Brain research raises issues for Military’s reliance on young soldiers

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Brain research raises issues for Military’s reliance on young soldiers
By David Wood

WASHINGTON — In its most confusing and dangerous military operations abroad, the United States is relying most heavily on its youngest enlistees — soldiers who may be less capable of shouldering these responsibilities.

The 17- to 21-year-olds who make up a quarter of all enlisted Army soldiers and almost half of enlisted Marines serve with “extraordinary courage, dedication and commitment,” as Gen. Michael W. Hagee, Marine commandant, said recently.

But these youngest soldiers and Marines can lack the maturity needed to sort through insurgents and civilians at checkpoints, walk neighborhood patrols and negotiate with angry crowds, experienced military leaders say.

     Indeed, recent research on human brain development confirms what many parents of teenagers know at gut level: The biology that controls impulsive behavior, which enables the weighing of consequences and perhaps even moral judgments, is not fully mature until the early 20s.

“The teenagers we are taking into the Army are still a work in progress,” Dr. Ruben C. Gur, chief of the Brain Behavior Laboratory and director of neuropsychology at the University of Pennsylvania, said in an interview.

Adolescents can be unfocused. Sometimes they can’t seem to plan ahead. They often lack social graces and the ability to “read” people and situations, critical skills in the powder keg of Iraq where soldiers work under the full glare of political partisans and the international media.

There’s a reason, according to Gur’s research and studies at the National Institute of Mental Health, Harvard Medical School and UCLA: Adolescent brains simply are not yet hard-wired.

For the Army and Marine Corps, already struggling to recruit sufficient numbers of young Americans, this poses a “dilemma,” said Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, a senior Army trainer: The military practice of relying on the youngest fighters, designed centuries ago for primitive pre-industrial clashes, makes less and less sense in an era when warfare requires more brains and judgment than brawn.

Twenty-nine percent of enlisted Marines have yet to see their 21st birthdays. In the Army, 16 percent of enlistees are under age 21. Include the ranks who have turned 21, and the share of the young rises to 43 percent in the Marine Corps and 24 percent in the Army.

It is in the late teens to mid-20s that the brain’s final development takes place, particularly the prefrontal cortex considered its “executive” center. The most recent research uses magnetic resonance imaging to actually “map” the development of children’s brains through puberty and on into adulthood.

These studies, at Harvard and the National Institutes of Health, track a process called “myelination,” in which nerve fibers connecting distant regions of the brain become layered with fat, insulation that facilitates better and faster communication. These connections enable a person to think abstractly, to control impulse and to consider choices in context, Gur said.

“You want to hit somebody at a party who insults you, and your brain will say, `This is not the right time, with all these people around; just for now say something nasty in return,”‘ he said.

The implications for the armed forces are obvious.

Yet few experts believe the military could recruit large numbers of Americans in their mid- and upper 20s, when many are deeply involved with education, careers and families. Only in the relatively small enclaves of its special forces can the Army afford to be selective, taking just soldiers of proven maturity.

As a whole, “we don’t have that luxury,” said Eaton, deputy chief of staff of the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command and former commander of the Army Infantry Center at Fort Benning, Ga.

The Army’s ability to attract soldiers continues to slip. Officials said Wednesday that for the second month in a row, the Army has missed its recruiting target, and is now almost 4,000 soldiers behind its goal to sign up 80,000 new soldiers this fiscal year.

Eaton acknowledged the larger problem.

“We have a fairly young Army that was developed for high-intensity combined-arms warfare” where soldiers fighting from armored columns are “insulated from the people you are about to kill,” he said.

But in the occupation phase of the Iraq war, as the Army patrols neighborhoods and mans checkpoints, “we are in direct contact with people we don’t know much about. We don’t have the density of seasoned people” who can handle those missions, he said.

“Older men and women have had life experiences, they’ve had things happen to them. … Self-confidence is what we’re talking about, this idea that I can meet any situation and solve it. And you develop self-confidence through experience.”

The Army is experimenting with ways to speed or compress “experiential learning,” a path it hopes will produce more mature soldiers faster. One initiative puts soldiers in a computer-simulated “virtual” environment to learn through trial and error how to handle aggressive Iraqis at a vehicle checkpoint.

But at the same time, the Army must plug gaps in its ranks by promoting younger troops more quickly into leadership positions. A soldier may become a squad leader, in charge of eight or nine others, before his 20th birthday.

In sharp contrast, squad leaders in the Army National Guard are vastly more seasoned because promotion opportunities are limited. It is common to see the likes of Staff Sgt. Kevin Ferro, an infantryman from Wellsville, Ohio, who serves in the Pennsylvania National Guard at age 37.

Training to deploy to Iraq, Ferro recently worked his men through a day of manning vehicle checkpoints and confronting hostile crowds of Iraqi role-players hired by the Army for realistic exercises at Camp Shelby, Miss. Ferro said simply raising children gave him the patience and insight needed to calm a crowd and to decide quickly if the woman at the barricades is holding a baby — or a bomb.

“I think that kind of judgment comes with being a parent,” he said. “Being a dad, you gotta look over the whole situation before you act.”

The contrast with younger squad leaders — who may never have had kids, met a mortgage, managed a store or had other life experiences — can be startling.

“When I was in the Marines I was a 20-year-old squad leader, and I could only think one step at a time,” said Sgt. 1st Class Jeff Orr, 42, a medic in the Pennsylvania National Guard. “Now I’m thinking several steps ahead.”

Orr watched an exercise at Camp Shelby in which the lead vehicle of a convoy struck a simulated land mine. The young drivers of the other trucks backed away, he said.

“That’s impulse, but not clear thinking. They weren’t there to help the guys in the first truck, to pull security and evacuate the wounded,” he explained.

“See, you can get training when you’re 20. But you can’t get maturity.”

Pentagon personnel officials declined to address the implications of the military’s reliance on young soldiers. The Marine Corps, in response to questions, issued a statement saying the Corps’ “screening and evaluation process is specifically designed” to ensure that Marines are “able to perform the duties of the grade and office that they are appointed to throughout the length of their career.”

Spokesmen for the Army Research Institute, the Army War College and the Army’s leader development program at Fort Leavenworth all said their institutions had done no research on the issue and had not collected field observations on youth in the military.

“Nobody has really thought carefully about it because the ground forces historically have put a premium on youth,” said David R. Segal, a military sociologist at the University of Maryland. “But the kind of military operations we are in now require people much lower down in the organization having to make decisions that have important consequences.”

The Pentagon does not seem to have studied whether young soldiers are having difficulty with heavy responsibility for which they are unprepared, if they are experiencing higher degrees of stress or are more susceptible to post-traumatic stress later in life.

Yet there are suggestions that young soldiers are struggling.

The lowest four enlisted ranks comprise 44.7 percent of the Army, but account for 71 percent of its suicides. The trend mirrors the toll in civilian society, where young males have the highest rates of suicide, said Perry Bishop, a spokesman for the Pentagon’s health office. “The only thing that’s different for us,” he said, “is ready access to weapons in a combat zone.”

Another indication of stress on younger soldiers came in the massive study conducted among Vietnam veterans in the mid-1980s, the congressionally funded National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study. It showed that the youngest soldiers, those below the age of 22, had the highest rate of post-traumatic stress syndrome: 18.7 percent, twice the rate among those 25 to 35.

Col. Thomas Kolditz, a psychologist and West Point professor of behavioral sciences and leadership, concurred that youth and military service is an increasingly important issue.

“As people mature, their capacity to do moral reasoning and to work with conceptual problems increases,” said Kolditz, a field artilleryman. With older soldiers, “not only does that person have the benefit of having some military experience under their belt, but their developmental clock has been running and consequently your people are not only better trained but more mature.”

He concluded, “I think it would be very wise to look at this developmental principle and perhaps target certain military specialties for more mature candidates.”

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