A little-known job, draft boards still operate and prep for national crisis.
by Chad Hemenway, published by Courier News, May 29, 2006

Like their counterparts across the country, members of military draft boards in Central Jersey are volunteers for a task that is not very taxing right now.

With no draft since 1973, they are a largely invisible force of nearly 11,000 people, training for a crisis that may never come.

“Really, we just meet once a year and go through the members’ handbook,” said Peter Slaton, a member of the Hunterson County board. “We go through some case stuff and do role playing with representatives from the Selective Service.”

“It guarantees that at least one day a year we’ll get free coffee and donuts,” said Dennis Rabineau, a member of the Somerset County draft board. “We’re just here to make sure the system is in place in case something happens.”

That would be something such as a national crisis — one serious enough for the government to order a return to the draft. Officials say they don’t expect to restart conscription — public sentiment is heavily against it — but should they ever do so, draft boards could face their biggest work load 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, the all-volunteer boards keep up on rules for granting postponements, deferments, exemptions and conscientious objector status. They also learn how to hold meetings, judge evidence and elicit testimony.

Then, as boards have done since the system was created in 1980, they wait, out of sight and out of mind.

“We just remain in the background, quietly working,” said Rabineau, who has a much higher profile as pastor of Evangel Church in Bridgewater.

So quietly do they work that when Slaton, who works with the Department of Labor and Welfare Development, tells friends about it, “They are surprised because they have no idea the draft boards were still around.”

“It’s a ghost of a job,” said James Stephen Brophy of Burke, Va.

A little-known job

Many local boards enjoyed — or suffered — high visibility in the years leading up to the end of the draft in 1973. Their offices were often targets of demonstrations against the Vietnam War. Draft-age men seeking deferments or filing for conscientious objector status made it their business to know the names of the board members who would be considering their cases. Today, most people don’t know the boards exist.

“I didn’t know they existed, either,” said Slaton, 52.

He saw an article in the newspaper asking for volunteers, and he put in an application. Nothing happened for a year. Volunteers can remain on the draft boards for 20 years.. Slaton had to wait for an opening.

Rabineu, 54, began serving five years ago and even provides the board with its meeting place: his church.

“It’s just another way to help out a little bit,” he said of his service.

Slaton, who has been serving for three years, said the Hunterdon County draft board meets at various locations, including Fort Dix and local schools.

While there is no draft, Selective Service keeps an updated registry of males aged 18-25 — now some 16 million individuals — from which to supply untrained draftees that would supplement the professional all-volunteer armed forces if the draft were revived.

It also oversees the 10,300 local board members across the country and the several hundred appeals boards above the local boards. There are long lists of volunteers for the unpaid board positions, which are filled through nomination by each state’s governor. Board members are trained mostly by military reserve officers, said Mary Neely, state programs managers for Selective Service for Region 1, which includes New Jersey.

Draft boards

Draft board members range in age, race, income and profession — some are dentists, secretaries, maintenance workers and real estate agents. Officials say diversity on the boards would make any new draft the most equitable ever. And draft boards could have more work than ever.

More people could apply for exemptions because more men have custody of children now. And more might be supporting parents because of the increasingly graying society and looming Social Security problems, Brophy said.

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., a massage therapist and hospital secretary.

“Conscientious Objectors” would be put in Alternative Service Program, Neely said, doing the equivalent amount of work in hospitals or child care, for example.

“If it (the draft) is ever reinstated, we’re going to hear a wide spectrum of appeals,” Rabineau said. “We have to stay objective and keep politics out of it.”

When conscientious objector status is sought, Slayton said, “They teach us we can’t depend on our gut in making decisions. You have to rely on the information we’re given and the rules.”

All draft board members have to pledge to be objective, Neely said. “It is very important that we accept volunteers who will follow the procedure of the law. We don’t accept anyone who can’t,” she said. “It is also very important that we have volunteers handling judgmental calls who are representatives of the communities.”

If the draft were ever reinstated, Selective Service would have 193 days to deliver the first soldier to military, said Pat Schuback, a spokesperson for Selective Service. The system’s staff would be expanded from about 160 to many thousands and its budget increased from $25 million to “many, many times that.”

The process would unfold this way:

# A lottery would choose the order of callups from those millions registered;

# Draftees would report for physical, mental and moral evaluations;

# Once evaluation results were in, they would have 10 days to appeal their status.

Schuback said it is all very unlikely.

“You don’t have to worry about that,” he said. “The boards are there as an insurance policy. There is no plan to reinstate the draft. The administration has been clear about that many, many times. We will remain a volunteer military.”

Draft talk

Indeed, public opinion polls have consistently 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 and with the Pentagon now calling the war on terrorism the “Long War,” many Americans — and some draft board members — find it hard to believe repeated government assurances that there are no plans to revive conscription.

“When you see a war like we’re in now, you don’t know what will happen,” said Obernagel, a board member since 1992. “We’re always ready to be called up, in case they need us.”

Said Slaton, “I don’t make a conscious effort to keep up with the rumors or stories on any reinstatement. I figure when it happens, we’ll be told to initially meet somewhere and I’ll be there. We’ll be ready.”

Rabineau said he doesn’t hear any of the rumors.

“It never comes up at any of the board meetings,” Rabineau said. “I think it’s because we’re all too old to be drafted.”