Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
The idea of a military draft can be an emotional one for people old enough to remember the Vietnam War.
People burned draft cards in protest in hopes of avoiding the conflict in Southeast Asia. Although the draft ended in the 1970s, a system is still in place to call up young men to military service if needed in case of a national emergency.
And part of New Mexico Selective Service Director John Caldwell’s job is to make people aware that it exists.
“Right now, the national headquarters is focused very much on registration of men from 18 to 26,” he said. “The reason that they are focused on registration is because, if you look at the country as a whole, the registration rate is not really good.
“The registration rate in New Mexico, from 2017, showed that 18-year-olds are only registering at 55%, which isn’t very good.”
Caldwell said registration reaches more than 90% once young men near their mid-20s, “but the initial registration hasn’t been really good, and is something we’re trying to improve upon.”
And one of the ways to improve those numbers is to make people aware there are consequences for those who fail to register.
Young men could face five years in prison and a fine of $250,000 for failing to sign up, Caldwell said.
“Realistically, are they going to do that to somebody? Probably not. But the potential is there,” he said.
The more realistic consequences, he said, include being denied federal financial assistance if they pursue a college education.
“You’re unable to get federal jobs or post office jobs if you don’t register,” Caldwell said. “You’re unable to get a security clearance, that in turns means that you may not be able to work for contractors who have contracts with the government. There are some commercial companies that won’t hire you if you haven’t registered, even though it’s not required to have a security clearance. … If you’re an immigrant and not yet a citizen, you cannot become a citizen unless you register with Selective Service.”
Caldwell is working to have registrars in place at every high school to help with the sign-ups.
They would provide young men with the information they need to register, but not register them. They would also publicize registration.
Caldwell said the two easiest ways for people to register in New Mexico are to register when they apply for a driver’s license or sign up online at the Selective Service System website at sss.gov.
But young men can only register for the Selective Service when they apply for a driver’s license if they are 18 or older.
Caldwell said he has talked to New Mexico Motor Vehicle Department officials about offering driver’s licenses to teens that would expire 30 days after their 18th birthday.
“That will help our registration with 18-year-olds a great bit,” he said. “I think we’ll go from 55% up to near 90%.”
Caldwell is also trying to boost the Selective Service’s image in addition to promoting registration.
“The Selective Service during the Vietnam era was a bad deal,” he acknowledges. “The lottery was not fair, not good. Everybody hated it. That’s why they were burning the draft cards.”
It’s a system Caldwell believes is fairer than it was during the war. He said local boards are now in place that understand the culture and young men of the community should a draft be reinstated in cases of an emergency.
Selective Service was reinstated in 1980 under President Jimmy Carter in response to the threat of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. A draft can only be reinstated through an act of Congress and the president, Caldwell said.