How do the draft, recall to duty and stop-loss work?

January 06, 2020 - 11:11 am

As tensions rise in the Mideast, more and more people — service members, veterans and civilians — are wondering what it may mean for them.

The last time a draft was active in the United States was 1973 when the Selective Service was suspended after decades of conscription for various conflicts and in peacetime.

Curiosity about the draft apparently led the Selective Service website to crash last weekend, which the service system said was “due to the spread of misinformation.” Google searches for words such as “conscription,” “draft” and “selective service” all spiked, memes went viral and #WWIII began trending.

But it's not just the draft that has people concerned. Veterans, including retirees, can be recalled to duty in times of crisis.

How would a draft work?

If the military required additional troops after all available reserve service members were called to active duty, Congress and the president could reinstate a draft.

In the event Congress passed and the president signed into law a re-establishment of military conscription in the United States, the Selective Service System arm of the executive branch of government would enter draft mode and begin a multi-step process:

• A lottery created by the National Institute of Standards and Technology would randomly draw birthdays to determine the order in which “registrants of prime draft age would be called” for service, according to the Selective Service.
• A man is in the first priority group for a possible draft during the calendar year of his 20th birthday. On Jan. 1 of the year a man turns 21, he drops into the second-priority category, and so on, until a man is 26, “at which time he is over the age of liability for the draft,” according to Selective Service.
• Those facing conscription into the service would be first ordered to report for physical, mental, psychological and moral exams to establish whether they are “acceptable” for military service. The men approved would next have a chance to file a claim for “postponement, deferment or exemption” before they receive their conscription orders.
• Appeals boards would be established to process claims and conscription notices would be sent out to men deemed acceptable. Men who are selected for service would have 10 days to report to a local military processing station for conscription or file a claim.
• The Selective Service must deliver its first group of draftees to the military within 193 days of the onset of a crisis.
• The Selective Service also would administer an “Alternative Service Program” for men who are conscientious objectors. That program would include services required of the men in place of serving in the military.

Failure to register for selective service is a felony. Immigrant men of eligible age also are required to register, regardless of documentation status.

Women are not required to register for selective service since current law refers specifically to “male persons.” A Congressional commission is currently reviewing the male-only registration policy and is expected to create a report and recommendations by March. 

History of the draft

A system of conscription was used during the Civil War and again during World War I. The draft was dissolved at the end of each conflict. 

In 1940, before the United States entered World War II, the first peacetime draft was established. At the end of the war, the draft law was allowed to expire but was re-enacted fewer than two years later for the Cold War.

From 1948 to 1973, in both peacetime and during military conflicts, men were drafted. Conscription authority expired in 1973, but the Selective Service System remained in “standby” mode in cases of national emergency. 

The United States has been in a near-constate “state of emergency” for about four decades, granting additional crisis-time powers to the president, including recalling veterans to active duty. 

Recall to service

There are several ways a veteran can be recalled to service:

  • Inactive Reserves (IR) or Individual Ready Reserves (IRR): All enlistments in the U.S. military require a minimum eight-year service obligation. Any time a service member does not spend on active duty or is active in the National Guard or Reserves is spent in the Inactive Reserves. 

IR service members receive no pay and do no military work or training. But they can be recalled for service by Congress and the president. 

Enlistment contracts specifically say: “FOR ALL ENLISTEES: If this is my initial enlistment, I must serve a total of eight (8) years. Any part of that service not served on active duty must be served in a Reserve Component unless I am sooner discharged.”

If there is no national emergency, the president is limited to call fewer than 200,000 Reservists and IR service members for fewer than 400 days. 

  • Retirees: Those who spend at least 20 years in the military and draw retired pay can be recalled to active-duty service for life, though it is unlikely for those retired more than five years or older than 60. 

Retirees ordered to return to active duty will receive full pay and allowances, according to Pentagon policy, and in general, will return to the rank they retired with. In a national emergency, retirees can be recalled for an indefinite time period. 

Retirees, like draftees, are called to service according to several priority categories. The most likely are those who are not disabled, younger than 60 and retired fewer than five years, followed by those retired more than five years and then by disabled and non-disabled retirees of all ages and retirement dates. Some policies vary based on the branch of service and enlisted/officer status. 

The likelihood of recall to active duty also depends on the demand for a retiree’s skills during a national emergency. 

In 2017, President Donald Trump issued an executive order amending President George W. Bush’s executive order issued on Sept. 14, 2001. The amendment expands federal authority to recall retired service members to active duty. 

Stop loss

Those currently serving on active duty or in the Guard or Reserves could be required to stay past their agreed-upon separation date. 

The stop-loss policy can be put into place during times of national emergency. 

Stop-loss was originally established after the Vietnam War, involuntarily extended enlistment contracts. It was used again following 9/11. 

Reach Abbie Bennett: or @AbbieRBennett.

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