Cover Story: Jury of Belief

The Selective Service wants to know what you really believe

Jymi Bolden


A draft board member for the past 20 years, Francis Marko says some of his friends died in the Vietnam War.



Meet Francis Marko, a 58-year-old Sharonville resident and one of about 30 Selective Service (SS) board members responsible for deciding the fate of Hamilton County residents ordered to military service if a draft is activated.

Under existing law, during a draft, every male age 18-25 is considered available for service unless he files for a deferment or exemption. That means proving their cases before a group of five volunteer citizens appointed by the SS.

If you live in Sharonville, Glendale or Forest Park, Marko would be one of your judges, peering from behind his glasses, perhaps fiddling with his cane, as you explain why you should be exempt or deferred from military service.

Current law allows exemption or deferment for a handful of reasons. Ministers are exempt from military service. Foreign residents and those with dual nationalities are exempt under certain conditions. If an individual can prove military service would cause hardship for his family, he might qualify for deferment. High school students are permitted to graduate before induction.

Don't stutter
While circumstances determine eligibility for most deferments and exemptions, a far more controversial one is based purely on a person's beliefs.

A conscientious objector is someone opposed to military service for religious, moral or ethical reasons.

To earn status as a conscientious objector, an individual must appear in person and prove the authenticity of his belief to the board members at the local SS office. Men classified as conscientious objectors would be assigned to non-combat duty in the military or to civilian jobs that contribute to the national interest.

In determining who qualifies as a conscientious objector, board members function as thought investigators, asking the objector questions about the longevity of his belief, his motivation and sincerity. They are, in some ways, Orwellian judges with the power to send citizens grudgingly into combat and, possibly, to their deaths.

"Let's face it," Marko says. "This is a serious business."

He speaks with a certain amount of intensity, the kind that can only come from personal experience. During the Vietnam War, he saw the ramifications of decisions he could be making.

"I'd seen several of my friends go to the draft and a couple of them even killed in Vietnam," he says. "It gave me some kind of appreciation for the seriousness of it."

Marko didn't serve in Vietnam. The day the lottery began, he made a doctor visit that resulted in a medical exemption. Marko was recovering from a car accident that left him with a broken femur. Years after having a metal pinion inserted, he now walks with a cane due to complications from the accident.

While he's not a military veteran, he is a Selective Service veteran. He finishes his 20th year as a board member this year, the limit for service. Although he never had to make decisions during a draft, he has received training every year since 1984. Once a year board members are required to attend several hours of training that includes mock hearings and examples of gray-area cases.

April Shereda, a board member in Anderson Township, says the SS provides a handbook with guidelines. For example, someone who objects to military service based on political reasons will not receive an exemption. Nor will someone who opposes the current war but not all wars in general.

She provides a foggier example she encountered during a training session.

"There was a guy who was a part-time pastor, but he also sold cars to make a living," Shereda says. "Now that's up for discussion."

A full-time pastor would qualify for an exemption, but a part-time pastor falls into one of the many gray areas that local board members might judge. In the mock board hearing, the members exempted the pastor because he essentially did the same amount of work that any full-time pastor might do.

Marko uses another example — someone who claims to have adopted a religious belief that doesn't allow participation in warfare. He would ask how long the individual has held that belief. If the individual says he adopted it recently, especially after the draft was initiated, Marko says he would vote against exemption.

Even though Marko has about as much board experience as possible, he still isn't certain about some situations. For example, anyone older than 18 can be appointed to a local board. If that board member were drafted and asked for a deferment, Marko says he wouldn't know what to do.

In most cases, though, he believes acute questioning and observations allow board members to make well-founded judgments.

"This is based on sincerity," he says.

Verbal presentation, body language and even such factors as incomplete answers or stuttering might be taken into consideration, according to Marko.

"It would be a variety of things," he says. "The burden of proof is on the applicant."

Marko says he doesn't think the war in Iraq is right, but he wouldn't let his opinions stand in the way of his duty as an objective judge.

"My personal opinions are just those — personal," he says. "The bottom line is you do have a responsibility."

Not ready for a draft
A former supervisor at the Ford plant in Sharonville, Marko applied for a board position in 1984 after he saw a newspaper advertisement.

You aren't likely to find a Selective Service advertisement in Sunday's paper. In fact, the agency is facing significant budget cuts as it seeks to replace the many local board members who were appointed in the early 1980s and are meeting their 20-year limits.

"We are under a big budget crunch right now," says Lee Holton, state program manager at the Selective Service's Region 1 Headquarters in Illinois. Region 1, which includes 16 states, has 11 full-time employees, 122 part-time reservists and nearly 4,000 local board members.

"Besides having a reduced budget for fiscal year '04, we also got reduced an additional 20 percent basically," Holton says.

As a result of the budget cuts, which Holton attributes to the financial demands of the war on terrorism, the agency has curtailed training this year, leaving many board members seriously undereducated.

Bernard Breitenbach, a board member in Forest Park, was appointed six months ago but has yet to attend a training session. In theory, board members receive eight to 12 hours of training following their appointment. Then they receive four hours of training each year after that.

Breitenbach says he doesn't feel comfortable answering questions about how decisions are reached by local boards. Nor does Timothy Keyes, a board member in Groesbeck who was appointed in December and has yet to receive any training.

Maj. Mark McDonald, an Air Force Reserve officer who screens local board candidates, says Cincinnati has a board member vacancy rate of about 10 percent because of older board members meeting their service limit. As a candidate interviewer, McDonald says he looks for board members capable of making clear decisions without bias.

He files the results of his interviews with the SS, which must then ask the governor of the state to recommend the candidate. After approval from the governor, the SS director appoints the candidate in the name of the president.

It's a lengthy but necessary process that doesn't help fill the local board vacancies. Some of the seven boards in the Cincinnati area have two vacancies, McDonald says. Though the boards are supposed to reflect the diversity of the communities they represent, McDonald says it's a struggle to attract young people and those in the inner city to serve on local boards.

The mounting vacancies and the slashed budget have left some people curious about the Bush administration's policy. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said in September 2002 that there was "not a chance" of reinstating the draft. But with the hike in military activity during the past few years, the nation is probably closer to a draft than it has been since Vietnam.

"This is probably, in my estimation, as close as we have come to giving it some serious thought," Marko says. "In fact, that was a topic of our conversation of our training last year." ©

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