click to enlarge news-draftcard-ang_330jpg
Men must register within 30 days of their 18th birthday, or face a fine of up to $250,000 and/or a five-year prison term.

Local draft boards decide who stays and goes

D uring World War I, more than 2.8 million men were drafted for military service. More than 10 million got the call to battle in World War II. Add another 1.5 million in the Korean War, and 1.8 million in Vietnam, who were conscripted to fight the "communist horde" in Southeast Asia.

The nation's Selective Service drafted its last man into the U.S. Army on June 30, 1973 - much to the relief of war protesters and would-be draft dodgers. But locally, draft boards still exist in case the government reinstates the draft. Bexar County has five draft boards, each consisting of five volunteers who are appointed by the President of the United States and may serve up to a 20-year term.

Cynthia Leon, who lives in District 4, was urged to serve by former City Councilman Enrique "Kike" Martin. "It's a little scary to have that power," says Leon. "But I felt it would be one way to serve my country, and I still could be fair and unbiased if someone came to seek an exemption."

According to the Selective Service website www.sss.gov, a draft board's mission is to decide "who among the registrants in their community will receive deferments, postponements, or exemption from military service based on the individual registrants' circumstances and beliefs."

Men must register within 30 days of their 18th birthday, but cannot register after age 26. If prosecuted and convicted, those who fail to register face a fine of up to $250,000 and/or a prison term of up to five years.

Conscription began during the Civil War. In 1940, before the U.S. entered World War II, Congress enacted the first peacetime draft in history to fill wartime manpower needs. At the end of the war, the draft law expired, but it was reenacted less than two years later to maintain military levels for the Cold War.

From 1948 until 1973, during peace and wartime, men were drafted to fill vacancies in the armed forces that could not be filled with volunteers. In 1973, the draft went on "stand-by," in case more troops were needed. In 1975, draft registration ended, but was revived in 1980.

Although there hasn't been a draft in 30 years, the draft laws have been tweaked to ostensibly avoid drafting a disproportionate number of minorities and to keep the dodgers at a minimum.

Beginning in 1971, draft boards were required to "be as representative as possible of the racial and ethnic background of the area served by the board."

Before 1971, state and local boards used quota systems, and personal relationships and favoritism factored heavily in decisions concerning whom to draft. For example, to avoid the draft, President George W. Bush used his family's connections to leap to the top of a two-year waiting list to enter the National Guard, from which he later went AWOL.

Today, the Selective Service uses a uniform national call and a lottery system. New draftees can be called up immediately - known as "first priority." But after one year, they are moved farther down the draft list and have to serve only after the supply of first-priority draftees has been exhausted.

Women are still exempt from the draft; Congress would have to amend the Selective Service law to include them.

"The conscientious objector is the toughest one; that becomes much more an issue of looking into the person's heart to see if he is sincere."
— Henry Van de Putte,
local draft board member
Since the draft began, there have been draft resisters: In June 1944, 85 men stood trial in Wyoming and were convicted of draft evasion; although they served two years in prison, an appellate court later threw out the convictions because the jury didn't consider civil disobedience as a defense. An estimated 60,000 people either resisted or dodged the draft during Vietnam.

Under the old rules, a man could defer the draft by staying in college; former President Bill Clinton went to graduate school to avoid conscription. New rules: A college student can postpone the inevitable only until the end of the current semester. A senior can postpone until the end of the academic year.

In the past, draftees weren't guaranteed the right to appear before a draft board. New rules guarantee access to a local board, consisting of those who live in the draftee's community, such as Henry "Pete" Van de Putte, husband of State Senator Leticia Van De Putte, who since 1991 has served on his local board, which covers the Northwest Side.

Van de Putte said local boards train annually using a video of a mock draft board hearing so they will be ready if the draft is resurrected.

The local board would rule on a select number of appeals, but most draftees would be handled at the military induction center. (For a tutorial, see the movie Alice's Restaurant starring Arlo Guthrie.)

"We would deal with ministers, hardship, or a conscientious objector," Van de Putte says. "In a hardship, a guy says he can't be drafted, he is taking care of and supporting his mother, and would have to prove his case. We would hear the case and say 'Yeah, he's taking care of his mother, but he's got four brothers who live in town. Obviously, he wouldn't be the only one who could take care of her.'"

"For example, if a doctor says being drafted will create a hardship because his family would not be able to belong to the country club, that would be hard to justify."

"The conscientious objector is the toughest one; that becomes much more an issue of looking into the person's heart to see if he is sincere," says Van De Putte. Conscientious objectors fall into two categories: those opposed to war, and those who say they can never shoot someone. The latter could enter the military and serve in non-combative roles, such as medic or nurse. Those who hold deep, spiritual beliefs against the war - such as the Quakers - can be exempted from military service, but may be assigned to civil service agencies such as the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Van de Putte said he believes it would take a more catastrophic event than a war in Iraq to resurrect the draft. "It would take a huge national emergency, such as a third world war, with troops stationed off our shore, planning to invade."

If the draft were reinstated, Van de Putte says, "This whole system would be up and running full-tilt literally in a matter of a few days." •

More by Michael Cary



Never miss a beat

Sign Up Now

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.