V. Fatalities and Life-Threatening Fallout from Our War on Terror

As this Article has explained, substandard schooling and educational push-out practices work to negatively impact poor and minority youth. The messages the school systems send not only diminish self-esteem and self-worth, but they lead to such young people being disengaged from the educational process and potentially ensnared by the criminal justice system. This widespread phenomenon, also known as the school-to-prison pipeline, works to seriously reduce the life chances of at-risk youth, has been well documented in recent years. What has been less well documented is the fallout of our actual War on Terror and its impact on at-risk teenagers. This Article seeks to document how our recruitment of young people for military service has not only further reduced their life chances, but actually taken the lives of some of our nation's most vulnerable children.

According to U.S. military statistics, as of February 6, 2012, approximately 6351 U.S. soldiers lost their lives in operations in Iraq or Afghanistan. Of those who died, over 1700 were twenty-one years of age or younger, representing well over one quarter of all fatalities. The Washington Post's interactive webpage, Faces of the Fallen, indicates that approximately 400 individuals in this group were just teenagers. Indeed, one estimate provides that [t] roops aged 17-19 have a death risk 4.4 times higher than troops age 50 and higher.

Relying in part on such statistics, some have suggested we need not worry about our War on Terror exposing minorities to greater danger than others because it appears that the proportion of minorities serving in the Middle East may be less than the proportion in the general population. But other researchers indicate that Hispanics have a death risk that is 18% higher than non-Hispanics in the military. In addition, some statistics show that when accounting for race and age, African-Americans have been disproportionately placed at risk. As of 2005--even before 9/11--[i] n the enlisted force, African Americans were overrepresented among active duty accessions (20 percent) relative to the 18-24 year old civilian population (14 percent). It is hard to believe that poor teens are not similarly overrepresented.

Beyond this, fatalities are not the only fallout impacting teenage soldiers. First, youthful soldiers have suffered a very high number of non-combat related deaths. For instance, numerous teenage soldiers have died in car accidents or incidents involving non-hostile fire, some of which are still under investigation. The military has also publicly reported that over 47,545 soldiers have been wounded as of February 6, 2012. Approximately 12,553 of those wounded represent soldiers twenty-one years old or younger, which represents nearly one-fourth of the total.

Even those of the currently deployed 180,000 troops who have not been wounded have suffered serious physical injuries and trauma. Many young soldiers have cracked under the severe emotional and psychological pressure. In many cases, after recruiting these at-risk youth and exposing them to death and violence, the military has discharged them through expedited processes claiming that they merely suffer from personality disorders. When the military does so, it denies them benefits to which they would be entitled if diagnosed with war-related post-traumatic stress disorder. Instead, according to one military medical researcher, the military turns its back on such youth, saying [Y] ou're rotten and have been rotten since childhood.

As troops return from combat, the youngest of them struggle mightily, and in ways different from older veterans. Because many have never worked before and have been denied an adequate education, war having become their classroom, their unemployment rate far exceeds the rest of the population. Many youthful veterans have become dependent on drugs and alcohol to deal with their physical and emotional pain, and high numbers who come from rural areas do not have access to adequate mental health or other services. It is no wonder that these young people are likely at the highest risk of engaging in life-threatening and suicidal behaviors. Indeed, one study reported that veterans aged eighteen to twenty-four were five times more likely to commit suicide than non-veterans the same age. They were also three times more likely to take their lives than veterans between the ages of thirty-five and fifty-four. Thus it is clear that vulnerable students are not only exposed to dangers from the metaphorical war they face in school halls, but have been endangered by their actual recruitment and deployment in our War on Terror.