Jared Guinther is 18. Tall and lanky, he will graduate from 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 Portland strip mall and complimented 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 had not only enlisted, but 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.
Tracking by the Pentagon shows that complaints about recruiting improprieties are on pace to again reach record highs set in 2003 and 2004. Both the active Army and 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.
Paul Guinther, 57, labors 50- to 60-hour weeks as a painter-sandblaster at a tug and barge works. His wife, Brenda, 50, has the graveyard housekeeping shift at a medical center.
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.
School and medical records show that Jared spent years in special-education classes. It was only as 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.
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. They thought it had worked until five weeks ago. Brenda said she called Jared on his cell phone to check what time he would 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.
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 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.
"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.' "
The Guinthers are not political activists. They supported the Iraq war in the beginning but have started to question it as fighting drags on.
Jared doesn't understand the dangers or the details of what he has done, the Guinthers said.
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, his parents 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."
Filed under: War in Iraq, military recruitment, autism