Old Enough to Sign Up, but Not to Fight in Battle

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Times Staff Writer

The U.S. Army taught Henry Marte how to drive, march, shoot -- and to leave no one behind. But if his company makes the 25-mile trek across the Iraqi border before his birthday next month, it will go without him.

Like nine other soldiers sent to Kuwait by the 3rd Infantry Division, Marte is 17 -- too young to engage in combat under rules set by a 2002 global pact that forbids signatories to use children in combat. The problem dawned on division brass in late January, two months after Marte arrived in Kuwait with a platoon of combat scouts.

“Somebody said, ‘What are we going to do about all these 17-year-olds?’ ” a senior Army official said.


There is no official tally of how many soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines under the age of 18 are in the Persian Gulf region, said a spokesman for the U.S. Central Command. But if the Army’s about 20,000-strong 3rd Infantry Division is any guide, there might be dozens among the more than 120,000 personnel in or being deployed to the region as the likelihood of war grows. In all, the U.S. military has fewer than 3,000 members younger than 18.

“I feel useless,” said Marte, a Dominican Republic native who said he took the recruiting test within a week of his birthday last March 22 because he was angry about the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

“I wanted to serve my country. I felt good about that,” he said. “It’s not going to feel right, knowing my platoon is here, probably getting gassed or facing chemical attacks or getting shot.”

The belated recognition that the U.S. military was in danger of running afoul of the U.N. Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict keeps coveted combat patches from the hands of eager young recruits and creates problems for groups like Marte’s platoon of scouts. The unit is designed to head several miles ahead of the main combat force to spot the enemy and call in armor.

“We’ve already got personnel issues, and now we’ve got to find another scout,” said Sgt. Michael Anslinger, 36, who supervises Marte’s unit. “But as soon as he turns 18, he’s good to go.”

Army commanders and lawyers are still deciding whether the protocol requires them to send the boys home. They tentatively are preparing to treat them like female soldiers, who can perform support tasks but are not sent into direct ground combat -- although some female pilots perform perilous air missions such as flying Army Black Hawk helicopters and Air Force jets. Much of northern Kuwait has been closed off and declared a military zone, but women from the 3rd Division, dispersed in five camps, continue to serve near the Iraqi border.


Underage soldiers “will not serve in a capacity that will expose them to direct fire. However they may -- and this is the part being checked -- serve in a capacity to conduct support operations,” said Lt. Col. Eric Wesley, executive officer of the 3rd Infantry Division’s 2nd Brigade, the organizational parent of Marte’s unit.

Nevertheless, he added, “those soldiers are young men, fully prepared to fight.”

Many military analysts agree.

“If you allow them to enlist in the military, then the age requirement ought to be such that if they do enlist then they can go into war,” said Harlan Ullman, a military strategy expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.

The history of child soldiers goes back to antiquity. Tradition has it that David slew Goliath before his bar mitzvah. Macedonian King Alexander the Great was perhaps 16 when he began amassing his empire through conquest in the 4th century BC. French fighter Joan of Arc, who as a woman would be barred from combat in the U.S. Army at any age, was 16 when she took on the British.

In the United States rules remained loose from the Revolutionary War through World War II.

That war is fraught with tales of underage soldiers, but the official rules remained strict. Seventeen-year-olds could enlist only with a parent’s consent. Congressional Medal of Honor winner Audie Murphy and former President George H.W. Bush waited until their 18th birthdays.

The rules barring children from combat stem from the optional 2000 protocol of the United Nations’ 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child. The updated 2000 rules have been signed by 111 nations and ratified by 45, including the United States in December. The pact allows the recruiting of soldiers as young as 16 as long as they do not play a direct role in battle. Under the 1989 rules, the minimum age for children acting in combat was 15.

The inspiration for the protocol was conflicts such as the civil war in Sierra Leone, in which children as young as 8 were forcibly conscripted into combat, but the symbolic message of using a handful of underage soldiers would be problematic for the United States, human rights advocates said. The U.N. found that more than 300,000 child soldiers are serving in armed conflicts around the world.


The difference is largely one of perception, says Charles Moskos, a military sociologist at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. In World War II, when many students began work without graduating from high school, soldiering was just another job.

“Now, of course, our adolescence gets longer. You aren’t mature now until you’re out of college,” Moskos said. “We’re finding this extended adolescence now, which makes the 17-year-old recruit more of an anomaly than it would have been in times past.”

Human rights advocates, though, insist the rules should apply equally everywhere.

“The bottom line is that the United States can’t preach this standard to Africa and Asia if it doesn’t abide by it itself. Ultimately, the Pentagon decided very wisely that it had to abide by this standard,” said Tom Malinowski, Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, an activist organization that lobbied for the protocol. “It would look really, really bad if the United States allowed 17-year-olds to invade Iraq.”

There are so few underage American soldiers, he added, that “it’s a very, very small price to pay.”

Marte, nevertheless, said he wishes the Army had discovered the problem before sending him to Kuwait with a tightly knit group of soldiers.

Beside his bunk is an M-4 rifle with a grenade launcher. Beneath a calendar of bikini-clad hotel heiresses Paris and Nicky Hilton, a PlayStation magazine testifies to his fondness for video games.


“I can tell he’s 17,” said Sgt. Anslinger. “But he’s like a sponge. He picks up everything.”

The boy’s mother, Lucia Cepeda, is ecstatic over his new status. She signed the form allowing her son to enlist reluctantly, Marte said. When he was told his first deployment would be at the vanguard of a potential war, she urged him to feign illness, he said.

“I’m happy he’s not going,” Cepeda said by telephone from Jersey City, N.J., in Spanish translated by her daughter, Janet. “I only have one boy.”