Otis Long

This is Otis Long, who joined the U.S. Navy at age 15. He is part of a national group of underage veterans. He served in World War II and the Korean war. (Barbara Haddock Taylor, Baltimore Sun / November 7, 2013)

Allan Stover wasn't even in high school when he enlisted in the Coast Guard in 1953.

Despite his doctored birth certificate, he believes commanders could tell he was too young to enlist. Stover never admitted it — though he came close when a drill instructor screamed in his face at boot camp.

"How old are you?" the instructor yelled.

"Seventeen, sir," Stover responded nervously.

"And I'm the Queen of Sheba," the instructor quipped.

Stover was 14 — and he was never caught.

Now, at 75, the former Ellicott City man says joining the Coast Guard was "the smartest thing I ever did." But at the same time, he has felt conflicted about having served illegally.

Those mixed emotions led Stover to come clean with the military two decades ago — and, ultimately, to found Veterans of Underage Military Service, a nonprofit created for the thousands who served before they were old enough.

National Cmdr. John Henson says the camaraderie and friendship among members lasts the rest of their lives.

"We're all heading for the final muster," Henson says. "When we get there, we'll know that our brothers and sisters in VUMS will always care about us."

By law, recruits must be at least 17 years old to enlist in the U.S. military. But underage enlistment was relatively common during World War I and World War II.

In perhaps the best-known case, Calvin S. Graham was 12 when he joined the Navy in 1942. The Texas native fought in the Pacific, was wounded at Guadalcanal and earned a Bronze Star. But when his commanders learned his age, he was stripped of his medals, thrown in a Navy brig and given a dishonorable discharge.

After a decades-long campaign to clear his record, Graham eventually was given an honorable discharge, the Bronze Star and other awards were returned to him, and his story was made into the television movie "Too Young the Hero."

Such tales might make for good material for Hollywood, but the real-life effects of combat on child soldiers can be disastrous, says activist Jo Becker.

Becker, the children's rights advocacy director for Human Rights Watch and founder of the organization now called Child Soldiers International, says children who have participated in armed conflict often have difficulty socializing, a tendency toward violence, nightmares and other psychological issues.

"War can be a horrific experience, regardless of age," Becker says. "Children who join, even if they have good intentions, may not have full awareness of what the consequences may be."

Veterans of Underage Military Service doesn't condone children joining the military, Stover says. But he makes a distinction between those sometimes younger than 10 who are forced into combat by warlords in the developing world and teens in the West who freely volunteer for it.

"It's a fine line," he says.

Group members say that if they were given the chance, they'd enlist again.

When Otis Long was young, he says, he hung out with a group of "hoodlums." The Linthicum man says he knew at the time that if he didn't join the service, he'd probably end up in jail.