Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Blood Diamonds and Blood Oil: By Retired US Army Reserve Colonel Ann Wright

Child and teen soldiers in Sierra Leone and the US.

We have a myth that we can transform children and kids in their teens into men and women by sending them to war. If they fight young, we give them adulthood. Children and kids who fight eventually do grow into adults - adults with lifetimes ahead of them filled with emotional pain and anger. Is that what we want for our children and for our country?

Last week at Fort Hood, Texas, I attended the court-martial of US Army Specialist Mark Wilkerson. The night before his second deployment to Iraq, he went AWOL for 18 months. You learn a lot about a person's life during court proceedings. I learned that Mark joined Junior ROTC (high school Reserve Officer Training Corps) when he was 15, a sophomore in high school. He said that in grade school he was not inclined toward the military, but his grandmother showed him photo albums of his father, grandfather and great-grandfather in uniform. Joining the military was his family tradition. As a junior in high school, Mark signed up for delayed entry into the military. One month after graduating from high school in May 2002 at age 17, Mark was in basic training in the US Army. In December 2002 he got married and in February 2003 he deployed to Kuwait and on into Iraq. Mark served in Iraq for one year and returned to Fort Hood in March 2004.

Upon his return to the United States, he began having nightmares. He had a full-blown case of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from the sights, sounds and actions in Iraq. After his one year in Iraq, Mark decided he could not kill others; he submitted an application for Conscientious Objector (CO) status in March 2004. In July 2004 he was told his unit would return to Iraq in January 2005. His CO application was denied in November 2004.

In January 2005, the night before Mark's unit was to depart for Iraq, he and his wife closed their apartment, canceled their cell phone accounts and left Fort Hood. Eighteen months later, in August 2006, after a press conference at Camp Casey in Crawford, Texas, Mark voluntarily returned himself to military control at Fort Hood . During the press conference and before turning himself in, Mark said: "I made the difficult decision to go absent without leave (AWOL) for political, spiritual and personal reasons. I am not willing to kill, or be killed, or do anything I consider morally wrong, for reasons I don't believe in." Mark was tried by a US military general court-martial on February 22, 2007, and was convicted of missing military movement and being absent without leave. He was sentenced to seven months' imprisonment and a bad conduct discharge.

At the same time as I was attending Mark's court-martial, I was reading "A Long Way Home: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier" by Ishmael Beach, a book that describes his experience as a child soldier in Sierra Leone. I also had seen recently the movie "Blood Diamond," a film about rebels in Sierra Leone. The rebels captured young Sierra Leoneans and made them kill family, neighbors and others in bloody initiation rites, then kept them in the rebel family through techniques for developing loyalty to a group whose mission was to kill those designated by their superiors. Thousands of five- to twenty-year-olds were used by the rebels in the war for control of the diamond fields in Sierra Leone.

I was the deputy ambassador at the US Embassy in Freetown, Sierra Leone, when the rebels took over the capital of the country in 1997 and led the evacuation of over 2,500 persons from the violence of Freetown. I returned to Sierra Leone the following year when the embassy reopened. I interviewed many victims of the machete rampages of the child soldiers. I visited the child/kid soldier rehabilitation centers in the Freetown area.

Using the youth of one's country to fight old men's wars is the history of most countries. Child soldiers in Sierra Leone helped rebel forces to wreak havoc in villages, creating instability that enabled the rebels to gain control of diamond fields. Teen soldiers in the United States are recruited and put in uniform at age 15 (JROTC) to fight at age 17 for oil in Iraq. Some child soldiers in Sierra Leone escaped their rebel "family" and the violence in overrun villages by running far into the jungle and eventually finding refuge from the violence. Some teen soldiers in the United States escaped their military "family" and the violence in Iraq by going AWOL in the United States or in Canada. Those from both countries who stayed with their "families" remained because of "family ties and bonds" formed by either rebel or national indoctrination and by steel - either machetes or guns.

I would argue that the result is much the same. Young men and women in Sierra Leone and in the United States are filled with lifetimes of nightmares from actions they have committed or from sights they have seen in war. Killing by machete or killing by guns results in the same emotional issues for those who have committed the acts. In Sierra Leone, child soldiers eventually were helped in internationally operated rehabilitation centers. In the United States, teen soldiers have gone to US military or Veterans Administration hospitals for assistance. Child soldiers from Sierra Leone are learning to deal with why they burned huts, and why they chopped off arms and legs. Teen soldiers from the United States are dealing with why one busted down doors and terrorized families, and why they sent blistering streams of lead into buildings and homes.

Having been in the US military for 29 years, I understand the need for a professional military. However, Junior ROTC should end in our high schools and the recruitment of high school students in the schools must stop. The United States should not relegate its youth to a future of nightmares and emotional damage from wars. We do not need child/teen soldiers in the United States.

Children and teens should not have to fight for diamonds or for oil.

Ann Wright served 29 years in the US Army and US Army Reserves, retiring as a colonel. She was a US diplomat for 16 years and served in Nicaragua, Grenada, Somalia, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Micronesia, Afghanistan and Mongolia. She resigned from the US Department of State in March 2003 in opposition to the war in Iraq.


“If the world is upside down the way it is now, wouldn’t we have to turn it over to get it to stand up straight?” - Eduardo Galeano

A nation of sheep will beget a government of wolves. -- Edward R. Murrow