Daniel Varela ’18 never envisioned that registering for the military draft had anything to do with applying to a private university. But as he answered questions about his education and family’s income on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, Varela came across a box that he hadn’t expected.
“Register Student for Selective Service,” it read.
After his initial surprise, Varela learned that males aged 18-25 are required to register for the Selective Service, which maintains a list of the draft-eligible population, in order to qualify for federal programs, including federal student loans, job training and security clearance, according to the Selective Service System website. Despite his concerns, Varela reluctantly complied with the law.
“I was kind of nauseous at the fact that I actually went through and did it,” Varela said. “I did process it for a week. I was like, ‘do I really need this federal aid?’”
Although every male is required to sign up within 30 days of their 18th birthday, Varela said he was upset that registration for the Selective Service is tied to financial aid.
“I’m low income, so I need financial aid to attend a private university for four years,” Varela said. “It’s just one of those things that you can’t really get yourself out of. It feels like you’re being tied down.”
Varela also said he thinks it is unfair that only males are required to register.
In a Chronicle poll of 349 students, 65 percent said that they think the Selective Service requirement should include all genders.
“I feel like it says that it’s your duty as a man in America that you have to register for the draft, but there are women and transgender people who are much more capable of those things than I am,” Varela said.
In June of 2016, the Senate approved a version of a military policy bill that required women 18 and over to register for the Selected Service, according to the New York Times. However, this change was not included in the approved legislation.
“I’m curious as to why this is still a thing and why they haven’t updated it yet, especially because in today’s society, we don’t like putting gender barriers on things,” Taia Cheng ’19 said.
As a female student entering West Point in the fall, Izzy Reiff ’18 said she knows that the military hasn’t historically been completely equal based on gender and doesn’t anticipate that changing soon. Women in the military were not allowed in front-line combat roles until the Defense Department lifted the gender-based restriction on military service in 2015.
“I think that you just have to kind of go into [the military] with the mentality that you know some things are going to be stacked against you and that’s just the way it is,” Reiff said. “Whether or not that’s good and fair or unfair, you just have to set all of your personal opinions aside and figure out how you’re going to get through it.”
For Reiff, serving the country is not an obligation.
“I’m doing it totally differently because I’m going far out of my way and making an active choice to serve,” Reiff said. “I know people in other countries who have been conscripted, and what I’ve heard is that you have to just make that best of it.”
Inspired by her family’s background in communist China, Reiff said that she hopes to double major in computer science and Chinese at West Point and serve the military by working in cybersecurity or intelligence. She said most people who go to military academies come from military families, but it is her family’s experience with communism that drives her to serve.
“I’m not minimizing the problems in our society or saying that we can’t be doing better, but I still feel lucky and thankful that I was born here and now, and I feel like this is a way for me to tangibly do something that expresses that,” Reiff said.
Because of his family’s experience in the military, Varela said he was deterred from a career path in the service.
“My family has a big military background and I’ve seen what the military did to them psychologically, so I just don’t want to be a part of it,” Varela said.
Although there has not been a draft since the Vietnam War, Varela said that signing up for the Selective Service has caused him to contemplate the possible effects of being enlisted. He said that now, whenever he reads a news alert on his phone, the possibility of being drafted remains in the back of his mind.
“If I were to go to war, what’s going to happen to me?” Varela said. “How will that affect my education? How will that affect my life? You come to America thinking you have liberties, can do whatever you want to do and have social mobility, but if we have these requirements that every citizen has to take, it obscures that mindset that you can do whatever you want here in America.”
Matt Siegel ’19, who registered for the Selective Service at the DMV the day after his 18th birthday , said he is not worried about the prospect of being enlisted in the draft.
“It’s not a real issue because I don’t ever see our military needing more people,” Siegel said. “No one else in the world even comes close to the United States’ military prowess.”
The consequences of failing to comply with the Military Selective Services Act, which can include a fine of up to $250,000 and a prison term of up to five years, are more significant than the consequences of registering for Siegel.
“It’s a numbers game,” Siegel said. “The odds of me being drafted, or of any of my friends being drafted, are so low that it’s not worth it to take the risk. The risk is already minimal, so there’s really no point in not signing it.”
Out of 359 students polled, 52 percent said they were aware that males are required to register for the Selective Service when they turn 18.
When Irene’s* brother, who is in college, unexpectedly received a letter in the mail saying he had to register for the Selective Service, his mom told him to ignore it.
“It’s scary to think that he could be obligated to do that,” Irene said. “After he got the letter, he was talking to my parents and was trying to talk to people who were on his floor in college. They all either had no clue what he was talking about or they were like, ‘Yeah, I did it.’ However, my mom didn’t want him to.”
Before receiving the letter, Irene and her family didn’t know the requirement existed.
Her parents said they were confused when they were told her brother had to register, because they hadn’t heard about it from any of his friends who were already 18.
“They were kind of blindsided by it,” Irene said.
Cheng also said she didn’t know there was a requirement until recently.
“It makes me a little bit uncomfortable thinking that my little brother would have to register when he turns 18,” Cheng said.
However, Varela said he thinks there should not be a requirement to register for the Selective Service.
“Luckily, we’re not a country where there is a draft and every kid has to go into the army,” Varela said. “People who want to do it are definitely more successful than the people who don’t. I think [the requirement] is a weird thing that we have in place, but no one ever talks about it because we just accept the truth that we have to sign up for it. And that’s final.”
*Names have been changed.