An Army of one wrong recruit
Autism – The signing of a disabled Portland man despite warnings reflects problems nationally for military enlistment
Sunday, May 07, 2006
Jared Guinther is 18. Tall and lanky, he will graduate from Marshall High School in June. Girls think he’s cute, until they try to talk to him and he stammers or just stands there — silent.
Diagnosed with autism at age 3, Jared is polite but won’t talk to people unless they address him first. It’s hard for him to make friends. He lives in his own private world.
Jared didn’t know there was a war raging in Iraq until his parents told him last fall — shortly after a military recruiter stopped him outside a Southeast Portland strip mall and complimented him on his black Converse All Stars.
“When Jared first started talking about joining the Army, I thought, ‘Well, that isn’t going to happen,’ ” said Paul Guinther, Jared’s father. “I told my wife not to worry about it. They’re not going to take anybody in the service who’s autistic.”
But they did. Last month, Jared came home with papers showing that he not only had enlisted, but also had signed up for the Army’s most dangerous job: cavalry scout. He is scheduled to leave for basic training Aug. 16.
Officials are now investigating whether recruiters at the U.S. Army Recruiting Station in Southeast Portland improperly concealed Jared’s disability, which should have made him ineligible for service.
Jared’s story illustrates a growing national problem as the military faces increasing pressure to hit recruiting targets during an unpopular war.
Tracking by the Pentagon shows that complaints about recruiting improprieties are on pace to approach record highs set in 2003 and 2004. The active Army and the Reserve missed recruiting targets last year, and reports of recruiting abuses continue from across the country.
A family in Ohio reported that its mentally ill son was signed up, despite rules banning such enlistments and the fact that records about his illness were readily available.
In Houston, a recruiter warned a potential enlistee that if he backed out of a meeting he would be arrested.
And in Colorado, a high school student working undercover told recruiters he had dropped out and had a drug problem. The recruiter told the boy to fake a diploma and buy a product to help him beat a drug test.
Violations such as these forced the Army to halt recruiting for a day last May so recruiters could be retrained and reminded of the job’s ethical requirements.
The Portland Army Recruiting Battalion Headquarters opened its investigation into Jared’s case last week after his parents called The Oregonian and the newspaper began asking questions about his enlistment.
Maj. Curt Steinagel, commander of the Military Entrance Processing Station in Portland, said the papers filled out by Jared’s recruiters contained no indication of his disability. Steinagel acknowledged that the current climate is tough on recruiters here and elsewhere.
“I can’t speak for the Army,” he said, “but it’s no secret that recruiters stretch and bend the rules because of all the pressure they’re under. The problem exists, and we all know it exists.”
Diagnosis and struggle
Jared lives in a tiny brown house in Southeast Portland that looks as worn out as his parents do when they get home from work.
Paul Guinther, 57, labors 50 to 60 hour weeks as a painter-sandblaster at Sundial Marine Tug & Barge Works in Troutdale. His wife, Brenda, 50, has the graveyard housekeeping shift at Kaiser Permanente Sunnyside Medical Center in Clackamas.
The couple got together nearly 16 years ago when Jared was 3. Brenda, who had two young children of her own, immediately noticed that Jared was different and pushed Paul to have the boy tested.
“Jared would play with buttons for hours on end,” she said. “He’d play with one toy for days. Loud noises bothered him. He was scared to death of the toilet flushing, the lawn mower.”
Jared didn’t speak until he was almost 4 and could not tolerate the feel of grass on his feet.
Doctors diagnosed him with moderate to severe autism, a developmental disorder that strikes when children are toddlers. It causes problems with social interaction, language and intelligence. No one knows its cause or cure.
School and medical records show that Jared, whose recent verbal IQ tested very low, spent years in special education classes. It was only when he was a high school senior that Brenda pushed for Jared to take regular classes because she wanted him to get a normal rather than a modified diploma.
Jared required extensive tutoring and accommodations to pass, but in June he will graduate alongside his younger stepbrother, Matthew Thorsen.
Last fall, Jared began talking about joining the military after a recruiter stopped him on his way home from school and offered a $4,000 signing bonus, $67,000 for college and more buddies than he could count.
Matthew told his mother that military recruiting at the school and surrounding neighborhoods was so intense that one recruiter had pulled him out of football practice.
Recruiters in Portland and nationwide spend several hours a day cold-calling high school students, whose phone numbers are provided by schools under the No Child Left Behind Law. They also prospect at malls, high school cafeterias, colleges and wherever else young people gather.
Brenda phoned her two brothers, both veterans. She said they laughed and told her not to worry. The military would never take Jared.
The Guinthers, meanwhile, tried to refocus their son.
“I told him, ‘Jared, you get out of high school. I know you don’t want to be a janitor all your life. You work this job, you go to community college, you find out what you want. You can live here as long as you want,’ ” Paul said.
They thought it had worked until five weeks ago. Brenda said she called Jared on his cell phone to check what time he’d be home.
“I said ‘Jared, what are you doing?’ ‘I’m taking the test,’ he said — the entrance test. I go, ‘Wait a minute.’ I said, ‘Who’s giving you the test?’ He said, ‘Corporal.’ I said, ‘Well let me talk to him.’ “
Brenda said she spoke to Cpl. Ronan Ansley and explained that Jared had a disability, autism, that could not be outgrown. She said Ansley told her he had been in special classes, too — for dyslexia.
“I said, ‘Wait a minute, there’s a big difference between autism and your problem,’ ” Brenda said.
Military rules prohibit enlisting anyone with a mental disorder that interferes with school or employment, unless a recruit can show he or she hasn’t required special academic or job accommodations for 12 months.
Jared has been in special education classes since preschool. Through a special program for disabled workers, he has a part-time job scrubbing toilets and dumping trash.
Jared scored 43 out of 99 on the Army’s basic entrance exam — 31 is the lowest grade the Army allows for enlistment, military officials said.
After learning that Jared had cleared this first hurdle toward enlistment, Brenda said, she called and asked for Ansley’s supervisor and got Sgt. Alejandro Velasco.
She said she begged Velasco to review Jared’s medical and school records. Brenda said Velasco declined, asserting that he didn’t need any paperwork. Under military rules, recruiters are required to gather all available information about a recruit and fill out a medical screening form.
“He was real cocky and he says, ‘Well, Jared’s an 18-year-old man. He doesn’t need his mommy to make his decisions for him.’ “
Question of comprehension
The Guinthers are not political activists. They supported the Iraq war in the beginning but have started to question it as fighting dragged on. Brenda Guinther said that if her son Matthew had enlisted, she “wouldn’t like it, but I would learn to live with it because I know he would understand the consequences.”
But Jared doesn’t understand the dangers or the details of what he has done, the Guinthers said.
When they asked Jared how long he would be in the Army, he said he didn’t know. His enlistment papers show it’s just over four years. Jared also was disappointed to learn that he wouldn’t be paid the $4,000 signing bonus until after basic training.
During a recent family gathering, a relative asked Jared what he would do if an enemy was shooting at him. Jared ran to his video game console and killed a digital Xbox soldier and announced, “See! I can do it!”
“My concern is that if he got into a combat situation he really couldn’t take someone’s back,” said Mary Lou Perry, 51, a longtime friend of the Guinthers’. “He wouldn’t really know a dangerous thing. This job they have him doing, it’s like send him in and if he doesn’t get blown up, it’s safe for the rest of us.”
Steinagel, the processing station commander, told The Oregonian that Jared showed up after passing his written exam. None of his paperwork indicated that he was autistic, but if it had, Jared almost certainly would have been disqualified, he said.
On Tuesday, a reporter visited the U.S. Army Recruiting Station at the Eastport Plaza Shopping Center, where Velasco said he had not been told about Jared’s autism.
“Cpl. Ansley is Guinther’s recruiter,” he said. “I was unaware of any type of autism or anything like that.”
Velasco initially denied knowing Jared but later said he’d spent a lot of time mentoring him because Jared was going to become a cavalry scout. The job entails “engaging the enemy with anti-armor weapons and scout vehicles,” according to an Army recruiting Web site.
After he had spoken for a few moments, Velasco suddenly grabbed the reporter’s tape recorder and tried to tear out the tape, stopping only after the reporter threatened to call the police.
With the Guinthers’ permission, The Oregonian faxed Jared’s medical records to the U.S. Army Recruiting Battalion commander, Lt. Col. David Carlton in Portland, who on Wednesday ordered the investigation.
The Guinthers said that on Tuesday evening, Cpl. Ansley showed up at their door. They said Ansley stated that he would probably lose his job and face dishonorable discharge unless they could stop the newspaper’s story.
Ansley, reached at his recruiting office Thursday, declined to comment for this story.
S. Douglas Smith, spokesman for the U.S. Army Recruiting Command, in Fort Knox, Ky., said he could not comment on specifics of the investigation in Portland. But he defended the 8,200 recruiters working for the active Army and Army Reserve.
Last year, the Army relieved 44 recruiters from duty and admonished 369.
“Everyone in recruiting is let down when one of our recruiters fails to uphold the Army’s and Recruiting Command’s standards,” Smith said.
The Guinthers are eager to hear whether the Army will release Jared from his enlistment. Jared is disappointed he might not go because he thought the recruiters were his friends, they said. But they’re willing to accept that.
“If he went to Iraq and got hurt or killed,” Paul Guinther said, “I couldn’t live with myself knowing I didn’t try to stop it.”