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Archive for Monday, May 27, 1996

NOT GONE, DRAFT REMAINS FORGOTTEN

May 27, 1996

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Many of the dead remembered on Memorial Day were military draftees. Today, young men are still required to register, even though there hasn't been a draft since 1973.

It was the spring of 1944, Virgil Schmidtberger's senior year at Hays High School, and all he and his friends could think about was war.

"With the media glorifying the actions of a lot of our people in the service, that just kind of set us on fire," said Schmidtberger, now 70 and a resident of Lawrence for more than 40 years. "They were heroes to us. So we wanted to become a part of that."

He turned 18 on April 10 of that fierce year of World War II, and he knew his draft notice was on its way to his home. To make sure he got into the Navy, he enlisted before the draft notice arrived.

On the morning after his high school commencement ceremony, Schmidtberger left Hays on a train bound for Kansas City, where he joined the Navy. Weeks after the war ended he was on a destroyer in the Pacific.

Two decades later, young men were again setting sail for Asia, this time to fight in Vietnam. But others were burning their draft cards and fighting with police at demonstrations against the war there. Some moved to Canada or Europe to avoid being drafted, and President Clinton still faces attacks from his political opponents because he didn't serve in Vietnam.

"I thought it was wrong for us to be in Vietnam," said Schmidtberger, a retired decorator. "We weren't there to win a war. We were just there and losing people for no really good reason."

But though he opposed the war, he disapproved of the young men who ran from the draft, which was, in his day, not only a personal milestone but a recognized civic responsibility and a duty of almost solemn national significance.

"I felt that they should not avoid the draft," he said.

Today there is no draft. But like the soldiers recalled on Memorial Day, it is not forgotten.

Spanning history

Even before the American colonies coalesced into a nation, their colonial governments required young men to serve in the military.

The first formal drafts were during the Civil War, when both the northern and southern armies required young men to serve.

On both sides, however, the systems were plagued with corruption. Wealthy young men could buy their way out, paying substitutes to serve in their places.

"It certainly was not a fair and equitable system," said Lew Brodsky, director of public and congressional affairs for the modern-day Selective Service System, headquartered in Arlington, Va.

The Selective Service System was created in 1940 in anticipation of the nation's eventual entrance into World War II.

With the exception of 1947, the country had a draft continuously from 1940 until 1973, conscripting soldiers for service in World War II, Korea and Vietnam.

"The draft went away because as we came out of the Vietnam experience, we decided the country needed to go to an all-voluntary concept in peace time," Brodsky said.

The military has remained all-volunteer since then. But in the late '70s, following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, President Carter ordered the Selective Service System back into action, not to organize a draft, but to be prepared in case one was needed.

The system started enrolling young men in 1980.

It was, at the time, a show of resolve against the Soviets. But although the Soviet Union has since dissolved and the Cold War is history, the Selective Service System continues to collect the names of young men.

Compelling reasons

All men living in the United States are required to register within 30 days of their 18th birthday.

That includes illegal aliens and young men with disabilities. Women do not have to register. Registration forms are available at post offices.

The penalties for failure to register can be severe -- up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. About 20 people have been prosecuted since 1980.

But for many young men, there are equally compelling reasons to register. Many student loans and all federal jobs require it.

The Selective Service System, an independent agency of the federal government, claims that 98 percent of all men between the ages of 20 and 26 register.

Late registration is tolerated -- up to a point. The system is prohibited from accepting registrations of anyone older than 26, unless there's a very good reason for not registering before then -- like moving to the country two months earlier and not knowing the language or that registration is required.

Someone who fails to register by the time they are 26 could be permanently barred from receiving federally guaranteed students loans or from working for the federal government.

"We're more dependent not on the threat of jail and fine but on people's spirit of citizenship and responsibility, and on the fact that they want some of those benefits," Brodsky said.

A rite of passage

Brodsky is the first to admit that the Selective Service System gets little attention from anyone these days. It is now a giant computer database and little else. Today's high school seniors have never lived during a time with a draft.

But old soldiers, who will gather today to remember fallen comrades, remember such times. For them, the draft was, for better or worse, a rite of passage.

"Patriotism ran high in those days," Schmidtberger recalled this week. "There were some that feared the draft, but the majority did not."

Avenue of Flags

Some soldiers went to war and returned home. Others -- draftees and volunteers -- did not.

In memory of fallen soldiers, the Dorsey-Liberty Post No. 14 of the American Legion will put up an "avenue of flags" Monday at Oak Hill Cemetery, 1605 Oak Hill Ave., off of East 13th Street in Lawrence.

American Legion members will begin raising 265 large flags previously used to drape soldier's caskets at 7 a.m. today. The flags will be displayed until 4 p.m. today.

The American Legion's annual Memorial Day service will begin at the cemetery at 11 a.m. today.

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