College of Engineering junior Tasos Charalambides learned to drive in an armored personnel carrier. When he started driving the carriers at the age of 17, he was too young to hold a driver’s license in his native Cyprus.
Charalambides was a soldier in an army infantry unit. Cypriot law requires that all able-bodied young men serve 25 months in the military after graduating from high school.
Charalambides called his military service “a waste of time,” but he acknowledged the need for Cyprus to have such requirements because of its small size and the country’s history of conflict. Turkey controls the northern part of the island. When the Turkish army invaded the small island nation in 1974, his uncle was forced out of his home in northern Cyprus.
“That’s what you’re fighting for,” he said. “You don’t forget about that.”
With the United States increasingly pressed to recruit soldiers for the Iraq War, some have floated the idea of reinstating the draft or instituting mandatory national service. Such efforts have failed to gain any political traction, though, and have been disavowed by everyone from President Bush to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.
The U.S. Selective Service is planning to test the draft system in 2009. Selective Service officials have been quick to defend the test as a regular occurrence, not a sign of an impending draft.
According to a Gallup poll released in 2005, 86 percent of teenagers think the government should not reinstate the draft. LSA senior In-Hoon Choi, though, said he thinks that Americans would learn to live with compulsory service.
“People would adapt,” said Choi, who plans to join the South Korean military after he graduates in May. “People are a lot more adaptable than you think.”
South Korea requires all able-bodied men to serve for two years – more if they join the navy or the air force or serve as an officer.
He said that although the mandatory service requirement is a “necessary evil,” South Korea needs it to defend itself against its hostile neighbor to the north.
Choi said he’s not nervous, even though he will have to forgo the freedom he has grown accustomed to as a college student in the United States. Choi, a member of Encore, a campus hip-hop dance group, said he will have to give up his hobby while he serves.
Learning to be a soldier
Charalambides said the first three weeks of training were the hardest. It was the longest time he had ever spent away from home.
He had to wake up at 5 a.m. after sleeping in a small one-room barracks with more than 70 other men – many of whom he disliked. He had to get used to following orders, even those he thought were irrational. Higher ranking officers often screamed at him for minor offenses.
“They break you,” he said. “You go from being a high school kid to being your own man.”
Some aspects of military service are universal. University of Michigan students from Korea, Iran, Cyprus and Israel all complained about the food and the early wake-up calls. They all remembered the first time they shot a gun.
Charalambides learned to shoot using a Zestava rifle, an assault rifle that closely resembles an AK-47.
“I had never fired a gun and you know the whole bang of it was like a really new experience,” he said.
He said he quickly got used to it.
Rackham student Panagiotis Christodoulou also served in Cyprus. He said he sometimes enjoyed “night shot,” when the soldiers would practice shooting through special night-vision viewers. For the most part, though, he wasn’t enthusiastic about shooting.
“I always sucked with the gun,” he said. “I don’t like guns anyway.”
In Cyprus and Korea, only men must serve in the military. Israel requires men to serve for three years and women for two. Serving as an Israeli officer adds another year.
In Israel, only religious women, married women or those with medical problems can get exemptions from the required service.
Rackham student Limor Ben-Har joined the Israeli army in October of 2000. Most Israelis serve between high school and college, but Ben-Har went to college first and earned degrees in political science and French at the University of Tel Aviv.
Ben-Har called her M-16 “the broom” because it was so long.
At first, Ben-Har was disappointed when she learned that she had been assigned to the intelligence analysis unit – her third choice. When she joined her unit and learned about the issues she would be studying, though, she changed her mind.
She said she is forbidden from disclosing anything about the topics she examined during her time in the army. She said she wrote reports and attended briefings and meetings in what she described as a “race after information.”
At just 20 years old, she had access to classified information.
“That’s just the way it is,” she said.
Ben-Har’s commanders tried to convince her to stay in the military after her time was up. Instead, she went to work as a senior coordinator for defense policy in the Israeli National Security Council. She prepared papers and presentations used by then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and helped design the plan to withdraw Israeli troops from the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank in 2005.
Ben-Har said mandatory service benefits the country. She said it makes people engaged in politics, ensures that “good people” enter the military system and breaks down social boundaries. It also helps young people build develop skills and maturity, she said. It does have disadvantages, though.
“You do waste the best years of your life, basically, instead of studying and working,” she said.
Paying his way out
In Cyprus, a small number of men escape service by falsely claiming mental health problems. But they later have to face questions about their mental health as well the stigma attached to not serving, Charalambides said.
LSA sophomore Reza Dadashzadeh has dual American and Iranian citizenship. His Iranian citizenship obliges him to do two years of national service in the military or the Iranian government.
Dadashzadeh was born in Michigan and spent most of his childhood in Kansas. Besides visits, Dadashzadeh lived for only one year in Iran with his family during the third grade.
To escape the requirement, Dadashzadeh paid the Iranian government about $4,800. Only males living outside of Iran can take advantage of this exemption.
After he receives the exemption, Dadashzadeh will be able to freely enter and leave Iran. Without the exemption, he would be entitled to only one exit visa from Iran each year.
Dadashzadeh said he never thought the Iranian military service requirement would be an issue for him. On his last trip, though, he almost left Iran to go to Dubai before realizing he would not be allowed back in because of the visa restrictions.