The Youthful Military

The youthful composition of today's American military becomes strikingly obvious when covering the Pentagon and the war in Iraq.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This weekend, NPR defense correspondent Guy Raz reported on Marines training for an upcoming deployment to Iraq. Here's a look at his reporter's notebook.

GUY RAZ: Every couple of hours every day, I get an e-mail from the Department of Defense - it's a death announcement from Iraq. Here's a recent one, it reads: The Department of Defense announces today the death of four soldiers, who were supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The announcement goes on to name Captain Jonathan Grassbaugh, he was 25, Specialist Levi Hoover, he was 23, and Private First Class Rodney McCandless, he was 21.

Now no matter how many of these e-mails I see, I'm always struck by the ages -19, 20, 21, 25 - young men, many just out of high school, make up the backbone of the infantry troops fighting and dying in Iraq and Afghanistan.

First Lieutenant RYAN MALONEY(ph) (U.S. Army): So be prepared to take (unintelligible) fire from here, from here.

RAZ: This is First Lieutenant Ryan Maloney briefing his platoon in a Marine battalion I visited recently. Maloney is only 23 years old, and yet the lives of 37 young Marines are in his hands. His top squad leader, who's an up-and-comer named Corporal Morgan Ballast(ph) is just 20. Ballast is in charge of 10 Marines, and he's already served one tour in Iraq.

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RAZ: The military's multimillion-dollar machines like this amphibious tractor are generally driven by troops not even old enough to rent cars at Hertz or Avis. Corporal Ballast can't even buy a beer, yet he's already seen men die in front of his eyes. And though he can't be sure, he may have even killed an enemy fighter.

Most of his friends from high school are drifting around, still trying to cope with their post-adolescence. And the last time Ballast returned to Tucson, his hometown, from Iraq, it was tough to see all of that.

Corporal MORGAN BALLAST (U.S. Army): It's more surreal. It's like it kind of upsets you, like, man, you know, look at all this stuff I'm doing. These people just take it for granted. You come back and see, you know, your friends still doing drugs or a this and that. It just kind of - it's really what we call a kick in the nuts, you know.

RAZ: In two weeks, Ballast, Maloney and the rest of the 3rd Battalion 7th Marines will head off to Anbar province, and their tour of duty will last eight months.

SIMON: Guy Raz. This is NPR News.

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