Army Spc. Zachari Klawonn is exactly the kind of soldier the military says it needs. He's the son of Kansas-born father and a Moroccan mother, raised as a Muslim and able to speak Arabic. He's been recognized for his exemplary performance in the Army, and his commanders even identified him as a candidate for Special Forces selection, a road to joining the elite Army unit.
"I really do think he's the best soldier in our battalion, hands down," said Spc. Arnold Mendez, a friend of Klawonn's.
"Anytime somebody tells him what he can do, he does it," said another friend, Spc. Daniel Arndt.
Klawonn, 20, has earned the praise of his fellow soldiers and his commanders, but he said there are others in the military who have offered nothing but abuse. Since he enlisted, Klawonn has perceived a pattern of harassment for his religious beliefs -- name calling, threats and worse from both his peers and from officers. The abuse has felt so severe, Klawonn has questioned whether he can endure.
Born in Morocco, Klawonn grew up in Bradenton, Fla. He was a standout on his high school golf team, with thoughts of trying to go pro, but his plans changed after his dad's unexpected death from cancer. At age 15, Klawonn had lost the man he thought of as his best friend and was searching for a larger purpose in his life.
His dad was an Air Force veteran who had told his son fond stories of his time in the service. Klawonn began to consider joining the military.
"I was excited to, I guess, defend America," he said. "Do that, we call it, hoo-ah-hoo-ah stuff. ... It seemed very honorable and admirable. It was something I could be happy about and say, 'OK, I've done something very good.'"
Against the wishes of his mother, Klawonn enlisted in the U.S. Army in July 2008.
As soon as he started basic training, Klawonn said, the discrimination began.
With Klawonn standing alongside 400 new recruits, he said, a drill sergeant read out loud a list of religious services, and when he got to the Islamic service sarcastically asked if anyone planned to attend.
"I raised my hand, and he was shocked," recalled Klawonn. "Then, he called me out of formation, took me to the front and basically made a mockery of it."
In the final, most important exercise of basic training, Klawonn's trainers picked him out of all the soldiers to play the role of a terrorist. He was shocked, as were his friends.
"They wrapped some cloth around his head," remembered Pfc. Chad Jachimowicz. "We'd have to put him down and have guns drawn on him. ... I had to shoot my own battle buddy, and I had a real problem with that."
Another time, Jachimowicz said he was with Klawonn when they walked into the laundry room in their barracks on base. According to their account, they found pages ripped out of a book and scattered on the ground. Picking up one of the pages, Klawonn saw the text and realized it was his Koran. Someone apparently had stolen the book from his room and desecrated it.
"It's aggravating to see how they treat him on a daily basis," said Jachimowicz.
"One of my first sergeants asked me loudly, 'You're not a part of any terrorist organization or anything, are you?'" recalled Klawonn. "I was like, 'Whoa, are you kidding me?'"