The End of an Era by Leo Dougherty

CSM Mellinger

 The Associated Press reported on, of all days, July 4, 2011 that Command Sergeant Major Jeff Mellinger (Fort Belvoir, VA) is believed to be the last Army draftee on active duty and is about to retire.  He will have completed 39 years of active duty military service when he walks through the gates of Fort Belvoir for the last time.  It will mark the end of an era.

If you are 40 or older the chances are you remember a time when conscription was an accepted part of a teenager’s life.  You expected to be drafted into the Army if you did not enlist in one of the other branches of service, unless you were medically disqualified.
CSM Mellinger then and now
            In 1973 however, partly or perhaps mostly in response to opposition to the War in Vietnam the draft was discontinued.  Like so many things our government does that are prompted by politicians reacting to political winds of the times, it seemed like a good idea at the time.  I was not drafted and was not even eligible to apply for a draft card when I enlisted so the draft didn’t mean a lot to me.  I didn’t think it was such a bad idea to discontinue conscripting young men into serving our country.
            Now, almost 40 years later, I believe we could have done a better job of managing the draft following the end of the War in Vietnam.
            Why do I think we could have done a better job managing the draft, rather than discontinuing it?  First, the likelihood that we would have more representatives in the House of Representatives and the Senate with military experience is greater.  That military experience would very likely result in greater consideration by elected officials of when and where our government would send our troops, our money, and our wartime resources before making a military commitment.
            Equally important, far more members of society would have experienced military service and thus their families would have a much greater understanding of the stresses loved ones must endure during deployments.
            Finally, and maybe most importantly, today’s military personnel and their families would not have to endure multiple deployments while the majority of America’s citizen’s continue with their lives as if nothing was going on in a country thousands of miles away. 
            The Selective Service System still exists today.  Our government could schedule a draft if it wanted to but in my humble opinion it lacks the political courage to do this. If it did schedule a draft out of necessity it could also stop a draft when the necessity ended.  Under such circumstances it would be interesting to see how quickly our elected leaders would be to involve our country in war when their constituents would be keenly aware that everyone would be invested and engaged in such a war. 
            I believe that if American citizens felt a war was just and necessary we would see the kind of national commitment and unity seen during World War II.  I also believe we would see much more thoughtful debate about wars that essentially involve policing, nation building, or interceding in civil wars of other countries.
            One other thing I think we could have done and should have done when we ceased drafting young men to serve in the military is provided a choice; serve two years in your choice of a military branch or serve two years in a program created to better America at home.  Had we done this we might not have a society that expects instant gratification, a society that seems to no longer have room for opposing opinions in its national discourse, and a society that seems to think it’s OK for others to do the work of representing and defending our national interests around the world.
            But, I’m just an old man who still thinks it’s an honor to serve my country.  I still believe the best experience any young man can have is to learn discipline, to learn self-worth, to learn team work even with some people you may not necessarily like or get along with, to learn pride, to learn leadership as well as following, and most of all to learn just what honor really is.  These are the characteristics I believe come from civic service and should be required learning for all young people. 
            According to the Associated Press, Command Sergeant Major Mellinger told the draft board in 1972, “I don’t need to go into the Army, I’ve got a job.”  His job was hanging drywall.
            The era of a 19 year old drywall hanger being required to serve America in some way and along the way learning about honor, commitment and all the other character traits that come with military or civic service ends with him.  Maybe I’m out of touch with the reality of the 21st Century but I remember when it was a source of pride for a family to say their son or daughter served in the military or in some government service program that made us better not just in the eyes of others, but in our own eyes.  I remember the pride I felt every time I returned home on leave or liberty.  And I remember the sense of accomplishment I felt as I walked out the gate of the Navy base in Newport, RI that last day.  It’s sad that so many young folks may never know those feelings.  And it should be unacceptable to society and elected officials that such a small group of American families have to shoulder the burden of serving and defending our country.  
CSM Mellinger will probably have this same smile on his face when he walks out the door for the last time.  I sure did.