A program offered through Dalhousie University this year will help crack down on the use of child soldiers, and it's now accepting applicants. 

The program is called Veteran Trainers to Eradicate the Use of Child Soldiers, or VTECS, and it will be offered at the Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative at Dalhousie. 

"A child should be protected from combat," said Brent Beardsley, the program co-ordinator. Beardsley is a retired Canadian Forces major and served with Dallaire in Rwanda. He saw child soldiers in the field and says it deeply affected him. 

"Adults start wars — let adults fight the wars. Leave the children out of it. That's my personal grasp on this situation," he said.  

VTECS will accept 15 Canadian veterans and give them additional training on preventing the use of child soldiers in the field. The course will also feature academic, university credit courses on global politics, children and war. 

'The place to start is in peacetime'

CONGO-DEMOCRATIC/CHILDREN

A child soldier known as "Kadogo," meaning "small one" in Swahili, is shown here near the front lines in eastern Congo, in November 2008. Snatched from their homes by armed men who force them to carry ammunition, fight and kill, beaten if they refuse, east Congo's child soldiers are teenage victims of an unforgiving war. (Finbarr O'Reilly / Reuters )

Participants will learn how to put extra protections around children to prevent them from being pressed into combat. 

"When you understand that children are at risk, the place to start is in peacetime. Not in wartime," Beardsley said. "Wartime is too late. Wartime they've already been recruited and they're being employed and our job with prevention has failed already." 

The Dallaire Initiative is partnering with Dalhousie and with Wounded Warriors Canada, a veterans advocacy organization. 

Wounded Warriors provided $175,000 to launch the pilot program. Those funds were gathered from private donations. 

The goal is to "train the trainers" so graduates of the program can act as consultants to train others in preventing child soldiers. The graduates will also gain skills that could make them more employable after leaving the military. 

"For us it was a good fit. We wanted to do something in the skills transition area, but we hadn't found how best we could help, and this kind of changed everything in that regard," said Scott Maxwell, the president of Wounded Warriors Canada. 

Shortage of experts

Military and police organizations around the world have great difficulty finding experts to teach about child soldiers, Beardsley said.

"Believe me, we are being asked far more than we have the capacity to deliver right now, and we expect this only to increase as organizations like the United Nations, like NATO, like countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America are becoming more and more focused on this issue," he said.  

The successful applicants will have their tuition, travel, room and board paid for while they are in the month-long classroom component. The call for applications is open now to all Canadian veterans and will close on March 29. 

The pilot project will start with e-learning courses and then continue to classroom courses at Dalhousie in July. 

The partner organizations hope to expand the program over the next four years to train 100 more veterans, at a cost of $1 million.