Who Will Fight the Iraq War?

News & Politics

As an Army medical corpsman, he remembers scrambling across battlefields to reach infantrymen whose bodies had been blown apart, a bloody, mangled mess of severed limbs and screaming agony.

Today, Romero is matter-of-fact about his role in the Korean War and his continuing support of the draft, a hot-button issue that has leapt out of the history books because of the pressing need for more US troops in Iraq. "I was doing something – I felt good about it. Help the guys, that's all that mattered," Romero says, while drinking a Bud Light in VFW Post 2951 on Montezuma Avenue. "If they want freedom here, we have to work for it overseas.
"As far as the fighting, if you have to do it, do it and that's it," he says. "When you get drafted, you have to face it whether you want it or not."

The draft. Conscription. Mandatory military service. For younger
generations, it's a foreign concept, but the draft was used to forcibly recruit soldiers in every major US war from the Civil War to Vietnam. Before the draft was suspended in 1973, more than 1.8 million men were drafted for Vietnam. Thousands more burned draft cards, protesting in the streets or fleeing to Canada or Mexico.

Reinstatement of the draft today seems like a remote possibility. Two bills in Congress seeking to reinstate the draft, and make it applicable to both genders, stalled with little support. The Bush administration has repeatedly denied there is any need for a new draft. Michael Donovan, a research analyst with the Center for Defense Information in Washington, DC, says, "There's a better chance of opening up a McDonald's on the dark side of the moon than reinstating the draft."

At the same time, the Defense Department continues to call more and more National Guard and Reserve troops to fill growing gaps in troop strength in Iraq. The Army also is forcing thousands of soldiers to stay involuntarily in Iraq or Afghanistan for months or a year past their retirement dates. Congress is debating adding up to 39,000 more active-duty soldiers to the Army and Marines next year. Donovan thinks troop levels in Iraq won't drop for at least two to three years.

"If we are going to have to sustain these force levels, where are we going to get the troops? Because the military is already overstretched," he says. "That is a conundrum that no one has yet provided an answer." The conundrum also highlights the concerns and skepticism about the role of the US military in foreign affairs, and has reinvigorated a debate about this role among everyone from Vietnam veterans to former draft dodgers to draft-age men and women.

Tim Origer had been in Vietnam for only one month when his life changed permanently. On March 15, 1968, he was on point leading a nine-man patrol of inexperienced, replacement Marines in an area outside Da Nang aptly named "Booby Trap Alley." When he crested the ridge of a sand dune under the pale light of a full moon, hidden Viet Cong soldiers detonated a buried artillery shell which Origer was standing on. The blast blew him 40 feet into the air, severing his left leg above the knee and draining most of the blood from his body. Two US soldiers behind him were killed or wounded by the spraying arc of deadly shrapnel.

After returning home in 1968, Origer suffered post-traumatic stress disorder and later moved to a remote box canyon in Washington state, where he lived for 17 years, surviving on his disability pension. "I built a house and kind of isolated myself and was armed to the teeth," he says. Origer's commitment to see his two daughters grow up forced him out of his self-imposed exile. After his divorce, he visited Santa Fe in 1986 to help a friend who suffered a heart attack, and he never left. Now, at 56, he is active with the Santa Fe chapter of Veterans for Peace. He protests the Iraq war while trying to help other veterans suffering post-traumatic stress disorder.

He likely could have avoided the war, since he had a four-year football scholarship at the University of Minnesota, but he enlisted anyway. "There was all this controversy over Vietnam, and I went to find out what all the controversy was about," he says. "I don't regret having gone in the service and having served. I regret having been in an army of occupation. I don't think we were liberating anybody from anything. I think it's the same war [in Iraq]. We're doing it again in another country."

Origer supports a reinstatement of the draft if draftees can decide whether to serve in the military or a US civilian corps. "People have this weird sense of entitlement that they're entitled to everything. It's how we can go to a country without any pre-knowledge of a country and decide we're going to change it into some version of America," Origer says about both Vietnam and Iraq. "There's nothing that says a standing army couldn't be out repairing urban ghettos or doing work along the highways or building new schools."

Not all of Origer's colleagues agree. During a recent chapter meeting of Veterans for Peace, most of the 14 members present expressed opposition to reinstatement of the draft. The group includes veterans ranging from WWII to the Persian Gulf War. "It could be a check on our muscular foreign policy if we didn't have a draft," says WWII veteran Norm Budow. In fact, it is the current state of foreign policy that is largely fueling the fears that a new draft will be needed.

During Vietnam, more than 1.8 million men were drafted, but most of the National Guard stayed home. The situation has been reversed in Iraq. There is no draft now, but approximately 40 percent of the more than 140,000 US troops in Iraq and Kuwait are National Guard or Reserve units. Nonetheless, Major Jon Sedillo, the full-time recruiting and retention manager for the New Mexico National Guard, says he is confident the Guard will reach its recruitment goals in New Mexico this year, even though recruits know they could easily end up in Iraq. "Yes, it's on people's minds. I'm not going to lie to you. It's on everybody's mind," says Sedillo, a tall, burly man with short graying hair. "Our mission seems to be evolving on a daily basis."
Approximately 400 New Mexico National Guard members are serving now in Iraq or Kuwait, providing primarily trucking and maintenance duties. Thirty-five New Mexico guardsmen have been injured during the past 15 months in Iraq, but none has been killed.

Congress is uneasy about the current mix of military in Iraq. A bipartisan group of 129 House members sent a letter to President Bush last November, stating, "We are concerned that our armed forces are overextended and that we are relying too heavily upon members of the Guard and Reserve in the continuing war on terrorism."

Origer is more blunt with his assessment. "Who's watching home? I think it's crazy," he says. "We've got wars and potential wars going on around the globe. It doesn't leave a real secure America. That's what the National Guard should be doing is guarding home." To maintain troop strength in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US Army announced last month it was expanding its "stop-loss order," which requires troops to stay with their units for up to 90 days before and after their overseas deployments. As a result, thousands of soldiers will end up involuntarily serving for months or a year in Iraq or Afghanistan after their retirement dates.

Democratic presidential contender John Kerry, a Vietnam veteran who opposes reinstatement of the draft, has called the stop-loss order "a backdoor draft" because "people serving beyond the time of their voluntary service are no longer volunteers." If elected, Kerry wants to add 40,000 more full-time soldiers to the military and expand the role of allied forces in Iraq.

The Pentagon announced in June that more than 5,600 former soldiers in the Individual Ready Reserve also will be called back to duty to fill holes in units in Iraq. The soldiers are not part of active Reserve units but still have a mandatory service requirement. The decision came a month after the Army announced it would pull 3,600 troops from South Korea to Iraq to help relieve the troop staffing crisis.

With such obvious manpower needs, the draft debate has been steadily intensifying – and has reached a near hysterical level on the Internet. "You take the necessity for more people in the Army and a lack of credibility on the part of the administration, then it's not too hard to develop a conspiracy theory out of that mix," says Donovan of the Center for Defense Information, an independent, nonpartisan think tank. Yet despite the ever-shifting troop movements, a return of the draft still isn't the answer for the US military's manpower shortage. Donovan asserts that the US military is more highly trained and specialized now, and wouldn't be suited for thousands of draftees who don't want to be there in the first place.

Dr. Matthew Kelly, a general practitioner in Santa Fe for more than 30 years, has firsthand experience with the draft, calling himself "a certified draft dodger" during the Vietnam War. Kelly initially avoided the draft with a physical deferment for his asthma, which allowed him to attend medical school in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In 1970, he was drafted again in a special physicians' draft to treat the mounting casualties in Vietnam. He attended draft-resistance meetings organized by the Quakers and applied for conscientious-objector status.

"At the hearing, one of the draft board members was shocked a physician would resist the draft. His argument was no one was going to be shooting at me anyway. I wouldn't be out on the front lines. My thought was, 'I don't want to help you shoot other people,'" Kelly says. "There was no question in my mind that the Vietnam War was a bad idea, and I had no business helping those bastards do that stuff."

While some of his friends went underground or openly defied the draft, Kelly just got lucky. He says he never heard from the draft board after his hearing. "I have a hunch my file was lost, and I didn't pursue it," he says. "They didn't bother me, and I didn't bother them." Kelly says he would only support a draft now if the US was being invaded. "I can't separate this issue of the draft from the US military policy that seems to be we will expand military options as long as they are profitable," he says.

Emily Skaftun, a 23-year-old unemployed woman who recently moved to Santa Fe from Seattle, says she would resist the draft if both men and women are required to serve. She believes the drafting of women could make America less likely to engage in questionable wars. "Personally, I would not go [if drafted]. I would do everything in my power not to go," she says. "People don't like to see young women get shot. I definitely think people would care more." Jeremy Jauger, a 20-year-old rising sophomore at St. John's College, believes protests against the Iraq war will increase dramatically if the draft is reinstated. "People don't like the idea of involuntarily serving."

The new draft bills were introduced in January 2003, two months before the Iraq war began. They were introduced by Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY) and Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-SC), both veterans who believe the draft will reinvigorate the US military and spread the sacrifice of war more evenly across American society. The bills have been stalled indefinitely in armed services committees. (None of New Mexico's congressional delegation has expressed support for either bill.)

Under the bills, both men and women from 18 to 25 years old would be drafted for two-year stints until military needs were met, with the remainder serving some type of civilian service. Draftees couldn't hide out in college the way thousands of men did during Vietnam, including Vice President Dick Cheney. Deferments only would be allowed until a draftee graduated from high school or for extreme hardship or physical or mental disability. There are more than 14 million draft-age men in the US; New Mexico now has approximately 100,000.

Since 1980, all 18- to 25-year-old men in America have been required to register with the Selective Service in case the draft is reinstated. Failure to register is a felony punishable by up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Non-registrants also are prohibited from receiving federal student loans and several other benefits. Last fiscal year, the Selective Service sent the names of more than 200,000 non-registrants to the US Justice Department for possible prosecution. "Those names are turned over, but Justice has no desire to prosecute. They are not because there is no draft right now," says Dan Amon, spokesman for the Selective Service System based in Arlington, Virginia. "It would be enforced a lot more if there is a draft." Numerous political Web sites claim the Selective Service received an extra $28 million in federal funding to gear up for a draft as early as next spring, but Amon says the Selective Service System's $26.3 million for the 2004 fiscal year is comparable to past budgets. He also says the Selective Service has no specific plans for implementation of a medical-care draft or a draft into the National Guard rather than the regular military. But the Selective Service's last two annual reports have stated the need to prepare for both contingencies. "Our mission here is to not do something but to be prepared to do it, even if it never occurs," Amon says. "We're not doing anything differently now than we did five years ago or 10 years ago."

Back at VFW Post 2951, Korean War veteran JC Romero shares a few drinks and a smoke with WWII veteran Andy Gonzales, who reminisces about rolling through North Africa and Italy as a machine gunner with an Army tank unit. Gonzales says he emerged unscathed from WWII, except for a piece of cluster-bomb shrapnel that "burned my ass a little bit."

"I was lucky," says Gonzales, who enlisted in 1940 as an 18-year-old high-school student. "I saw people get their heads or arms blown off right in front of me."

Both veterans support reinstatement of the draft for young men and women because mandatory military service would teach young Americans about responsibility and the price of freedom. "If we need soldiers, draft them. Why not?" Gonzales says. "It's pretty rough now [in Iraq], but war is war and I've been through it."

"I feel this is a great country," he says. "Why not fight for your country?"

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