Before he graduated from high school, before he could get a college loan or borrow money for a car, Austin Schellpfeffer shouldered an obligation that could, under the right circumstances, require him to pay with his life.
He registered with the Selective Service System.
“I do remember that, now that I think about it,” said Schellpfeffer, 20, who grew up in Charlotte and is now a sophomore at UNC. It was about four years ago, when he went to get his first driver’s license, and the examiner asked him a series of questions. Had he registered with the Selective Service? Would he consent to doing so now?
It’s been decades since the United States had to draft troops to fill the ranks of the armed forces. But the government still requires males aged 18 through 25 to register with the Selective Service System, the agency that maintains the database from which eligible members would be drawn in a national emergency.
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The pool now stands at about 13.5 million young men, including more than half a million from North Carolina. Nationally, the registry adds about 2 million names each year.
One proposal now before Congress would do away with the Selective Service, eliminating its $24 million annual budget along with the specter of two years of involuntary military service. Another, proposal, supported by some Pentagon officials and seen by many experts as more probable, would expand the system to include women, who since January are eligible to serve in combat roles throughout the military.
Both bills have been referred to the House Armed Services Committee.
Those who favor eliminating the Selective Service point out that it has not been used since the end of the Vietnam War and say it is not likely to be needed again, given the reduced scale of modern ground wars; that it’s an inefficient way to build a force, given Department of Defense data indicating that 75 percent of Americans aged 17 to 24 would be disqualified from service because they didn’t graduate from high school, they have criminal records or are physically unfit; and that it is not a fair system, because the affluent are more likely than the poor to gain exemptions.
Advocates for expanding registration to women say that while there is no perfect way for a nation to mount armies, in an emergency, a draft is the fairest system available; that including women in the pool might make the U.S. more circumspect about engaging in war; and that it’s a matter of equity.
Finally, says Richard H. Kohn, professor emeritus of military history at the University of North Carolina and a regular speaker at defense department programs, “It’s a question of functional need. If that comes – if we ever have a full mobilization – I think most of us who believe in female equality would want to see it just to make the point.”
Luke Maness doesn’t believe the U.S. should eliminate the draft. The 21-year-old Marine Corps corporal, who grew up in Raleigh and was home recently visiting his girlfriend, said that if anything, more people need to serve, including women.
“I’ve seen people who didn’t have a plan join the military and have a plan,” he said. “I’ve seen it shape people’s lives.”
D’andra Francis, 25, who recently relocated to Raleigh from Florida, said she believes in gender equality, including in military service.
“But I think military service should be a choice,” she said.
Americans have been subject to efforts at government conscription since the colonies’ reliance on militias for defense. In 1778, during the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress asked the states to draft men for a year each into militias for the Continental Army, but compliance was spotty.
Congress first instituted a federal draft in 1863, during the Civil War, and used it again in 1917, during World War I, dissolving it each time after hostilities ended. The nation’s first peacetime draft was enacted in 1940.. From 1948 until 1973, spanning the Korean and Vietnam wars and periods of peace, men were drafted to fill in when volunteers fell short. Registratoin was suspended in 1975, but restarted in 1980 under President Jimmy Carter in response to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. Carter asked Congress to allow women to register and serve then, but lawmakers said no.
Since then, federal law has required nearly all male citizens and immigrants aged 18 through 25 to register within 30 days of their 18th birthday. They stay on the registry until they turn 26.
Since 1980, according to organizations opposed to the draft, 20 people have been prosecuted for refusing to register, most of them activists whose public defiance was a means of drawing attention to what they felt was an unjust or immoral law. Those convicted face up to five years in prison and up to $250,000 in fines.
The government relies instead on withholding certain benefits from those who refuse or neglect to register with the Selective Service. Those who break the law are barred – for life – from getting federal college loans, grants and job training. Immigrants who fail to register also are barred from gaining U.S. citizenship.
In recent years, states have helped increase compliance by enacting laws of their own. North Carolina is one of 40 states that link drivers’ licenses and state identification cards to Selective Service registration. Here, the Department of Motor Vehicles collects the information and forwards it electronically to the Selective Service when a man is – or becomes – eligible to register. Those who refuse to register are not issued driver’s licenses or state IDs. They also will not receive certain financial aid for veterans’ dependents, or state educational assistance. They won’t be hired for state jobs.
Besides building and maintaining the database of eligible men, the Selective Service also is charged with managing an alternative service for those classified as conscientious objectors. Those whose beliefs allow them to serve in the military but only as noncombatants are told they will not be assigned to jobs that involve training or using weapons. Those whose beliefs would keep them out of the military entirely might be assigned to local employers doing work that contributes to “the national health, safety and interest,” such as conservation, education, health care, or caring for children or the elderly.
Steve Newsom, who with his wife, Lynn, runs Quaker House in Fayetteville, which provides counseling and support for service members who are questioning their role in the military, says getting classified as a conscientious objector is not simple. The group has long advised young men on how to document their pacifist stands.
“In the past year or so, I’ve been telling young women to do the same thing,” said Steve Newsom, who believes the Selective Service has been gearing up for a possible reinstatement of the draft, including an investment in recent years in an updated computer system.
The couple say they believe Congress would face a dilemma if the nation, now in the process of reducing troop strength, suddenly needed to build back up. With the grueling wars in Afghanistan and Iraq still fresh in the public’s mind, they believe it could be difficult to fill the ranks only with volunteers. If Congress re-institutes the draft, Lynn Newsom believes it would be unconstitutional now not to include women, who now make up 15 percent of the active-duty military.
“They finally opened up all the combat roles to women,” Lynn Newsom said. “My feeling is, it’s going to happen. If you’re going to have an equal role in the military, you need to be equal in the draft.”
Kohn, the military historian, said he can easily conceive of a scenario involving Eastern Europe or Russia in which large numbers of U.S. ground troops would need to deploy. During the most recent wars, he says, this country came closer to needing a draft than most people are aware. It filled the ranks with volunteers, then employed contractors. It lowered enlistment standards. During a 10-year period of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it used the unpopular stop-loss mechanism to force at least 120,000 troops to serve up to a year longer than their original contracts.
For Schellpfeffer, who remains eligible for a hypothetical draft for another five years or so, a national discussion of the draft makes that thread seem less tenuous.
“I don’t really think about it,” he said. “But I guess if my friends were getting called up, things would change. I guess if I had to go, I would.”
Martha Quillin: 919-829-8989, @MarthaQuillin
What you need to know
Who must register: Nearly all men aged 18 through 25, U.S. citizens and immigrants must register with the Selective Service within 30 days of their 18th birthday. See who must register – and doublecheck if you already have – at www.sss.gov.
How to register: Sign up at an NC DMV office, at www.sss.gov, with mail-in forms available at any U.S. Post Office, through a high school registrar, or by checking a box on the application form for federal student financial aid.
Once registered, men are required to notify the Selective Service whenever they change their address.