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Federal Panel Considering Recommendations For Mandatory National Service


For more than a year, a bipartisan congressional committee has been trying to answer this question - should women be required to register with the Selective Service? That's the agency that registers all men at 18 years old in case of a military draft. It's also looking at whether non-military service should be required of young people to recapture a spirit of national unity. NPR's David Welna reports on the commission's early findings.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Every seat was filled today in the auditorium at the privately owned Newseum, where the National Commission on Military, National and Public Service was rolling out its progress report. Former Republican Congressman Joe Heck chairs that commission. He reminded the crowd how unprecedented the 24 public hearings it's held have been.


JOE HECK: For the first time in our nation's history, a commission was tasked to holistically and comprehensively review the Selective Service system along with Military, National and Public Service. It is truly an historic opportunity.

WELNA: Many in that crowd were public servants themselves, from the military, from volunteer organizations and from government agencies, something Heck seemed keenly aware of.


HECK: The irony of releasing a report that speaks in part to encouraging more people to seek a career in public service during the midst of a shutdown is not lost on us.

WELNA: Finding ways to attract more people to public service, military or otherwise, is indeed one of the commission's main goals. Janine Davidson is a former undersecretary of the Navy and the first woman ever to fly the military's Hercules C-130 transport plane.


JANINE DAVIDSON: De Tocqueville said we were a nation of joiners, and that's what made our civil society so strong - that we jump in and we do stuff. And even in this shutdown in the airport the other day, you know, we always talk about people getting out to help veterans, there's a veterans group there helping the TSA people.

WELNA: And yet, as the interim report notes, military veterans comprise less than 10 percent of the population. And 4 out of 10 young Americans say they never considered military service. Still, all males between ages 18 and 25 are required by law to register for the Selective Service in case a military draft is revived. Women are not, even though they're now allowed in combat units. Commission member Debra Wada says requiring women to register is an issue Congress took up three years ago but never resolved.


DEBRA WADA: It was the impetus, actually, for the creation of this commission. And it's a large question that was given to us. And we're looking to the American public's input. And we've heard a lot from individuals, and we continue to seek input from others.

WELNA: Again, Chairman Heck.


HECK: I know you're all waiting eagerly on the edge of your seat. All right. Will women have to register? I can't tell you because the commission hasn't come to a decision.

WELNA: Heck said, after a year of public hearings, it's clear this sharply divides those who've weighed in on it.


HECK: People have very definitive opinions on this issue. It's not like when you ask the question, they have to take a moment to think about it. It's a visceral response. It's either, yes, they should have to register, it's a matter of equality - or no, they should not have to register because women hold a special role in American society. I mean, that's what it basically comes down to. I don't think there are many people that are on the fence when it comes to deciding whether or not women should have to register.

WELNA: Heck says the commission has a broader concern - the decline of public service.


HECK: Our goal is that there should be a universal expectation of service, that instead of the person serving being the odd person, it's the person who doesn't serve is the odd person. So that within a generation or two, every American is inspired and eager to serve.

WELNA: Fourteen more public hearings are planned in the coming months, with a final report and recommendations due early next year. David Welna, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.