No draft, but boards are poised and ready

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The U.S. government hasn't drafted a male into the military since 1973, but the Selective Service System still oversees 2,000 draft boards nationwide that could spring into action on short notice.

Pennsylvania has 85 draft boards, each with five members, all volunteers. There are seven boards in Allegheny County.

"What they want is everyday people running it -- people with common sense," said John C. Nicotra, 56, of Ross, who sits on a board covering a portion of the North Hills.

About 10 years ago, Mr. Nicotra received a letter from then Gov. Tom Ridge, telling him he had been nominated for the position. He doesn't know who suggested his name to the governor. But, before his nomination, he had been active in Democratic politics in Pittsburgh and had served as a state constable for six years.

The Rev. Kimberly A. Rapczak, of McKees Rocks, a member of the same draft board, volunteered for the post last year after finding an application on the Internet. She said her opposition to the Iraq war prompted her decision, although she acknowledges she would have to vote against some men who were seeking deferments if the draft returns.

"I do recognize there are instances when force is necessary," she said. "But I think our military is used too frequently and sometimes in dubious circumstances."

The other three board members are Jean M. Nowak of Crafton, and Martin F. Rouen and Paul E. Zippel, both of Franklin Park.

Western Pennsylvania's top administrator for the Selective Service is Lt. Col. Marie B. Lowe, an officer with the Army Reserve. She interviews board applicants and organizes annual training sessions.

"They're patriotic people," said Col. Lowe, a teacher in the Avella Area School District who plans to retire this year from the Army. "They're volunteering to serve their country."

The country, however, won't need their service until both Congress and the president decide to reinstate the draft, a possibility during a crisis that requires a vast expansion of the military.

Then the Selective Service System would hold a national lottery, giving each day in the calendar year a number from one to 365. Men who turn 20 the year of the draft and whose birthdays fall on days with low lottery numbers are the most likely to be called for service.

The draft then moves to the 21 to 25 group, one age at a time. Men between 18 and 19 are unlikely to be drafted, although they are eligible.

Draftees would report to Military Entrance Processing Stations for physical examinations. Men who receive a 1-A classification are "available immediately for military service."

But they would also have a chance to ask local draft boards for deferments, citing religious beliefs, family hardship and school enrollment.

Unlike the Vietnam era, when college students avoided service, today's students would get deferments that last only to the end of the semester in which they receive their draft notices. (Seniors could defer to the end of the school year.)

Three months ago, Col. Lowe brought local draft board members together at the Bethel Park municipal building for practice hearings.

In one scenario, a 20-year-old man told the board that he needed to run his family's business and take care of his younger brother after both parents were killed in a car accident. He asked for a hardship deferment. The board granted it.

A second 20-year-old man, a basketball star at a local college, brought his minister to testify about his religious objections to war. But board members decided he was more focused on sports and becoming a professional player. They denied his request.

"He just wanted to get out of the service and make millions of dollars," Mr. Nicotra said.

Conscientious objectors need to demonstrate a long-term commitment to antiwar beliefs, not just opposition to a current war. And they still have to provide some type of national service, such as a non-combat position in the military.

The Selective Service System also has a separate process for drafting health care professionals.

If local draft boards deny a deferment request, draftees can file an appeal. The first conscripts must report to the Department of Defense within 193 days of the beginning of the draft.

"I think it would be a mistake to not have it in place," said Mr. Zippel. "Hopefully it's never necessary."


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