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America's Child Soldier Problem

America's Child Soldier Problem

Congratulations: You have lived long enough to cringe at the bad decisions you were seduced, dared, bullied, inspired, or stoned enough to make as a teenager.

Thousands of America's children, however, are not so lucky. Almost 600,000 of America's 1,000,000 active and reserve soldiers enlisted as teens. The military lures these physiologically immature kids with a PR machine that would make Joe Camel proud.

While the age of legal and cultural adulthood can vary, science is now able to determine the physiological markers of maturity. A recent study headed by Jay Giedd of the National Institutes of Health using MRI scans shows that the brain of an 18-year-old is not fully developed, with the limbic cortex-brain structures, the cerebellum, and prefrontal cortex still undergoing substantial changes.

As of March 31, the U.S. military included 81,000 teenagers. Its 7,350 17-year-olds needed parental consent to enlist, and only this April they were all barred from battle zones.

But the military aims even lower, marketing itself to children as young as 13 with multimedia videos, school visits, and cold calls to teens' homes and cell phones. In Junior ROTC, kids get uniforms, win medals, fire real guns, and play soldier, while adults trained in psychological manipulation steer them toward the Army. The Army's JROTC website lists such motivating activities as "eating at concession stands."

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