Freeman Harrison thought nothing of the index card when it came in the mail several years ago. In minutes he had filled it out and returned it, signing himself up for the Selective Service System. During a military draft he could be called to war.
Now that bombs are dropping in Afghanistan, Harrison, 23, a senior electrical engineering major at Wayne State University in Detroit who is from New York City, said he regrets filling out the card. He said he did so only because he did not want to break the law.
“I didn’t want to be hauled off in handcuffs,” he said.
The U.S. Department of Defense says it has no plans to reinstate the military draft, but as war rages overseas with the possibility of lasting for years, area college students are worried they might be called to fight.
“I just don’t believe in the current cause we’re fighting for right now,” Harrison said. “If I was called to duty, I don’t know what I would do.”
Other students said if drafted, they would drop their books and fight for their country.
“I would enlist before ever being drafted if it came to that,” said John Carter, a University of Michigan junior business major from Chelsea, Mich. “A lot of people before me fought and died to protect my freedom, so why shouldn’t I hold myself to those same standards?”
A U.S. citizen was last drafted in 1973, years before most of today’s college students were born, according to the Selective Service System. That year, the U.S. military converted to an all-volunteer system as the Vietnam War drew to a close.
Between 1975 and 1980, U.S. citizens were not required to register for the draft. But when the former Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1980, President Jimmy Carter made registration mandatory. Women have always been exempted from registering or being drafted.
Because the United States has been at peace for as long as most of today’s college students have been alive, except for the Persian Gulf War and several minor military skirmishes, many are not clear about the law.
“I’m my mother’s only son, so I wouldn’t be drafted, right?” said Lavell Jackson, 21, of Detroit, a freshman business major at Wayne State.
“There’s never been an exemption for being your mother’s only son,” said Lew Brodsky, a spokesman with the Selective Service System.
The law actually says a man can be deferred, not exempted, from duty if he is the surviving son in a family who had a military-related death, meaning a close relative would have to have been killed in a war.
But more than following the law is at stake for college students. They cannot receive financial aid if they are not registered for the Selective Service System. A question on federal financial aid forms asks if they are registered or not.
Most check the box without hesitation, especially during peacetime.
“When there is no imminent danger, you don’t think anything about it, but when there is military action it might cause concern,” said Margaret Rodriguez, associate director of financial aid at the University of Michigan.
Rodriguez said she can remember only one case in 17 years in which a student refused to register and U-M could not process aid for that student.
Although such cases are rare, Rodriguez said not all college administrators think colleges should be in the business of doing the government’s draft work.
“College shouldn’t be where you enforce it, it shouldn’t be here. It’s convenient and the colleges do it for free,” Rodriguez said.
Some administrators note that other government money, like welfare payments for example, are not withheld from men who do not register for the draft.
Brodsky said that Congress in the early 1980s targeted college students and wanted to give them an incentive to register.
“Men must be living up to their responsibility to the nation before they can glean the benefits of our nation,” Brodsky said.
The conflict in Afghanistan will undoubtedly make some 18-year-olds ponder what signing the draft card might mean, Rodriguez said.
“It will change the way some people look at the financial aid form when they see that question there,” Rodriguez said. “I’m sure parents will be thinking about what checking that box means.”
“If the war lingers, I think we might get some calls asking what is the implication of the question, and I wouldn’t blame them.”