Vet alleges discrimination in Michigan National Guard

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Jason Awadi has spent most of his life — nearly 30 years — devoted to the military.

Enlisting in the Army within two months of graduating from Dearborn’s Fordson High School in 1986, he eventually joined the Michigan Army National Guard, gaining numerous ranks and accolades — including a Bronze Star for achievement during Operation Iraqi Freedom and becoming a strategist for the Army’s chief of staff, according to his resume.

This year, as the highest-ranking Iraqi-born senior officer in the U.S. military, Lt. Col. Awadi said he was declared eligible for promotion to full colonel and approved to become a division communication officer. But shortly before his scheduled start date this month, in a meeting with Major General Gregory Vadnais, the adjutant general of the Michigan National Guard, he heard a disappointing decision.

“The promotion went to a non-minority individual who was less qualified for the position and who in fact was not even previously considered,” the Arab-American Civil Rights League said in a statement. “Mr. Awadi suggested being promoted to G3, Director of Training. However, this was declared a ‘non-starter’ and instead a non-minority individual who was less qualified, and who was dealing with a DUI, thereby making him ineligible for promotion, was promoted instead.”

The league this week filed a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against the Michigan National Guard, alleging “a clear pattern and practice of discrimination in the Guard since Major General Vadnais assumed command” and that Awadi’s ethnicity factored into missing a promotion.

“Mr. Awadi, for almost 30 years now, has been putting his life on the life fighting for his country … yet he can’t basically be given the same treatment as his male white counterparts,” said attorney Nabih Ayad, board chairman with the Arab American Civil Rights League. “It’s fundamentally wrong, it’s unjust, it’s unprincipled.”

Awadi and the league allege that no minorities are currently in the Guard’s director-level positions; three who previously filled them were forced into retirement and replaced by non-minorities.

The pattern suggests discrimination and favoritism, they said — citing letters the Minority Active and Retired Military Improvement Committee has sent to state officials regarding about a dozen other officers, including African Americans, an Hispanic man and a white woman, who claimed unfair treatment under the adjutant general.

“Basically my promotion has been stifled by one individual… for the only reasons that I can think of is because of my race and ethnicity,” said Awad, who is assigned to the Pentagon and works at the National Defense University in Washington D.C. “We need leadership that progresses the cause of Michigan National Guard, supports the citizens of the state of Michigan and supports the citizens of this great nation in defending the homeland.”

In a statement a spokesman said was approved by Vadnais, the Michigan National Guard said: “The matter with LTC Jason Awadi is under investigation and the Adjutant General is prohibited from commenting as a result. The Michigan National Guard takes pride in being a diverse organization and that pride is evidenced by our presence in 43 communities around Michigan and an established history of having minorities in leadership positions. The Adjutant General maintains a robust equal opportunity program and will personally ensure that this matter is looked into and given the due process it deserves. ... ”

Awadi, who recently returned from assessing current military operations in Iraq, said others have complained about alleged bias in the Guard but fear of reprisals kept them from speaking out publicly.

“I’ve heard African Americans officers tell me: ‘This is 1960 all over again,’ ” he said. “This is staggering when you hear minority officers say this.”

Much is at stake in the push for changing the culture, Awadi said. “If we are trying to recruit the future soldiers and airmen for the Michigan National Guard to defend our state, to defend our homeland, we need to be able to create a diverse environment where they can prosper, they can get promoted, they can feel that they’re a part of something. Right now, it’s not happening.”