When Jarred Came Marching Home–The Military and Autism–a Tale of Enlightenment

Many know me as a woman of resolve. In fact, I think it would be safe to say that some even know me as a force of nature. There are even some business owners that I’m quite confident, would close up shop early should they see me drive up. Yes, I guess you could say that in some circles, I am revered and some reviled–but if you ask me, I’d prefer to evoke SOME response. It’s like that, when you live your life (somewhat) in the public eye. I am happy to report, though, that I’ve never been a “person of interest” to law enforcement (yet) and my name does NOT appear on any “no fly” lists (that I’m aware of) and I certainly haven’t had a restraining order filed against me (worth mentioning).

I, however, make no guarantees that anybody is getting out alive—or at least un-maimed–should you mess with any of my kids. Especially, when that particular kid is my son, Jarred.

We are blessed to have a son with Autism in our family and Jarred continues to make us proud every day. Having a child with autism is not without its challenges, but I assure you, the rewards are abundant and well worth the occasional strife! But first, I’d like to give you some background on this remarkable young man that without fail–provides a unique view of the world from which we learn many of our life lessons.

Jarred joined “the fam” last October when he and his biological father decided to make a permanent move to Arizona from Georgia to provide better educational and medical resources for Jarred. And Jarred arrived laden with “emotional” baggage in addition to the physical ones he was toting. This was readily visible to me as this gangly, dark-eyed, pale, undernourished boy presented himself to me and announced he wasn’t staying and was only visiting–for Georgia was his home.

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His father J.B. and I had been in a long-distance relationship for a year and a half. Being a single father to a Special Needs child was difficult for J.B.—on top of picking up the pieces after Jarred’s mother suddenly up and left for some perceived “greener pastures”.

Our first hurdle was applying for medical resources from the state and Social Security benefits. Jarred had been deemed to have Autism since he started Kindergarten and I felt it was time to avail him of the social services he so rightfully deserves.

And then, there was the “mother” of all the hurdles to jump…Jarred must get an education…and he was having NONE of it! He had been removed from the Georgia school system due to their lack of resources for dealing with Jarred’s challenges and the ongoing bullying he had experienced. Consequently, he had not been to a formal school for several years.

So it was under his great protest that we took our son and presented him to his new High School. He was miserable as he sat in the Registration Office and upon leaving the school after he was enrolled, he had a complete “melt down” in the parking lot and ranted how horrible it was that we were forcing him to go to school—WHY WERE WE DOING THIS TO HIM?

I am pleased to report that it took exactly one day of formal High School for Jarred to thank his father for letting him go to school…whew!

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Jarred settled into his Special Education classes and quickly adapted to the routine. I don’t mean to make it sound like it was a walk in the park–hardly. But he thrived under the tutelage of caring teachers. However, Jarred’s main focus was on the students in the JROTC uniforms—and he was bent set that he would someday wear that uniform.

Let me share that Jarred is a huge fan of the United States Military. Heck, his Daddy served our country proudly as an Army Medic and had also been a member of JROTC back in High School (South Cobb High School). If you ask Jarred, he probably could tell you everything there is to know about WWII…facts that would astound a History Professor. Jarred has hopes for a military career someday and we encourage any/all of his dreams and assure him that with hard work and dedication, he will find his place in the world and flourish. We are a family that does not come from a place of “NO”.

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Jarred finished off his First Semester of High School and made amazing strides. We had been told that since he started the school year late, he would not get credit for the semester. Imagine our pride when the school called and said he would get full credit due to his dedication and effort? And included in his courses for the Second Semester would be his beloved JROTC!

I was a little apprehensive about the rigors of this course and how the others would react to Jarred and his obvious challenges. But Jarred thrived in his new responsibilities and lived for Wednesdays when he could wear his JROTC uniform to school. Every Tuesday night, father and son would polish the brass hardware for the uniform and shine the patent leather shoes so he would be sure to pass inspection and be a source of pride for his unit.

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Jarred had his eyes on a Lieutenant ranking. And here’s where his unique view on the world came in—apparently, it takes 50 merits to obtain this level. The way Jarred saw it–one can be awarded 20 merits for saving a life. It would only stand to reason that if he saved two and a half lives, he was there! My mother suggested that he hang around the pool in our retirement community and the opportunity may present itself.

Yes, all was going swimmingly for Jarred. I think it would be safe to say, that not only others in the JROTC embraced Jarred, but he charmed the school with his politeness and sweet nature. In fact, the faculty that regularly worked with Jarred would marvel his unique way of expressing very profound observances. These came to be known as “Jarredisms”. We settled into a routine and Jarred flourished and woke with excitement to go to his school each and every day…but especially on Wednesdays, when he could wear his uniform with pride. Jarred BELONGED.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how freakishly in love we are with Jarred’s High School (especially the Special Education Department of Skyline High School). As a former teacher myself, I don’t think I’ve met as dedicated and “plugged in” teachers as these. Jarred sneezes…I hear about it and they will share every nuance of that particular sneeze. For these hard-working professionals, his father and I are truly grateful!

And then one day we got “the call”…

Apparently, there had been an incident on campus involving our “soldier boy” and a representative of the United States military. One of Jarred’s teachers from his High School contacted me and shared that someone representing the local Armed Forces Recruitment Office had been visiting on campus with a “Flight Simulator”. Our military-enamored son’s “Spidey Senses” were on high alert and justlikethat, he presented himself to the soldier to immerse himself in the good ole Red, White, and Blue.

And this is where the “feel good” moment took a nose dive–Jarred inquired of the Recruitment Officer, “Can people with autism serve in the military?” The query was met with a swift response of “No”.

To say that this dream-dashing retort by the military representative was a kill-joy, would be an understatement. However, Jarred had not said a word to us regarding this experience. We wondered why?

Apparently, Jarred had reported this interchange with the soldier to one of his teachers and (I am not surprised), this teacher did some fact-checking. He found that admission to the military is on a case by case basis. I already knew this to be true, as I was aware of two individuals that either have or are currently serving our country with Austism (one is currently piloting Drones—the other is a veteran in the legal profession and a member of MENSA). Still, I “Googled” the question “Can people with autism serve in the military?” I was astounded by the answers I discovered! Most said “No”, however, none of these responses were from any actual decision-makers in the military…except for ONE.

My eyes fell upon a submission by a guy that simply called himself “Army Doc”. And here is what HE had to say on the subject…

“I can comment about the Army and can only assume that the other services will have similar standards. In the military everything goes by standards which are written guidelines. For the Army the written regulation is AR 40-501–the standards for medical fitness for the Army. Find the regulation on the internet and read it. Read Chapter 2-27. If you meet this standard whether you have autism or not then you can join. Hope this helps. Serving your country is admirable, the country needs more like you, don’t give up, there are waivers for everything.”

And in response to the many “naysayers” in one of the discussion threads regarding this particular subject, a soldier replied–

“To say that a person with autism cannot join the military is completely incorrect.  I’ve been in the army for 7 years and known many autistic soldiers. Autism is not a disqualifying factor if you can perform the job you sign up for. I challenge anyone to disprove that statement.”

And so I called the High School Principal’s office and spoke to his secretary. She was most appalled at the scenario as it had played out with Jarred. I requested a conference at the earliest convenience with the Principal and a representative of the armed forces’ unit that was on campus that particular day.

The office was quick to respond. An Assistant Principal called and soon had me on the phone with the school liaison with the military, who asked that we question Jarred and see what he remembered about the soldier who told him “no”. I said “Don’t be surprised if he remembers EVERYTHING…he has an amazing mind.”

And so, his father and I awaited Jarred’s return from school to ask what had happened—and why he didn’t tell us? Jarred arrived home after his Father picked him up from the bus–and it was time for a family conference.

When asked about “the incident”, Jarred looked down and said “I don’t want to talk about it.” He followed up with “I was very sad and I died a little inside.”

When pressed for details on the soldier who told him “no”, Jarred did not miss a beat…

He relayed all the information with great recall and detail. He not only knew the soldier’s ranking, he also knew the Airborne Division–and then correctly spelled his last name!

And so I called the military representative that I had spoken with and shared this information. He marvelled at Jarred’s memory! He sincerely apologized to me and stated that this soldier was new to the recruiting office and had simply spoke” out of turn”. But I was on a “mission from God” and I knew that how I handled this matter next could possibly turn an unfortunate experience for Jarred into a life lesson on positive resolution.

So when I was asked what I would like to do to make this up to Jarred, I did not hesitate to request a meeting at the Recruitment Office and give Jarred a “voice”. I asked if Jarred could meet with the soldier that said “no” and shake his hand? I went on to ask if we could get a photo of Jarred with some representatives of the military for Jarred’s bedroom wall. My thought process was to create a memory that would be a happy one for my son—and each and every time he looked at that photo, perhaps it would erase the pain he had felt when his dream of military service was dashed and replace it with a message of hope.

And so it was—Uncle Sam rolled out the Red Carpet for Jarred! He proudly wore his JROTC uniform to the Recruitment Office and faced the soldier and told him “It’s alright, I forgive you. Sometimes we all say the wrong things.” And our son extended his hand to him and the soldier shook it warmly—and I could see relief in both their eyes.

Jarred was presented with a certificate naming him an “Honorary Recruiter” for the United States Army and given a slew of military souvenir items (water bottle, T shirt, ball cap, etc.). And it was with a swell of pride that our son posed for a picture with his new “comrades”. I am quite confident that these soldiers have been impacted by our son and his sweet nature and honest face…along with the reverence he showed toward the soldiers and pride in just sharing their space.

As a side note, Jarred wasted no time living up to the assignment that was bestowed upon him. At his very next dental appointment, he gave a very persuasive argument to his attending dentist as to why military service was something to be considered!

Dental Visit

And it was at the end of his first year at the JROTC ceremony that Jarred received a National Recognition, presented to him for his “spirit”. His peers cheered loudly as Jarred stood and shook the representative of the military’s hand, a little sheepish and truth be told, quite terrified! Both his father and I fought back tears so as not to embarrass our son.

Jarred's National Award

I don’t know what lies ahead for our son. But I can assure you, that he will be a force of nature like his mom…albeit, a quieter one. But make no mistake–our world is a better place for my son’s unique view of it. And from where I am sitting, our government could take a lesson from the peaceful resolution that Jarred demonstrated. Sometimes, an extended hand of friendship and a kind word of understanding can change a negative perception—on both sides.

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Update: June, 2015-We had made the decision as a family to relocate to Georgia this summer. We had Jarred fly out ahead of time and stay with his Grandmother (with his father accompanying him) to circumvent the long ride for Jarred in the moving truck. After his Dad returned and we were in the throes of final packing, we received a call from Jarred’s Grandmother…Jarred had truly saved her life that morning with the Heimlich Maneuver! She had taken a large potassium pill and it lodged in her throat and found herself unable to breathe. She knew that calling 911 was not going to help as she couldn’t speak and they would never make it in time. Jarred was fast asleep, but lept into action as his Grandmother stumbled to his bedside in obvious distress. Jarred acted swiftly and with confidence…and saved the day!

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