Selective Service expands alternatives for conscientious objectors

By Steve ElliottApril 22, 2010

Agreement Signed
(Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

SAN ANTONIO, Texas -- Back in the 1960s and 1970s, compulsory military service - "the draft" - was much more in the forefront of public consciousness. Vietnam War protestors used tactics such as draft card burning, deserting to Canada or even violent civil unrest to get their points across.

While the Selective Service System has been around since 1917 and a draft has been activated and deactivated several times since then, it's been almost 40 years since the last time it was necessary to conscript men between the ages of 18 and 35 into involuntary military service.

And as long as there's been Americans fighting in wars, there have been those who do not object to the idea of serving their country, but do object to the idea of directly killing another human being or being involved in that act. These conscientious objectors are not cowards, said Selective Service Director Lawrence G. Romo, but are simply opposed to the idea of taking another person's life.

Romo, a San Antonio native, was in town April 20 to sign the agency's first Alternative Service Employer Network agreement in 25 years, expanding options for conscientious objectors should a military draft ever be reinstated. The agreement is between the Selective Service System and the Mennonite Voluntary Service, an agency of the Mennonite Church USA.

The signing took place in downtown San Antonio between Romo and Stanley Green, the executive director of the Mennonite Mission Network, and made them the first employer in a quarter of a century to be added to the network. The Mennonite Church USA has followers in 44 states with 109,000 members in almost a thousand congregations.

In addition to the delivery of manpower to the Unites States armed forces, the second mission of the Selective Service is to arrange civilian alternative service for conscientious objectors.

"Few people are aware of that second mission, but we take it as seriously and devote time and resources to ensuring a just and productive alternative for men sincerely opposed to war," Romo said.

According to the Selective Service website (, beliefs which qualify a registrant for conscientious objector status may be religious in nature, but don't have to be. Beliefs may be moral or ethical; however, a man's reasons for not wanting to participate in a war must not be based on politics, expediency, or self-interest. In general, the man's lifestyle prior to making his claim must reflect his current claims.

Two types of service are available to conscientious objectors, and the type assigned is determined by the individual's specific beliefs. The person who is opposed to any form of military service will be assigned to alternative service. The person whose beliefs allow him to serve in the military - but in a noncombatant capacity - will serve in the Armed Forces but will not be assigned training or duties that include using weapons.

"Conscientious objectors have been around since Washington's time," said Cassandra Costley, the alternative service program manager for the Selective Service. "A lot of people in the past thought of COs as cowards, but they weren't. They weren't afraid of getting hurt or killed, they just didn't want to be in the position of killing anyone, whether it was due to personal or religious beliefs."

Fort Sam Houston has played an important part in the history of conscientious objectors. The Building 600 area, commonly referred to as the "Long Barracks" and now undergoing renovation to house the Army's Mission and Installation Contracting Command in 2011, were once used to house conscientious objectors during the Korean Conflict and Vietnam War eras.

Basic training was six weeks for the conscientious objectors instead of the usual eight weeks, since it didn't include weapons training. After basic, they would report directly for training to the other side of the post to become Army medics.

Conscientious objectors during that era reported they were well taken care of while at FSH, since the cadre here knew that these men would eventually be tending to injuries to their fellow Soldiers during battle. While they were housed separately, many conscientious objectors were highly decorated and two received the Medal of Honor.

Thomas W. Bennett and Joseph Guy LaPointe Jr. became the only conscientious objectors housed at the Long Barracks to earn the Medal of Honor in the Vietnam War, and only the second and third conscientious objectors in history to be so recognized. (Desmond Doss, a medic in World War II, was the first.) Both Bennett and LaPointe were killed in action in 1969 and posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.

"Desmond Doss was credited with saving more than 100 lives during WWII and went about it in a quiet and unassuming way," Costley noted. "He actually had to fight the Army to stay in as a CO, and he went out time after time to tend to and save his men, no matter what it took, even if he was hurt himself."

"The work done by COs in prisons and mental hospitals during WWII transformed those institutions, as the COs brought care and compassion to where there was little of it before," Costley added.

"This is an historic moment," Romo said at the signing. "I'm proud this is the first group we'll be signing an agreement with. This will be a good prototype for agreements we will have with other denominations. It's important we respect other religions, because that is one of the founding principles of our country."

After America's draft ended in 1973, the Selective Service System was maintained in a standby status, just in case a return to conscription became necessary during a crisis, according to the Selective Service website.

After March 29, 1975, men no longer had to register and Selective Service was placed in "deep standby." But in 1980, President Jimmy Carter reactivated the registration process for men in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and in reaction to reports that the standby Selective Service System might not meet wartime requirements for rapid manpower expansion of the active and reserve forces.

"Although there is no draft, and no likelihood of a draft, the Selective Service has a responsibility to be prepared for every contingency," Romo said.

It is the law that all men living in the Unites States and U.S. citizens living abroad still must register at 18 with the Selective Service. More than 90 percent of all eligible men are registered. By registering, these young men stay eligible for jobs, college loans and grant, job training, driver's licenses in most states (including Texas) and U.S. citizenship for immigrants.

"We are the insurance policy. We'll have 193 days to get the draft up and running if it's ever utilized," Costley said. "In a democracy like ours, we have to pay attention to the different beliefs of our citizens. We have to perform our second mission with the same zeal we have for our first mission."