By Pauline Jelinek
Monday, April 24, 2006
Sitting on a military draft board is not exactly a taxing job right now. With no draft, the boards have, well, no work to do.
"It's not hard at all. There's nothing to it," deadpans Michael Cohen, a Selective Service System board member from Highland Park, Ill.
That could change if there is a national crisis and if the government decides the crisis requires a return to the draft, which ended 33 years ago. Officials say they don't expect to restart conscription -- public sentiment is heavily against it -- but should they, draft boards could face their biggest workload in history as they help decide who gets drafted and who doesn't.
Until then, a draft board member's main chore is training. At half-day annual sessions, members keep up on rules for granting postponements, deferments, exemptions and conscientious objector status. They learn how to hold meetings, judge evidence and elicit testimony.
Then, as boards have done since the system was created in 1980, they wait.
"It's a ghost of a job," said board member James Stephen Brophy of Burke, Va.
An agency independent of the Defense Department, the Selective Service System trains board members and plans alternative national service for objectors. But its main task is keeping an updated registry of males ages 18 to 25 -- about 16 million individuals -- from which to supply untrained draftees who would supplement the professional all-volunteer armed forces.
Conscientious objector groups, and occasionally some members of Congress, oppose keeping the Selective Service at the ready. But few opponents focus on the boards, which wouldn't be activated unless there's a draft.
Repeated polls have shown that about seven in 10 Americans oppose reinstatement of the draft. Yet with President Bush saying U.S. troops will remain in Iraq for years, many Americans find it hard to believe repeated government assurances that there are no plans to revive conscription. "Beware of attempts to revive military draft" has been a typical Internet headline.
If the government were to restart the draft:
· A lottery would choose the order of call-ups from those millions registered.
· Draftees would report for physical, mental and moral evaluations.
· When evaluation results were in, draftees would have 10 days to appeal their status.
Training has taught board members to expect a range of claims -- "students who want to finish college . . . ministers . . . people that don't believe in fighting," said board member Helen Obernagel, 45, of New Athens, Ill.
"We're here so that they don't have to go scrambling around looking for people qualified to determine who's eligible and who isn't," said Cohen, 66, a retired firefighter who is one of the nation's 10,300 local board members. There are also several hundred appeals boards above the local boards.
Board members are young, old, of different races, incomes -- dentists, secretaries, maintenance men and real estate agents. There are long lists of volunteers for the unpaid positions, which are filled through nomination by each state's governor.
Officials say diversity on the boards would make any new draft the most equitable ever.