State's Draft Boards Ready for Call-Up

Times Staff Writer

"Greeting: You are hereby ordered for induction into the Armed Forces of the United States ...."

So began the draft notice, one of the least welcome letters ever received by young men in America and one of the few Selective Service fixtures that would remain unchanged if the draft is reinstituted.

Defense Department officials insist there are no plans to bring back conscription, despite persistent claims that U.S. forces have been stretched thin by the war in Iraq. Even so, about 900 local draft board members in California are watching and waiting, as they have since 1980, when draft registration was cranked up again after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, Selective Service officials do what they can to boost the number of 18-year-old California men who register. Last year, California's compliance record among the states was ninth from the bottom.

One day a year, board members attend a four-hour training session. The rest of the time, they are on alert, ready to set up local offices, weigh the claims of conscientious objectors and funnel unwilling young men into the ranks of the military. All it would take is an act of Congress and a signature from the president.

If that happens, the position could become something like a full-time unpaid job.

"If necessary, I'd ask for a leave from work," said Susan G. Zepeda, chief executive of a nonprofit called HealthCare for Orange County. "I'm personally committed to this."

The 57-year-old Irvine resident has been active in her community, pouring herself into causes as varied as a local food bank and the garage-door committee of her townhouse subdivision. But her reasons for signing on as a draft board member nearly 20 years ago were more personal.

"I got involved initially because I'm a mother," said Zepeda, who holds a doctorate in social psychology. "I have three sons and if there were a draft, they were going to be draftable."

In San Luis Obispo, 68-year-old retired literary agent Joanie Brown was recruited for the position a few years ago. An active Republican who volunteers with various children's groups, Brown wanted to be of service -- but there was a hitch.

"My 8-year-old granddaughter was having a dance recital on the day that training was scheduled," Brown said. With the flexibility that comes from not having an up-and-running draft, officials allowed Brown to sign on the following year.

Requirements for membership are basic. Any U.S. citizen who is at least 18 and has no criminal record can qualify, except for retired or active-duty members of the military. Ron Markarian, California's Selective Service director, said the agency encourages diversity and requires at least one woman on each board "to represent the interests of motherhood."

If the nation's 11,000 board members ever are called upon for anything but training sessions, the draft they will enforce will be different from the one that sent 1.8 million men to Southeast Asia.

In the Vietnam War era, the draft was criticized for leaning heavily on the poor by giving automatic deferments to college students.

In any new draft, college deferments would be limited to a semester, although seniors would be allowed to graduate.

"You can be sure there would be resistance," said Selective Service spokesman Dan Amon, based in Washington, D.C. "There always has been. That's why the agency is going out of its way to make sure any future draft would be as fair as possible."

During most of the Vietnam War, there was no universally applied system for picking the next batch of GIs from a pool of men ages 18 to 26. Draftees were selected by local board members, who had to meet quotas and often were accused of shielding the well-connected.

A new draft would choose young men based on a random drawing of birth dates, much like the lottery that started in 1970 and lasted until the final Vietnam-era draftee rolled off to basic training three years later.

When a 21st century draft board meets, one of its main jobs will be to evaluate the pleas of conscientious objectors. Members say that today's standards would be about the same as they were during the Vietnam War, when 170,000 men were exempted from combat duties for reasons of conscience.

At their annual training sessions, members pore over manuals 4 inches thick while considering mock cases: the teenager who says he is his mother's sole support; the true believer who says his religion bars self-defense; the cleric from a church nobody in the room can quite place.

"There's a lot of role-playing," said Amon, the Selective Service spokesman. "An actor will come in saying he's a minister for the Church of What's Happening Now, and board members have to determine whether he's a legitimate clergyman or someone who had an epiphany the day after his draft notice came."

Teresa Panepinto can expect such questions. She works for the Oakland-based Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors, which fields hundreds of calls weekly from anxious young men. She tells prospective conscientious objectors to compile evidence of their sincerity.

"I tell them they should keep a log of activities they participated in," Panepinto said. " 'When I was in the ninth grade, I organized an antiwar walkout at my high school. In 10th grade, I attended a workshop on nonviolence training....' "

If young men simply don't register, they can be denied college loans, admittance to the state bar and jobs in law enforcement. Even so, only 85% of eligible young men registered in California last year, compared with Arkansas, Colorado and Delaware, which have a 99% compliance rate.

The main difference is that those states and 32 others require draft registration before driver's licenses are granted, said Markarian, California's Selective Service director. "We've made four attempts to introduce a law like that here and it's died in committee," he said. "We're not happy about that."

While failure to register is a crime, no one has been prosecuted in California for 17 years.

Whether those who do register would be pressed into active service is an open question. Bills to reestablish the draft have gone nowhere, and top U.S. officials repeatedly assert their preference for an all-volunteer military.

Even so, Ralph Nader and other critics predict a draft next year.

"Young Americans need to know that a train is coming, and it could run over their generation," Nader warned in April.

For Amon, proof that a draft remains distant is no further than his agency's skimpy budget. It remains about $26 million, about the amount pledged by the U.S. last year to protect Mexican forests.

"In this town," he said, "money talks."

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