a few months of joining The Old Guard in October 2005, soldiers in his unit began to spread rumors about his sexuality, after he moved in with his openly gay cousin and partner who lived in the Washington, D.C. area.
"I realized it was a different climate than what I experienced in my previous units," Mastromarino said, adding he had never had any problems at any of the other units he had served with in the past.
Although he tried to joke about the homophobic comments, it did not take long, Mastromarino said, for the rumors to become something more venomous, aggressive and frequent.
"People started calling me ‘fag' and ‘queer'. And I've had people write things on the bathroom wall about me like, ‘Mastro is a faggot'" he said.
In addition, Mastromarino said it eventually got to the point that often when he would walk into a room, other soldiers would say things such as, "Fags shall die," and "I wish all queers would disappear."
"It started becoming hateful," he said.
So, in early 2006, Mastromarino reported the harassment to his Equal Opportunity Officer who assured him that the issue would be addressed and the harassment stopped. It did not.
Instead, in January 2007, charges were brought against Mastromarino for allegedly sexually harassing a soldier in his unit. The soldier alleged that Mastromarino had come from behind, bent him over and spread his feet as if to conduct a law-enforcement-style wall search.
But in documentation provided by SLDN, the soldier who made the first allegations against Mastromarino back in January said if those actions had been carried out by anyone else, it would not have felt like an indecent assault, and it would not have bothered him.
According to SLDN, the soldier said in his sworn testimony to investigators that he only felt like the incident was an assault because he thought Mastromarino is gay.
"For some reason, he thought I was hitting on him," Mastromarino said, adding that the soldier was young and impressionable, and may have been influenced and his actions instigated by others around him.
During his interview with PageOneQ, Mastromarino declined to reveal whether or not he is a gay or bisexual man, because, he said, under the military's policy of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," he is not permitted to answer that question as an active duty service member.
Those initial allegations in January were investigated by the military police, but dropped within hours for lack of evidence. Then, the case was referred to the CID for an independent review, as the Army requires when the military police investigate a fellow officer.
The CID investigation concurred with the military police findings that the charges should be dropped due to a lack of evidence. The agency issued its report on Feb. 15.
Later that same day, Mastromarino's regimental commander presented him with an Article 15, a non-judicial punishment for minor disciplinary offenses that can be refused by the soldier, accusing him of indecent assault and solicitation of an indecent act.
Five days later Mastromarino declined it, maintaining that he had done nothing improper or indecent.
"He was in their yelling at me and telling me I was a horrible soldier," Mastromarino said of his commander. "I was almost in tears... it was degrading and humiliating."
Once he declined, his command began its own independent investigation into the allegations of indecent assault. According to Mastromarino, no new information was gathered, other than most soldiers in his unit think he is gay.
"It was just a fishing expedition," Mastromarino said.