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Draft counseling seminar helps youth pastor in Central Plains get perspective


J.E. McNeil, director of Center on Conscience & War, lead a workshop on on draft counseling in Nebraska.


Mennonite Church Canada on behalf of Mennonite Church USA
May 31, 2005
-by Duane Johnson

Henderson, Neb. — Jeff Selzer, youth pastor at Bethesda Mennonite Church in Henderson, is faced with a very old and yet very new dilemma regarding peace issues.

How much should he spend time on preparing young people to deal with issues regarding peacemaking – including a possible draft? These are questions he asked when attending a recent workshop on draft counseling in Aurora. Selzer, 33, who serves at the congregation belonging to Central Plains Mennonite Conference, knows his responsibilities toward the youth extend far beyond teaching pacifism. At the same time, he also knew that the possibility of a military draft loomed large in the immediate future of his church's young men and women.

“Do we care about other people's lives – economics, social justice – or are we only a people of peace when there's a war?” he pondered. “Sometimes I wonder whether we've made conscientious objection a singular issue of being a 'peaceable people.'“

Selzer was one of about 20 participants, mostly from Nebraska peace groups and traditional peace churches, who attended the eight-hour workshop. Their reasons for learning about draft counseling were diverse: a Korean War veteran and high school teacher who wanted to know what he's talking about when students ask him about the draft; a high school senior who thought it would come in handy in college; a lawyer who works as a public defender; a psychologist; a psychiatrist; a college English professor; a peace activist/musician; other activists; and several mothers of draft-age sons.

Their first question – will there be a draft? – was one of the easiest questions for the workshop leader, J.E. McNeil, director of Center on Conscience & War. “I don't know,” McNeil said. Whenever Selective Service reports to the President ... journalists and political pundits speculate and rumors abound. ... “Every time we talk publicly about the draft, it becomes more palatable,” McNeil said.

Although she stressed that resumption of the draft is not imminent, McNeil welcomed the renewed interest in draft counseling sparked by recent international developments. “Before September 11, no one asked about learning to be a draft counselor,” McNeil said. “Afterwards, we did maybe two trainings until the middle of 2002, when it became clear that we were going to invade Iraq. Now we do about two to three draft-counselor trainings a month.”

McNeil welcomes this increased interest because if a draft is reinstated, every community in the nation will have a sudden and immense need for good draft counselors. McNeil, an attorney and one of the nation's foremost authorities on the draft, said Selzer and other draft counselors will have to be good listeners, ask the right questions and pay attention to detail. “They have to be imaginative enough to hear from many different voices ... so that they can match the individual with the right set of rules and advice,” McNeil said.

Perhaps a draft counselor's greatest challenge springs from the fact that Selective Service has two different systems. One, designed to respond to national emergencies, would send thousands of draftees to training camps in less than two weeks after the President requests, and Congress grants, authorization for a draft. The other system allows for more time between issuance of the induction notice and the date a draftee begins training.

Each system has its own set of procedures and timelines for handling postponements and reclassification appeals. Circumstances under which a draft might be started could determine which system is used. Selzer and other counselors must master the intricacies of both. And in either case, the response time for submitting requests for deferments, postponements and reclassifications is only a matter of days, so they must have all the forms at their fingertips.

Overwhelmed but holistic

Selzer said he felt overwhelmed by everything draft counselors need to know but appreciated McNeil describing the processes of both draft systems. He also praised the effort McNeil has made in cultivating relationships with Selective Service officials.

“Too often, we undermine our Christian witness to others with whom we don't agree with by reducing them to a label: the enemy,” Selzer said. “J.E.'s positive characterization of those working in the Selective Service ...makes her witness that much more persuasive.”

With his holistic approach to peace and justice issues, Selzer said he plans to incorporate some of what he learned about the draft into a four-part Bible study for high school class, using Faith & Life Resources' Decide for Peace curriculum.

“I'd like peace to be the focus every spring to allow those who register with Selective Service an annual opportunity to discuss the issues of war,” he said. “Peace studies in spring also segue into servant projects that typically occur in the summer. This gives me the chance to talk about conscientious objection and explore socioeconomic issues of war and peace.”

The Center on Conscience & War's financial resources could be stretched to the breaking point by the implementation of the draft. “That is why we're trying to create the resources that will be needed then, now, such as draft manuals and medical manuals, McNeil said. Until then, the greatest need is for counselors who can advise active-duty military personnel and reservists, McNeil said. It's not our job to just be CO counselors, conforming others to our own mold, she told workshop participants.

“Our job is to be there to help these young men and women when God speaks to their hearts,” McNeil said.

Center on Conscience & War, formerly National Interreligious Service Board for Conscientious Objectors (NISBCO), is based in Chicago, Ill. To learn more about CCW's conscientious objector lobby day on May 16, visit

Sidebar: How to prepare for a military draft

No one knows whether a military draft will be reinstated in the near future. But J.E. McNeil, director of the Center on Conscience & War, suggests several things that traditional peace churches, peace groups and interested individuals can do to lay the groundwork for responding to a draft.

  • Have a trained draft counselor in your community.
  • Help conscientious objectors among the draft-age members of your church or faith community create CO files. Don't forget young women.
  • Beginning with Conscientious Objector Day on May 16, maintain continuous contact with your members of Congress about what COs believe and will and won't do. This helps ensure that the law will treat COs fairly. See Web page
  • Reach out to other faith traditions that may not have such a strong history of conscientious objection to make them aware of the resources available.
  • Apply, or help someone else apply for appointment to the local draft board.