It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.

It sounds unthinkable, but there are times, according to the rules of war, when it is acceptable to shoot a child. A 12-year-old can, of course, fire a rifle, but the more gut-wrenching decisions revolve around ambiguous situations. Could a child with a cellphone be a lookout for insurgents or sending a detonation signal to an IED? These were the types of awful scenarios the soldiers had to face in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Carl Prine is a reporter with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and served in Iraq himself. A few years ago, he began hearing stories from members of Charlie Troop, part of the 82nd Airborne, one of the most decorated units in Army history. The story centered on an incident involving the killing of three Iraqi teenagers.

CARL PRINE: Every man I talked to had the Purple Heart. These are not the kind of guys who are wishy-washy soldiers by any stretch of the imagination, and yet they were all scarred by this one event that happened, and they never quite recovered from it.

RATH: That's Carl Prine. He wrote about the incident in a series of award-winning articles in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. The story begins in March of 2007. A small team led by then-Staff Sergeant Michael Barbera were on a reconnaissance mission outside of the village of Asada in rural Iraq. The night before, these soldiers set themselves up in a palm grove overlooking what they believed to be an insurgent safe house.

PRINE: By morning, they had moved slightly - they were in a dip in the land. And while they were in there, two kids were driving some cattle toward them. The cattle got so close, they could actually feel the breath of the cows on their faces. Several of the men had a shot on the boys. Had they shown what they call intent to harm, they would've dropped them. If they had carried weapons, if they were moving toward them in an aggressive manner, they would shot them on the spot.

So as these boys kept coming, the men took their fingers slowly off the triggers. The idea as scouts, as cavalry scouts, was to let them pass. They don't see them. They let them go. One man stood up - that was allegedly then-Staff Sergeant Barbera - stood up, shot the first boy, and he goes down. The second boy turned and began to scream, and he shot him too. And then they fled across the palm grove. They didn't know at the time - I found out later - the boys were both deaf and dumb. They could not speak, and they couldn't hear. So they never heard the shots that killed them.

RATH: So what happened from that point leading to the encounter with the third boy?

PRINE: Bedlam. According to the soldiers, Barbera was panicked. He ran from one side of the palm grove deep into a more forested part of the palm grove. While they were back there, another young man was walking toward them, just emerged out of the shadows. He seemed oblivious to them. He didn't hear them. He was moving the same direction as the gunshots, which was inexplicable. Now, they saw that he had a satchel. He seemed to be reaching for a black metal object.

Barbera ordered them to fire. The men fired. The Army later ruled that that was a good kill, that even though the boy was innocent - he actually was a cousin of these two young men who were dying in the field behind him and also deaf. He was actually going out to bring them their lunch.

RATH: And we should point out that this might sound outrageous to people, but the insurgents in Iraq did use children as lookouts and in other capacities.

PRINE: Yeah. These kids would not have been used, however. A child who couldn't communicate with the insurgents would've been worthless.

RATH: Do you think it's at all possible, though, given the confusion of war and that children would be used that there was any way that Staff Sergeant Barbera might have been confused about those first two?

PRINE: Well, that becomes the question. Certainly, there doesn't seem to be any confusion with the witnesses who turned him in. Whether he had some confusion or not remains in question.

RATH: The incident haunted the men of Barbera's troop, but no action was taken against Barbera himself. Carl Prine actually went to Iraq to meet the families of the slain boys. He was shocked to discover he was not the first American to come asking questions.

The villagers told him that American Army investigators had also looked into the story, supposedly even reporting it to senior officials. According to Carl Prine, the commanding generals have total discretion over whether or not to prosecute. And in the case of the Iraqi boys who were killed, those generals did nothing.

PRINE: The Army - these generals determined that he had committed murder. But instead of sending him to a court martial, they decided they would give him what's called a General Officer Memorandum of Reprimand. It's below the stage of non-judicial punishment, slightly above perhaps a counseling statement. And if this one was going to be local that it was never going to go into his permanent file. He signed it admitting that he had shot these two children and he had violated the rules of engagement, but he was never charged with murder.

RATH: Not only that. Barbera was promoted to sergeant first class and assigned his own platoon. The report of his actions in Iraq all but disappeared. And as for making reparations toward the families of the dead boys...

PRINE: They had paid the families some money for - about $2,000 for each boy who was killed. They had apologized, sort of, and they had asked a lot of questions about what happened.

RATH: Only last month the military began the process that could lead to charges against Barbera. Carl Prine has no idea why it took the military so long to act, although he's heard lots of theories.

PRINE: A lot of soldiers are quick to throw out theories about it. They've suggested that it's because a lot of careers of senior officers were involved in that unit. And this was going to get in the way. Others have suggested that there was a lot of unit pride. And the last thing that the generals wanted was to have a story, so they quieted that. And a lot of other people said, well, you know, they didn't really have any physical evidence.

I think more likely what happened was the American military's judiciary was not at the same place it was then that it is now. Today, a lot of these cases coming out of Afghanistan, they devote a lot of resources to it. In 2007 through 2010 with two wars going on, not as many resources to go around.

RATH: Carl, do you have a sense that there might be - how many other stories there might be out there like this that we just have not encountered?

PRINE: Oh, yes. Hundreds. I've talked about this privately with CID agents, and they've told me they believe there are hundreds of these cases.

RATH: That's Carl Prine. He's a reporter with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. His series on the death of three Iraqi teens in 2007 is called "Rules of Engagement."

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