Friday, July 20, 2018

National Commission on Public Service Meeting Held in Vinton, IA

By Roger Farmer

At 6:30 pm on Tuesday, June 26, 2018, I attended a public meeting of the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service at the Wesley Methodist Church, Vinton, Iowa (about an hour north of Iowa City).   Following are a few memories and comments about this meeting.

I arrived at the meeting room about 6:10 pm and was the second person to arrive, other than 4 or 5 staff people.  The meeting space was a downstairs fellowship hall, which was noticeably warm and apparently without air conditioning.  There were nine tables set up with about five chairs at each table.  Most of the chairs were filled by the time the meeting started.  Around ten attendees were young Americorps volunteers who all wore red shirts with the Americorps logo.  Materials on the table available for attendees included biographies of the commissioners and local speakers, an agenda for the meeting, and a list of questions where public comment was invited.    

There was no public address/microphone system in use, so everybody had to speak up to be heard.  The moderator said that the meeting was being recorded, but I saw no evidence of any recording device and I had the impression that she was reading from a script for this announcement.

The National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service, which consists of eleven commissioners, organized the meeting.  Four of the commissioners were present at this meeting and formed part of a discussion panel.  The discussion panel included Jeanette James, Army veteran and retired US House Representative, who also served as moderator of the discussion panel; Edward Allard III, who was CEO of the Selective Service System during the Obama administration; Alan Khazei, a social entrepreneur; and Tom Kilgannon, president of an organization which advocates for a strong national defense.  (Full biographies of commission members can be found at:

In addition, the discussion panel included three local persons:  John Watson, former mayor of Vinton, Iowa; Susan Hollenkamp, Iowa Director of Americorps, and Mace Huffman, leader of an organization that tries to connect veterans with employment.

The meeting consisted of a panel discussion about a variety of questions asked by moderator Jeanette James.  Following the panel discussion was a question/answer time where audience members could ask questions or make comments.

The initial list of written questions on the meeting tables focused on the military draft, the Selective Service System, and other forms of national service.  Oddly, however, the panel discussion focused on military and other government service opportunities in rural areas, and rarely mentioned Selective Service or the military draft.  

Opening remarks were given by Commission Member Tom Kilgannon who mentioned reviewing the Selective Service System but also talked about the "meaning and value of service." 

Moderator Jeanette James began the meeting by defining service as "personal commitment to the public good" and then asked the local panel members what community needs are present here in Vinton Iowa (a small town of about 5000 persons).   Panel responses included volunteer firemen/policemen, volunteers who assisted in the 2008 flood, 4-H, and Americorps.   The moderator continued with questions to the discussion panel about population/brain drain in rural areas, lack of professional opportunities, examples of service/business partnerships, how service opportunities promote business development, a "culture of service" and the "state of civic life."   Responses were generally positive about volunteer opportunities and civic engagement with some examples given.  The final question asked by the moderator was whether women should be included in draft registration, which seemed unrelated to the previous discussion.

Then the moderator asked for questions or comments from the audience, with encouragement to keep comments under two minutes and related to the topics covered.  The first question asked about the advantages of small towns, which once again seemed to me to be unrelated if the discussion topic was the Selective Service system.  Various other questions or comments were made by audience members, some of which seemed unfocused.

I asked question #6, which was that developing a "culture of service" would be hindered by mandatory, universal conscription as demonstrated by the current operation of Selective Service.  I wanted to emphasize the involvement of Selective Service since it had hardly been mentioned in previous discussion.  Of course, the panel found it difficult to understand my point and nobody thought it would be a problem.

Question #7 was asked by Dan Clark, new JPOG (Just Peace Outreach Group)er (Mennonite group based in Washington, IA) from Muscatine.  He mentioned the fact that he was a conscientious objector, and had prepared a quote from JFK saying "War will exist until that distant day when the conscientious objector enjoys the same reputation and prestige that the warrior does today."   (Good for you Dan !!) 

The last question was asked by one of the young Americorps volunteers who asked about the "prestige of all volunteers in the community," referring to a comment from Dan about the importance of non-military service activities.

After the meeting, Commissioner Edward Allard III talked to me personally, saying that he thought the Selective Service System worked much better than it had during the Vietnam era.  I appreciated his effort to talk to me, although I wasn't sure he understood what I thought about it.  I also met and talked briefly with the director of an Americorps regional training camp, which is apparently located near Iowa City.

After I got home, I watched the 10 pm news on Iowa Channel 2.  The newscast featured a couple of minutes about the meeting with some pictures of people talking, but didn't mention much about the content.  Since the meeting itself was entirely low-key conversation, the newscast featured individual interviews with panel members as well as apparently unrelated images of soldiers marching.

In summary, although the meeting panel participants seemed sincere, the meeting itself was not well publicized, located in a small town, and sparsely attended.  The focus of the discussion was volunteer opportunities in small towns and rural areas.  The Selective Service System and inclusion of women in conscription were mentioned, but this was not central to the discussion.  Conscientious Objection was not mentioned at all during the panel discussion and only occurred during the discussion time when one participant mentioned it.    

So while I am glad that I went to this meeting, the content of the meeting was not oriented toward the concerns of conscientious objectors, and the conduct or continuation of the Selective Service System was not discussed.  Whether the Commission itself will accomplish any useful purpose is unclear to me, but I will be interested to read their final report.

Roger Farmer grew up on a farm in central Illinois and was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War.  He also spent two years as a math teacher in the Peace Corps in Belize, Central America.

He attended the University of Illinois in Urbana, Illinois, and later Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana.  He retired after almost ten years as pastor of the Sugar Creek Mennonite Church in Wayland, Iowa.  For the last several years, he has helped organize JPOG, an informal group which focuses on issues of peace and justice from a Christian point of view.  He is concerned about how to translate the words of Jesus into everyday life, particularly with immigrants and other persons in need as well as bringing a more peaceful atmosphere in personal relationships.

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