Sunday, April 17, 2005
Veterans of Future Wars
In an effort to increase its ranks for coming wars, the U.S. military is recruiting - and paying - children as young as 14 years old for future combat duty.
By Tim Schmitt
Colin Hadley spends most of his days after school skateboarding or playing Halo II on his new X-Box with friends. He sleeps until noon or later on weekends and rarely, if ever, does any schoolwork outside the classroom, where he pulls down solid C's and a few D's - just enough to get by. He's the typical 15-year-old American boy: cocksure in demeanor, certain the world revolves around him, and confident that life is going to serve him well.
And he's the new "target of interest" for U.S. military recruiters who've begun signing up boys as young as 14 for military service, which they will be required to begin when they turn 18.
"It's a sweet deal," says Hadley, who boasts that he bought his X-Box with the enlistment bonus he received after signing up last month. "I don't have to do hardly anything for three years, but they're paying me now.
"Hadley's windfall was made possible under the Pentagon's "pre-enlistment program" that was quietly authorized last month in an effort to ensure the number of military troops available for combat remains steady for at least the next few years. The conditions of the program are simple. A young man who is at least 14 years old and has a parent's permission can enlist in the U.S. military, but will not report to duty until he reaches the legal age. The future soldier agrees to remain "physically and mentally fit" and to undergo annual physical examinations at the Military Entrance and Processing Station (MEPS). In exchange, the government provides him a $10,000 sign-on bonus that is paid in yearly installments of $2,500 until the age of 18, at which time any remaining balance is given to the recruit.
And while waiting to report to duty at 18, the new recruits are paid a modest stipend and allowed access to funds granted veterans for education. Because combat duty is a requirement of enlistment, the program is currently open only to young men, and it has been authorized for only three years, so Congress will have to renew the program again in 2008.
"The program is still in the early stages, but we're certain it will prove a valuable tool for the U.S. military while providing future soldiers with much-needed financial assistance so they can start planning for the future now," says Lt. James Pederson, a spokesman for the U.S. Pentagon's Office of Recruitment and Retention.
With the war in Iraq still taking a toll, and potential conflicts on the horizon in Iran, North Korea, Syria, the Philippines and elsewhere, the U.S. military is faced with a shortage of manpower not seen in decades.The Army National Guard met only 56 percent of its recruiting quota in January, and the Marine Corps fell short of its recruiting goal that month for the first time since 1995. The Army missed its February recruiting goal by 27 percent, and the numbers for March and April are not expected to improve. And though the Bush administration has explored the idea of re-instituting the draft, the idea has been met with such widespread resistance that doing so seems unlikely.
So the mighty U.S. military has been left with declining rolls during a time of war when the need for warm bodies is at a premium. The result has been a loosening of enlistment requirements and the offering of more incentives to fill the void.
"More and more of our troops are choosing to leave service when their enlistment period comes to an end, and the number of new recruits entering military service is at a 20-year low," says Pederson. "We've had to become more and more creative in our efforts to fill the ranks of departing soldiers, and that's meant reaching out to new target groups and making them offers they simply can't refuse.
"Currently, the National Guard is offering enlistment bonuses of up to $15,000 for new members, who may also receive matching funds to be used as a down payment on a new home. In addition, the Army announced last week that it is raising the maximum age for new recruits by five years, up to 39. It has also increased by 33 percent the number of recruiters on the street and has developed a sales pitch to appeal to parents who otherwise might not approve of their child's enrollment.
"We're going to appeal to the patriotism of parents," says Pederson. "Parents have to understand that their children are needed in a time of war and that sacrifices need to be made for the good of the nation."
Tom Hadley recognizes this need, and when he heard of the pre-enlistment program, convinced his son that it was in his best interest to sign up.
"There aren't a lot of opportunities for poor or working class kids in this country right now, so this program is a blessing," says Tom. "Colin can spend the next couple years just being a kid and save a few bucks for school, and after his four years of military service he'll come out ahead. I'm proud of my son for making such a wise decision and standing up for his country.
"Carla Bloomer agrees with Tom that poor children have few options, but rankles at the suggestion that selling military service to a child is an answer to the problem. And she didn't even know this was an issue until she learned a recruiter had talked to her 14-year-old son and convinced him to sign up.
"He's not smart enough to make a decision like that at this point in his life," she says. "That recruiter came in and played to his teenager's sense of invincibility and know-it-all attitude and convinced him this was the best thing for him to do. In the end, I had to give in and let him sign up."
After he signed the paperwork, however, Bloomer took a closer look at the contract and was even more disturbed by what she learned. The small print reveals that the $350 monthly stipend her son receives is actually an advance on his $250 per month combat pay and $100 per month hardship duty pay."What they've done is guarantee that my son will go to war when he's old enough," says Bloomer. "They're paying him for it now so he can't back out later."
Her son, Richard, admits he wasn't aware of the source of the payments he's receiving, but adds that he's not worried about it either.
"At least I'm getting paid now," he says. "Hell, I might get killed my first week out and then I'd get nothing. At least I can enjoy it now."
But it may not be that simple. According to Pederson, the money paid out in the pre-enlistment program is an advance on pay, which will need to be paid back if the soldier is unable to serve in combat for any reason.
"If a recruit is incapacitated or killed before two years of service have been completed, half of the funds paid to him pre-service will need to be returned to the U.S. government," he says. "That's still very generous, considering we could ask for reimbursement of funds for the entire period of incomplete service.
"But this provision has not sat well with some citizens who have petitioned the government to repeal this section. U.S. Rep. Dennis Caster introduced a bill in the last session that would make any repayment of the pre-paid funds strictly voluntary, but it never made it out of committee.
And once these kids sign up under this program, they are committed to serving in a combat zone and face strict punishment if they refuse duty when they come of age. If any refuse to show up for duty they will be charged with desertion in a time of war and be subject to military court martial, which, theoretically at least, could result in the death penalty.
"We expect our recruits of all ages to honor their commitment," says Pederson. "We are expending resources to guarantee their future service and will do whatever is necessary to make sure they live up to their pledge."
The very concept of the pre-enlistment program is frightening to those who've spent years in active opposition to violence and militarization. Katherine Beck, Iowa coordinator for the National Peace and Justice Alliance (NPJA) for the past 15 years, says this program is indicative of the Bush administration's refusal to consider peaceful alternatives to war.
"There is no question that this president wants to keep the country in a state of war, and there seems to be no one willing to stop him - not Congress, not the U.S. Senate, no one," she says. "We're now paying children - poor children mainly - to give up their childhood and commit to fighting, killing and, possibly, dying in future wars. That is nothing short of pure evil."
But Pederson says the pre-enlistment program is really not that much of a change from recruitment methods that have been in place for the past few years. With passage of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002, the military was guaranteed access to the nation's public schools for recruiting purposes.
According to the Office of Recruitment and Retention, the U.S. military was denied access to public schools on 19,228 occasions in 1999. But since the passage of No Child Left Behind, these schools have no choice but to let them in.
"This allows us to send our professionals into schools to share information about the benefits of military service to young people, just as colleges and other businesses are allowed, encouraged even, to visit with students and do the same thing," says Pederson.
But Karen Foss, the mother of a 14-year-old at Lincoln High School, says the intensity of the recruiting focused on her son took her by surprise. "I don't think most parents realize how much time and energy they (recruiters) spend on these kids," she says. "I was shocked when I found out that they were calling my son at home and visiting with him outside the classroom without my knowledge."
And Foss is quick to point out that she comes from a family with a long history of military service (her grandfather was at Iwo Jima and her dad earned two purple hearts in Vietnam) and that she's a registered Republican who supported the war in Iraq.
"This is just too much, though," she adds. "These are children they're after." Staff Sgt. Gary Lindell, an Army recruiter working out of the office on Army Post Road says it's common practice for recruiters to reach out to school-age kids wherever they can.
"The initial meeting with kids in the schools is just the first step in a long process," says Lindell. "We take advantage of the access we've been granted to build a relationship with students and then build upon that."
Lindell has taken small groups of students out for pizza and met with them over sodas and snacks at an area coffee shop frequented by teens. He uses these meetings to tell the kids about the advantages of military service.
"It's important that they know they can make a real difference in the world," he says. "I tell them about the opportunity to travel, the chance to earn money for college, the medical benefits and the feeling of pride that comes with serving your country. It's an important tool to reach these kids before they are influenced by outside forces who lack understanding of the U.S. military's worldwide goals," he adds. "These kids understand the need for a strong military and haven't had their thoughts corrupted by unpatriotic ideas."
Foss' son, 14-year-old Tyler, and his best friend, 15-year-old Matthew Biehn, met with Lindell several times but declined to sign on despite the benefits Lindell told them about. Last month, Lindell arranged another meeting with the boys at a South Side coffee shop and brought along fellow recruiter Sgt. Lindsey Reas. After meeting with Reas several times Tyler decided to join the pre-enlistment program, and once he did, Biehn signed on as well.
"I didn't even know the recruiter was talking to him until he told me he wanted to sign up," says Karen. "His father, whom I divorced several years ago, agreed to let Tyler join, so there was nothing I could do to stop him. I'm fairly confident that they brought a young woman recruiter in to close the deal with these boys. They're in the throes of puberty and would pretty much do whatever a pretty girl asks them to. I just don't think it's fair."
Reas refused to entertain that notion and said the final incentive for these two boys came when she pointed out the number of comic books $350 per month could buy. And in fact, when Tyler and Biehn agreed to discuss their enlistment, they arranged a meeting at a comic store where they promptly dropped more than $50 each for new releases."They give us a lot of money for doing nothing," says Tyler. "If we have to go to war later, it won't be that bad anyway. She (Reas) gave us a copy of an Army video game that lets you see what it's really like. If you know what you're doing, you probably won't get hurt or killed."
The game Tyler refers to is a free one available at http://www.goarmy.com/ that the army has developed as a recruiting tool. The site boasts that the game allows players to "Experience realistic training missions and see what it takes to become part of America's Army team." Local recruiters will also provide free copies of the game on CD to anyone interested, especially the young boys who generally play such games.
Despite Karen's concerns, the recruiters are within their rights to talk to the kids without parental permission or knowledge. Section 9528 of the No Child Left Behind Act enables recruiters to gain personal information about students - home addresses, phone numbers, extracurricular activities - from school records. The only time parental involvement is required is when it comes time to sign the papers.
"Yeah, we talk to the kids," says Lindell. "But it's not like we're kidnapping them and making them do this. They make an informed decision based on the facts we give them."
In the short time the program has been in place, at least 10,763 young men aged 14-16 have joined the pre-enlistment program. Of those, at least 94 hail from Iowa, which boasts the second highest rate of participation (per-capita) in the nation, falling only behind Mississippi.
These new recruits have begun chatting on the Internet and sharing thoughts on their upcoming service on message boards and have started an informal organization of members called VFW - Veterans of Future Wars.
It's an accurate title, too. Pederson says these new recruits will be required, after completing boot camp and two weeks of additional training, to serve in combat zones. The very nature of the war on terror, he explains, ensures that the United States will be in a state of armed conflict with some enemy or another for many years to come."We will most definitely be at war with someone for the next decade, at least," he says. "And our recruitment programs are an effort to ensure the safety of all American citizens and to protect the American way of life."
Beck, director of the NPJA, disagrees, and says this is indicative that we as a country have reached a level and acceptance of war that may be difficult to turn away from.
"That parents are allowing and encouraging their children to sign up under this program is troubling and shows a real lack of understanding of what's happening in the world," she says. "By committing our children to wage war, we are committing our society to a path of violence and oppression and militarism that will be impossible to sustain and that will further alienate us from the rest of the world."
Still, Pederson says the program is a necessary step.
"Is it unfortunate that we have to recruit children to serve in battle? Absolutely," he says. "But most countries have had children soldiering for centuries. We're just leveling the playing field."