Another Perspective

National Service for Those Who Missed Out

The Army and Air Force are recruiting older men.

By 7.10.14

Our armed forces have been stretched to the breaking point with the continuing commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq. Troops have experienced three and four combat tours and repeated extensions of their tours in country beyond what was predicted. Reenlistments are down and military recruiters are having trouble meeting their quotas. 

Various strategies are being devised to boost recruitment. The Pentagon has appealed for more generous GI benefits, and some time ago the Army raised the maximum age for recruitment from 35 to 42, the second time it has acted to broaden the pool of potential recruits.

Recently, the Air Force announced extension of the maximum age for enlistment from 27 to 39, meaning it may now be the best choice for those who feel the call to military service later in life. The Navy and Marines continue to cap recruit ages at 34 and 28, respectively.

Not to worry, your average 42 year old Army recruit can probably manage the rigors of basic training just fine. In fact, I know some 62 year olds who would put some young, flabby 18-year-old recruits to shame on the obstacle course and the dreaded ten-mile forced march with full field gear.

Age shouldn’t act as an arbitrary bar to patriotic service to our country in the armed forces. The rigorous training, both basic and advanced, will sort out who can hack it and who can’t. So, I’m all in favor of raising the maximum recruitment age as high as possible consistent with the exacting needs of the various branches of military service.

Expanding the recruitment pool is a good idea for another important reason. American citizens currently in their forties and fifties have been unfairly denied the opportunity to serve in the armed forces by a quirk in the chronological sequence of U.S. wars, “conflicts,” and “peace-keeping actions”. 

They were too young to serve in Vietnam and missed that opportunity to serve our country. The next two military operations were too brief to provide any realistic opportunities for service. For example, the 1983 invasion of Grenada to evacuate threatened American students from the island and the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama to arrest President Manuel Noriega on criminal drug charges were simply too small to provide any realistic military experience for citizens in this age group.

By the time the Gulf War, the Afghanistan campaign, and the War in Iraq rolled around, these 40 and 50 year olds were fully involved in pursuing careers and raising families and had exceeded the maximum recruitment age. They missed out again.

So, we should welcome the innovative changes the Army and Air Force have made in recruitment policy that opens up these military service opportunities to older Americans. Hopefully, the other branches of the U.S. Armed Forces — Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard — will follow suit to afford wonderful opportunities later in life for that in-between generation to serve their country on active duty in the military.

In the days of the draft (which the “in-betweeners” missed), military service was “selective” (hence the Selective Service System, which was created in 1940 for the administration of military conscription in the event of war). The Service at various times used a national lottery (as well as other more mysterious systems) to decide who would serve (be drafted) and who would not. Among the more common classifications used by the Service were 4F (physical or mental disqualification from service), 1-O (conscientious objector), and 4-D and 2-D (minister or studying for the ministry). Those who were prime draft material were classified 1-A (available for unrestricted military service — at times translated as “you’re next”).

The draft ended in 1973 and the U.S. converted to an “all-volunteer” military (so the “in-betweeners were spared once again). Nonetheless, some have long advocated that all citizens should be required to invest at least two years in some form of service to our nation. Under this program, citizens would not be required to serve in the armed forces, rather they could satisfy their national service obligation through a wide variety of paramilitary or other important national or community service assignments, including the Peace Corps, National Park Service, the Veterans Administration, FEMA, border security patrols, and so on.

Of course, libertarians, and others who espouse the “leave us alone” doctrine of citizenship, abhor the notion of anyone being required to do anything. They have argued over the years that the success of our all-volunteer armed forces demonstrates that a national service requirement, much less a reinstatement of the draft, is wholly unnecessary.

On the contrary, a universal national service requirement would enhance our national security, benefit numerous communities across the country, and reward those who serve with a sense of commitment and contribution as stakeholders in our nation’s future. Just ask the Israelis and Swiss how they feel about their government-mandated national service obligation. It is broadly and enthusiastically accepted in those countries as a fundamental obligation of citizenship.

No doubt, these moves raising the maximum Air Force recruitment age to 39 and the Army’s to 42, were not intended to spark a public policy debate over a requirement for national service. The Pentagon brass simply wanted to expand the available pool of potential recruits in light of increasing manpower needs. 

Nonetheless, many feel that a debate over a mandatory, universal federal service requirement is long overdue. The concept is as old as our union. For example, this was George Washington’s view: “It must be laid down as a primary position and the basis of our system, that every citizen who enjoys the protection of a free government owes not only a proportion of his property, but even his personal service to the defense of it.”

Maybe the decisions of the Air Force and Army will lead to a broader opportunity for those geezers and others who missed out to serve our country. Better late than never. 

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About the Author

Gerald D. Skoning is a Chicago lawyer who specializes in labor and employment law.