TopVet: Bill Chatfield

Bill Chatfield

When Bill Chatfield attends social gatherings these days, he can expect the small talk to come around, eventually, to this: Will there be a draft, Bill? Followed quickly by, "Tell us it ain’t so." Even though he doesn’t have an easy answer, he does know this: If there is to be a draft, the Selective Service System will be ready. Of this he is sure. Why? Because Bill Chatfield is director of the system.

Only four months into the job, a patronage plum from a grateful President for Bill’s longtime efforts on behalf of President Reagan and both Presidents Bush, Bill has developed a sort of boilerplate response to this query. "If the United States Congress so decrees that some form of conscription is to be instituted, and if the President then chooses to sign legislation making this a reality, then and only then will there be a draft."

Although only Congress has the power to bring back conscription, if a recent vote is any portent of the future, the issue of will there or won’t there be a draft is little more than fodder for the pundits: When Democratic Representative Charles Rangel of New York introduced a bill in the last session of Congress that would have reinstituted the draft, his colleagues in the "People’s House" roundly defeated the measure, 402-2.

Still, Bill acknowledges, this issue and its attendant fears will be "discussed more and more as we go on down the line, and we just have to be ready, no matter what, for any eventuality." With both the Army and the Marine Corps failing to meet their respective recruiting goals for the month of January, the idea of a draft looms large in many minds, despite assurances out of the White House that there are no plans for a draft.

An Honor to Serve

Bill Chatfield wasn’t born to this calling. While he was long interested in public service, heading up the Selective Service System was hardly his ambition. He spent 34 years in the Marine Corps, both active duty and the Reserves. He spent 15 years in the consulting business. Long active in Republican Party politics on the national scene, he helped the first President Bush get elected and got to know the Bush family. He applauded when George W. Bush became President in 2001. Although he had worked for Ronald Reagan for seven years, he had no burning desire in the 90s to return to government service. The events of 9/11 changed all that.

It was Bill’s friend, Bonnie Carroll, who also served President Reagan and the current President Bush, who was instrumental in making the connection. Bonnie knew that the White House was in need of someone to take over at Selective Service. When she learned that Bill was interested in returning to public service, she promoted his candidacy.

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After more than a year in limbo as the Senate held up certain appointments in a tug of war between one senator and the Pentagon over the release of e-mails relating to the Boeing procurement scandal, Bill was finally confirmed. He now gets to deal with 535 elected officials while at the same time attempting to assuage a public nervous about the prospect over a return to conscription.

Bill Chatfield first came to Washington to work as a security and legislative aide in the House of Representatives. "I got to meet and greet 435 different personalities," he recalled in a recent conversation. When he left to go into business for himself, he felt that he might some day like to return to that arena.

And return he did during Ronald Reagan’s first term. He served as a congressional liaison before being appointed to oversee the sunset of the Civil Aeronautics Board, which faded into oblivion when the airlines were deregulated. It was here, stationed in Texas, that he met his bride-to-be, Syndy, a cheerleader for the Dallas Cowboys. After President Reagan was reelected, Bill returned to Washington, where he served in several agencies as a congressional liaison. As Reagan’s second term was nearing its end, Bill Chatfield left; in the wake of 9/11 in George W. Bush’s first term, he itched to return.

Bad Boy

Born in a small town in the Catskill Mountains of New York, Bill spent his formative years "off Exit 13" of the New Jersey Turnpike in the towns of Springfield and Cranford. After attending Union College, he joined the Marines in 1970 because some of his bad boy buddies had joined. It was one of the best moves he could have made.

"I was a bit confused as a juvenile," Bill says. "It was in the Corps that I found direction in my life." The direction was borne of discipline. The Corps, he says, "provides the environment in which a man can build himself. I guess I was searching for that discipline, which taught me to conform and listen rather than try to rebel."

He thrived in the Corps. Sent to intelligence school in Coronado, California, he finished first in his class and was given his choice of a duty station. With the U.S. role in Vietnam winding down, he chose Hawaii – it was, he reflects, "no less than paradise" – and remained there for the rest of his enlistment. "I applied myself because I was properly motivated," he says, "and I was rewarded." He made sergeant in 17 months.

"Without doubt," Bill says, "joining the Marines was the most rewarding decision I ever made. I needed that arena to put my life plan together. It was the exact right place," he adds, "at the exact right time."

When Bill left active duty, he joined the Reserves back in New Jersey, eventually achieving the rank of Chief Warrant Officer 4. He paid the rent doing sales and marketing, eventually gravitating down to Maryland and government service.

Today, that service means overseeing a staff of 165 civilians, 330 Reserve officers who provide training for some 11,000 Selective Service Board members in 2,100 local draft boards and 96 district appeal boards across the country.

While running this agency is not the stuff of a young man’s ambition, it does represent a nexus between ambition and politics. And if it is the will of Congress to reinstate some form of conscription, the system that would facilitate the draft will be, Bill Chatfield promises, "ever vigilant, versed, and ready.

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