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After the Fort Hood shootings, a Muslim American soldier battles on friendly ground

By William Wan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 24, 2010; A08

At 2 o'clock on a Monday morning, the sound of angry pounding sent Army Spec. Zachari Klawonn bolting out of bed.

THUD. THUD. THUD.

Someone was mule-kicking the door of his barracks room, leaving marks that weeks later -- long after Army investigators had come and gone -- would still be visible.

By the time Klawonn reached the door, the pounding had stopped. All that was left was a note, twice folded and wedged into the doorframe.

"F--- YOU RAGHEAD BURN IN HELL" read the words scrawled in black marker.

The slur itself was nothing new. Klawonn, 20, the son of an American father and a Moroccan mother, had been called worse in the military. But the fact that someone had tracked him down in the dead of night to deliver this specific message sent a chill through his body.

Before he enlisted, the recruiters in his home town of Bradenton, Fla., had told him that the Army desperately needed Muslim soldiers like him to help win the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Yet ever since, he had been filing complaint after complaint with his commanders. After he was ordered not to fast and pray. After his Koran was torn up. After other soldiers jeered and threw water bottles at him. After his platoon sergeant warned him to hide his faith to avoid getting a "beating" by fellow troops. But nothing changed.

Then came the November shootings at Fort Hood and the arrest of a Muslim soldier he'd never met: Maj. Nidal M. Hasan, who is charged with killing 13 people and injuring more than 30 in a massacre that stunned the nation. And with it, things only got worse.

Staring at the note in his hands that dark February morning, Klawonn trembled with panic and frustration. His faith, he believed, had made him a marked man in the Army. Now the November rampage had only added to his visibility.

Most painful slur

For Klawonn, this is what it means to be a Muslim soldier in the wake of the Fort Hood shootings: You hide your flowing jalebi robes in your closet. You watch your words and actions, censoring anything that could be interpreted as anger. You do so even as you try to ignore the names piled on you.

Sand monkey. Carpet jockey. Raghead. Zachari bin Laden. Nidal Klawonn.

But the hardest to shake off -- the name that cuts deepest, especially for a man who defied his family and community to become a U.S. soldier -- is this one:

Terrorist.

"To be looked upon by the people you serve with, by people you've trusted your life with, as the enemy," Klawonn says, sitting in his barracks a month after receiving the note. His voice trails off as he struggles to describe the anger he feels. "It's not right."

For months, Hasan has been locked up in a Texas jail, awaiting trial. Yet his presence lingers. Nearly everyone on base knows someone who was scarred physically or mentally by the violence of that November day. Nearly everyone has a story of where they were, when they first learned what happened and how they still struggle to understand it.

Klawonn was there, too, a slim stick of a man with muscles wiry from running marathons. His unit had just returned from Korea and was headed to the site of the shootings, a soldier processing center, when the killing began.

Locked down in their battery building, soldiers gleaned details through text messages, e-mail and news alerts. When the identity of the suspected shooter emerged -- a Muslim major -- the response was almost instant.

"Hey, Klawonn, your brother just shot them up."

"We better check Klawonn for weapons."

"Don't piss him off, he's gonna go Hasan on us."

Even the more well-meaning soldiers pressed him to explain a brutal act and extremist philosophy that he himself couldn't fathom. Instead, he denounced the shootings to anyone and everyone.

But as details of Hasan's life began trickling out -- his frustrations with the military, the harassment he endured, his odd medical presentations on Islam and efforts to make himself heard -- Klawonn secretly felt an understanding of at least some of the pressures Hasan faced.

When asked to describe this shred of understanding, Klawonn sits silent in his black Ford truck for a while, trying to find the right words. He says he wants to be careful and doesn't want what he says to be misunderstood. The deaths of fellow soldiers and the pain caused to their families weigh on his mind. So does the threatening note, the urgent pounding at his door.

"I don't sympathize with him. What he did was heinous, wrong, unforgivable," he says, pausing. "But when I read about the discrimination he experienced, I have to say, I can believe it. It doesn't excuse what he did, but it explains maybe a tiny part of it. He was a high-ranking officer. A major. At that level, you demand respect. . . . "

He doesn't finish this thought. It hangs in the air and slowly takes the shape of a question: What do you do when you don't get the respect you think you deserve?

Anti-Muslim climate?

The path of a Muslim soldier in the U.S. Army is often not an easy one.

There are 3,540 Muslims on active duty in the military, a tiny fraction of 1 percent of the nation's nearly 1.5 million active-duty personnel. Maj. Dawud Agbere, one of six Muslim Army chaplains, says he thinks the number is actually higher, because some Muslims avoid identifying their faith for fear of discrimination.

"It's frustrating, because most of it comes from a very small group on the fringes," says Agbere, who serves at Fort McPherson, Ga.

In the Army, he adds, Muslims can also face difficulties fasting during the holy month of Ramadan, performing Islam's five daily prayers or finding a Friday prayer service on base.

Muslim soldiers often talk about three seminal events that altered how they are perceived in the military. First came the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, which many feared would forever link Islam and terrorism in the minds of fellow troops. Then came the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which made Muslims in the military assets and Arabic speakers the target of recruiting programs. Then, on Nov. 5, 2009, came the Fort Hood massacre.

Afterward, Army Chief of Staff Gen. George W. Casey worried aloud about a backlash against Muslim troops. "As great a tragedy as this was, it would be a shame if our diversity became a casualty as well," he said on CNN.

The military doesn't have statistics on Muslim harassment since the shooting. But outside groups say they have seen evidence of a backlash.

Within 72 hours of the rampage, reports of discrimination against Muslims increased by 20 percent, according to the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, a watchdog group. "There were soldiers calling in crying on the phone," founder Mikey Weinstein said. "They were hearing things like, 'You can't be trusted,' 'Go back to your own country.' "

Within weeks, five Muslim soldiers at Fort Jackson, S.C., were accused of plotting to poison food at the base. The allegations were dropped, but the five were still discharged from active duty.

"Everything was fine until Fort Hood," says one of the soldiers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for the safety of his family in an Arabic-speaking country. "Then all of a sudden the hatred began, the accusations, suspicion."

At Fort Hood, commanders say they are still trying to find out who left the menacing note at Klawonn's door but declined to go into more detail while the incident is being investigated.

Base spokesman Christopher Haug responded to Klawonn's broader allegations about an anti-Muslim climate by saying, "Strong policies are in place that prohibit harassment and encourage equal-opportunity programs and procedures." He also provided interviews with two other Muslim soldiers at Fort Hood who said they agree with that assessment.

"I've never really encountered anything negative because I'm Arab or Muslim," said Capt. Rhana Kurdi, a Lebanese American who observes Ramadan but doesn't attend a mosque regularly or pray during the day because doing so interferes with her duties.

Sgt. Fahad Kamal, a Pakistani-born combat medic who does pray daily and attend mosque, says he worried about a backlash after the shootings, "but everyone -- all my commanders -- have been supportive. I haven't had any problems."

A father's footsteps

For Klawonn, the problems began almost the second he arrived for boot camp at Fort Sill, Okla.

He had enlisted behind his mother's back during his senior year of high school. He knew she'd object. When he called her from a recruiter's office in Tampa to tell her the news, she hung up on him. That night, as he walked into the living room, she collapsed in tears.

When she finally spoke, she laid into him with questions: Have you thought this through? What if you go to Iraq?

Friends and others at his mosque grilled him, too: Are you really going to kill fellow Muslims? Is this not haram, forbidden?

His decision to enlist had surprised everyone, even himself. For most of his life, there had been only school and golf. He had started playing with his father at age 7, and by the time he reached high school, he was competing in professional tournaments. College coaches began reaching out.

Then Klawonn's father was told he had cancer and died just weeks later. Golf suddenly seemed so trivial. Klawonn thought back to how his dad, a convert to Islam, had always talked about his five years in the Air Force. How he had enlisted straight out of his Kansas high school. How it had given his life purpose and molded him into the man he was.

He could be like his father: one of his country's proud defenders. There were Muslims to protect in the United States, just as there were in Iraq.

At boot camp, Klawonn didn't exactly hide his faith, but it wasn't something he advertised until that first Sunday, when his drill sergeant began calling out a long list of religious services: Baptist, Catholic, Pentecostal . . .

"Oh, yeah," the sergeant said with a laugh as he reached the end. "And let me know if any of you need Islamic services."

When Klawonn raised his hand, the sergeant, in disbelief, called him out of formation and pressed him in detail in front of about 400 other trainees. The slurs started soon after.

The worst humiliation came during a field exercise at the culmination of boot camp. For weeks, his commanders had sold it as the decisive test -- a scenario that involved capturing a high-value terrorist in Iraq and using him as an informant.

You, his commanders pointed to Klawonn, you're the terrorist.

"Not only did I not get this final, ultimate training they said was so important," he said, "all I got to do was be a terrorist, all day long. Unit after unit."

By his count, he has reported more than 20 complaints with the Army's equal opportunity officers, a number that Fort Hood and Army officials said they could not immediately disprove or verify because the complaints occurred at different bases and units. Complaining about harassment, Klawonn says, often intensified it.

At Fort Bliss in El Paso, he spoke up about his problems at a unit-wide equal opportunity training session. Two days later, in an episode that other soldiers saw, he walked into the barracks to find the Koran from his locker ripped apart and strewn across the laundry room floor.

At Fort Hood, after another string of incidents, he finally broke down, sobbing in the offices of his two direct commanders. Their solution -- confirmed by his current commanders at Fort Hood -- was to send him to Korea, selling it as a fresh start with a new unit in a foreign culture.

On his first day there, his sergeant responded to his request to pray and fast this way: "If I catch you praying during a duty day, I'm going to smoke the dog piss out of you. You understand me?"

Pfc. Chad Jachimowicz, a former roommate of Klawonn's, was being processed by the same sergeant and heard what he said.

"I mean, I understand this is the Army. And I swear as much as the next guy," said Jachimowicz, who has known Klawonn since basic training. "But the kind of [stuff] he gets, the things people say to him, it just pisses me off."

Klawonn's current roommate, Spec. Arnold Mendez, said: "The crazy part about all of this is, he's probably the best soldier we got. I've seen him run a marathon while fasting. I mean, that kind of commitment and smarts. When they told me what he's been through, I asked him, 'Why do you even want to be a soldier anymore?' "

A model soldier

In his 23 months in the Army, Klawonn has consistently earned among the highest physical training scores in his unit. He's at the top in weapons qualifications and is the only one in his battalion to be invited to try out for the Special Forces. But the thing that stands out most, says Capt. Christopher Arata, his commander, is Klawonn's impossibly clean record.

Not one reprimand. Never even late to a morning formation.

There had been an incident at high school where police discovered a gun in his brother-in-law's car, which Klawonn had parked at school. No charges were filed, and he said he voluntarily transferred to another school.

Klawonn now gets flak about his carefully regimented life: His 9 p.m. lights-out policy. His four-mile run every morning at 4:30. His protein-shake meals, along with meat, greens and little else.

When he's alone, however, he says his world sometimes feels as though it's collapsing.

He experiences bouts of mild depression. He has seen a psychologist six times since enlisting. After the note was left at his door and a similar one on his truck, he has had trouble sleeping. He lies in bed, trying to figure out who left the notes and why. How did the person know where he lives? Was it someone in the battalion? Is it just one guy or a group of them? Are they outside now, waiting on the other side of the door?

During 10 days of home leave last month, Klawonn finally told his family members about what he has endured.

They were livid. His mom called the base and, in broken English, berated anyone she could reach by phone. His older sister was more methodical, yelling her way up the chain of command. She could see what all the stress had done to him.

"He's quiet now. Not the happy-go-lucky guy anymore," says Meriem Klawonn. "Last time he visited, he said he just wanted to stay at my house and laid all the time on my couch."

While he was home, his mother heard about Muslims gathering for a lobbying event in Tallahassee and sent Klawonn to join them. What he saw there changed him.

"A guy got up and talked about how we have to stop acting like second-class citizens, like guests in this country," Klawonn says. "He said the only way to get your constitutional rights is to stand up for them. It was powerful, riveting."

He returned to Fort Hood this month a different man, no longer content to stay inside the lines of command with his complaints. He had the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim civil rights group in Washington, send a letter to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates. He also agreed to meet with a reporter from The Washington Post.

Commanders at Fort Hood -- quickly sensing a storm of controversy approaching -- called him in for a series of meetings. Officials at the base declined to comment in detail about what was discussed. But Klawonn said that at least two high-ranking officers told him to tread carefully.

This is Fort Hood, they said, where no one has forgotten the November shootings. You need to be cautious about the attention you're getting because you fit a similar mold as the suspect: Frustrated Muslim soldier, talking about Islam and the Army's lack of respect.

This only fired him up more. "You're looking at me as the problem?" Klawonn vented after one meeting. "What about the real problem: the soldiers threatening me, the ignorant slurs? What about the lack of cultural training?"

A future unfolding

On a cloudless afternoon last Thursday, the barracks were unusually quiet. While Klawonn's unit had the day off, he was in his room packing.

In the end, his commanders' response to the threatening note was to give him a housing allowance and encourage him to move off base for his own safety.

So from under his bed, he pulled two dark green duffel bags and began filling them with his military gear. Into an old shoebox, he carefully placed his letter from the Special Forces, two marathon medals and all his unit membership coins. He folded up a Moroccan flag that hung above his bed and placed it, along with his Koran, beside him in his pickup.

He still owes the Army two more years. And as he started up the truck, he vowed he would spend that time fighting for the rights of Muslims in the military. Beyond that, who knows. Perhaps he'll go to college, like his mom has always wanted. Maybe even return to golf.

For so long, he said, he felt as though he was living under a shadow. But now, as he drove toward the base exit, a sense of relief washed over him. For the first time in a long time, he saw possibility ahead -- a life waiting for him just outside the gates of Fort Hood.

Staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.

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