Adam Jarrell tried to join the National Guard when he was 17. His mom wouldn't let him.
As soon as he hit the big one-eight, the teen from Hobbs signed the papers and split. "That's all I wanted to do," he says. "I had two dreams the entire time I was growing up: One of them was to be in law enforcement, and the other was to be in the military."
He managed to make both happen. As a civilian, he’s Deputy Jarrell with the Lea County Sheriff's Department in southeastern New Mexico. In the National Guard, he’s Spc. Jarrell.
But that might not be the case for much longer. At 23, his military career is unraveling.
With the help of the state’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, he's filed a racial discrimination complaint with the federal Office for Civil Rights requesting an investigation. It's the latest in a long series of complaints he's made about his treatment during his one-year tour of Afghanistan.
The state's National Guard did not return requests for comment.
In early April, he was told he would be honorably discharged due to a bee-sting allergy—a condition he says the National Guard has been aware of since he joined. The Guard has denied that it’s trying to discharge him.
According to the ACLU’s complaint, this is one of two attempts to end Jarrell’s time in the military. His six-year contract isn’t set to expire until February 2012.
“I always had some fairy tale idea of what the military was in my head. They're all honorable. They're all good soldiers.”
Spc. Adam Jarrell
Jarrell was determined to go to Afghanistan during his time in the Guard. That's his idea of service. When there are forest fires in Ruidoso, tornadoes in Clovis or frozen pipes around the state, he volunteers. "I always had some fairy tale idea of what the military was in my head. They're all honorable. They're all good soldiers," he says. "I know every organization has some type of bad apple in it. That's a given. I just always saw the military as the highest honor you could ever have."
He got to Afghanistan in May 2009, ready for his yearlong deployment. He was part of the 920th Engineering Unit, which included 216 soldiers. He was the only African-American in the 920th, though three more African-Americans were attached to the unit.
He worked as a mechanic, but he was tasked with other jobs as well. "You don't just do one thing in the military. You do so many things—whatever's needed. We were in a combat zone."
A few weeks after he arrived, Jarrell saw his platoon sergeant shove two soldiers and force them to roll in the mud because their uniforms were too clean, according to the ACLU’s complaint. Along with about a dozen other soldiers, he filed a grievance.
"Nobody did anything," he says. It becomes a familiar refrain during the interview.
"After that, that's when the racism started."
"That's as personal as you can get. It's personal, and it's wrong."
Spc. Adam Jarrell
Jarrell says he was called a racial slur in Spanish by his superiors. Though he objected, his chain of command condoned it, according to the complaint, and slurs became a regular part of his life overseas.
He was issued two firearms, but he says one was confiscated for several months. "We weren't in some big huge base with 6,000 soldiers and a whole Air Force. We were on a forward operating base with some rangers and other units that were all infantry. We would get attacked every couple of days at some points in time." Jarrell says he went on convoys with only one weapon—an unusual and dangerous situation.
He says found a noose hanging outside his barrack in January. "That's as personal as you can get. It's personal, and it's wrong." Though the noose was perhaps the most direct act, he says it wasn't the worst.
"What sucked was that anybody that tried to be my friend got raw treatment," he says, and people avoided him for fear of repercussion.
What keeps you sane in hard situations is your friends, and this is even more true in the military: "They're like your brothers. You do everything with them.”
The alienation had other effects, too. "It's hard to do your job, to know that if we have a rocket attack, I've got to run into this bunker and hope they allow me in there." It wasn’t just the enemy who wished him dead, he says. He feared his fellow soldiers wanted to kill him—someone had hung a noose outside his room, after all.
Speaking up hasn't won Jarrell any friends. As the story has spread nationally, he's caught a lot of flack from fellow soldiers. "They think I just woke up one morning and went to the media and told them this whole story and made my whole company look bad." They don't understand that he's tried to report the racism through proper channels since it began. "And nobody did anything."
Things happen to every soldier in Afghanistan, he says. "Yes, everybody has been a victim over there at some point, and I know that."
But as he thinks back to his deployment, he's struck by the horrible feeling of being trapped. "It's not like you can quit." Day in and day out, he dealt with racism from his superiors, he says. Yet Jarrell still loves the military and the National Guard. "The whole unit is not like this. We had a unit of great great soldiers."
After the story circulated on MSNBC and Army Times, he got a call from Major General Kenny Montoya, who is in charge of New Mexico’s National Guard. Jarrell drove up to Santa Fe on Friday, June 10, for a mandatory meeting. He says it went well. "He seemed really genuine." Jarrell isn't sure what will come out of it, though. He'd like to see the people responsible for the war zone racism dishonorably discharged with no benefits.
Jarrell says he'll never let these sorts of things happen to him again—ever, and he doesn't want them to happen to another soldier. He likens the potential escalation to domestic violence calls he goes on in his civilian job as a deputy. "One time, she gets slapped in the face. The next time, she's punched. The next time, she's knocked out. And the next time, she's dead if nobody does anything."
He won't let that sit on his conscience, he adds.
"If I'm not willing to fight for myself, how can anybody expect me to fight for our country? If I can't even fight for me?"