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Volunteer Army?
Let's hear it for a DRAFT!

April 2007


Yes, sure enough, that's me. I ask the same question every time I look at that picture that you probably are asking now--"Could Doug Sterner have ever really been that young?" That photo was taken 1969, when I was young, naive, freckle-faced and scared. It wasn't a fear of being sent to Vietnam that concerned me then; I had already volunteered three times to go to Vietnam, and signed up for a special course that mandated it. My only fear was that Basic Training that kill me first.

When I think about how young and innocent I appear it that picture, my first thought is, "How can you not only send a kid like that to war, but go so far as to put stripes on him and put him in charge of other men in a dangerous and deadly situation?" 

Of course, that photo was taken a few weeks into Basic Training thus, in fact, THAT was NOT the kid the Army sent to war. Eight weeks of basic training, another eight weeks of A.I.T., and then a six-month Non-Commissioned Officer Candidate Course changed the kid you see in that photo. That's me again at the right, only a few months later. The Army did what my parents probably thought was impossible; it took a shiftless and floundering teen-age boy and turned him into a man. From the Army I gained maturity, self-confidence, a deep respect and commitment to my comrades, and a passionate love of my country. You see, I've seen life on the other side of the globe and I know first-hand how bad it can be elsewhere, and just how fortunate we are to live in THIS country we call the U.S.A.

To be sure, not all of the guys who went through training with me were volunteers. Many were draftees, young men who for lack of a college deferment or influential parents, received that letter of "Greetings" from the Draft Board. That is NOT to say, of course, that we were an uneducated lot. Our ranks included High School dropouts, High School Graduates, and more than a few men who had college degrees. Contrary to common opinion, the Vietnam War Military was the most-highly-education force in our Nation's history to that time.

We were the volunteers, the drafted, and there was in fact a third group among us--the Volunteered. These were often the "lost young men"--boys who seemed to have trouble finding themselves, or who were good at finding trouble. Some were volunteered by exasperated parents, others were volunteered by a judge who said, "You've got two choices, join the military or go to jail!" The latter was not without precedent in time of war when it was necessary to increase the size of our military. It was done during the Korean War, just as it had been done during World War II. Call it blackmail if you will. Personally, I call it giving the needy a golden opportunity.

Not so since the end of the Vietnam War. The Draft is gone and we now take pride in an All-Volunteer Army. In fact, not only does our Nation no longer conscript unwilling young men to military service, in an effort to build a more professional military, we have imposed some rather high standards for enlistment. The troubled teen with a juvenile record, the rebellious kid who started hanging out with the wrong crowd and got busted with weed, the party-boy with a D.U.I.--they are out-of-luck if they try to join the military in this day and age. The gang-banger doesn't stand a chance!!!

Just last week while contemplating a subject for an over-due "Talking Points" article, I read a letter in the Navy's November 1942 "All Hands". The letter was written by General George C. Marshall, the Army's Chief of Staff, in response to a letter that reached him from the mother of a would-be soldier. Obviously, from the nature of the boy's mother's letter, the kid was a bit of a handful and "hard to handle and his first officers did not help much; then he was transferred and his new lieutenant, taking the pains, worked with the boy and set him straight." General Marshall's reply is of note:

"I am sending you the enclosed letter because I think you will feel repaid for the time and effort you spent on this boy. It is personally gratifying to hear of such instances of intelligent and understanding handling of recruits. The ability to make soldiers from unpromising material is a major characteristic of that invaluable military talent--leadership. 
"Faithfully yours," G. C. Marshall, Chief of Staff

Reading that letter I had to chuckle a bit. "Unpromising material" might well describe ME in 1969 when the photo at the top of this page was taken. A couple of dedicated Drill Sergeants changed that in a few short weeks. And there seems to be a pattern in that.....

  • Unpromising material would CERTAINLY have described the small kid from the Ohio National Guard with a sports injury that left him with bad eyes, double-thick glasses, and failing hearing. Yet Rodger Young turned out to be one of the truly great heroes of that war, sacrificing his life to save his friends.

  • Unpromising material would also describe the tall, skinny Seventh Day Adventist who refused to pick up a rifle or gun, but resisted all efforts to courts martial him as undesirable. Following combat, Desmond Doss' sergeant noted, "The bravest man I ever knew was the man I tried to get kicked out of the Army." 

  • Rejected by the Army Air Force because of a back, broken in an oil-field accident and an extreme streak of independent rebelliousness, John C. Morgan was absolutely unpromising material, until the chips were done and a hero was needed. Even worse, the late Jay Zeamer, who passed away recently as the last living Army Air Force Medal of Honor recipient, was NEVER able to check out in the pilot's seat of either a B-24 or a B-17. Certainly unpromising material.

  • When a Philadelphia hoodlum and wannabe gangster was given the choice of returning to his unit or going to jail after going AWOL during training, Charles Commando Kelly was perhaps defined the words unpromising material.

  • Of course, one certainly cannot forget the 5'5", 110-pound, 17-year old orphan boy with a fifth-grade education who was rejected by both the Marines and the Army Airborne during World War II as undesirable material. When at last given a chance, Audie Murphy became the most-decorated soldier of that war and an American legend.

The bottom line is, the American Dream is the ideal that anyone can rise above their past, their handicaps, and their past mistakes to make something positive of their life. Our freedom has been purchased with the courage and sacrifice of volunteers, the volunteered, and the conscripted. Unpromising material, when properly trained, disciplined, and led, can achieve greatness. 

Today our nation is at war, our military is under-strength, and recruiters struggle to meet their monthly quotas. Those who volunteered, including those who volunteered for "weekend duty", have been called upon to return to the war zone for two and three tours of combat duty, many of those tours exceeding 12 months. (During the Korean War a combat tour ranged from six months to one year; in Vietnam a tour was twelve months.) Therefore I submit the following two solutions:

  1. The concept of an elite Professional Army may be great in peace time, but during time of war you can't be too picky. Had today's standards for enlistment existed during previous wars, not only would it be a toss-up whether we'd be speaking German or Japanese today, our history would be bereft of the vast majority of those men and women who have become our combat legends. The most unpromising material became the combat zone's most indispensable asset. I personally know scores of young men and women who would like to find a new start in military service, but who are denied enlistment for lack of education, minor problems with law enforcement, or perceived physical handicaps that they have learned to live above. I believe we need a change in recruiting policy that will give those willing Americans the opportunity that I, and others like me who might have been unpromising material, received from military service.

  1. In time of war, the call of duty MUST be answered by ALL Americans, not just those who are willing to volunteer. Many a young man dragged into Boot Camp against his will turned out to be a great soldier; in fact, many of them got over their initial reluctance towards military service to not only find themselves, but also find a great career. I believe it is time to give our over-worked volunteers a break, and we can do that best by sending more volunteers, even if they are the volunteered! We need to resume a draft, not only to fill the ranks of our military, but to teach those not ready to go voluntarily just how much they are missing. 

C. Douglas Sterner



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