by Bailey Porter
photography by Beatriz Mendoza
“To be true to one’s conscience is very important, even if that doesn’t agree with the government,” says Enten Pfaltzgraff Eller, who, at 20 years old, took on the U.S. government with little more than his faith and convictions on his side. Twenty-two years after Pfaltzgraff Eller became the first American to take his refusal to register with the Selective Service to trial since the Vietnam War era—a choice that could have put him in prison for up to five years—the tall, soft-spoken computer wiz and former pastor stands by his faith-based decision to protest.
In 1982, Enten was a junior at Bridgewater College in Virginia. Two years before, the Carter administration had reinstated the Selective Service System after it had been suspended in 1975. As a college student, Enten fell within the male 18 to 25-year-old population that was required by law to register with the Selective Service.
Enten knew that he would identify himself as a conscientious objector. But before he could, certain requirements had to be fulfilled. The Selective Service does not make classifications, so anyone seeking conscientious objector status or otherwise expelling or deferring military service can do so only after he is called to duty. Enten would have had to not only register, but he would have had to be called up, both steps he was unwilling to take. He calls it a calling from God. “It was not planned or even my first choice. But the reason I didn’t register was because I was following where God wanted me to go.”
Deeply rooted in the Brethren faith, Enten grew up in La Verne, surrounded by the teachings of the Church of the Brethren, which, along with the Quaker and Mennonite churches, is traditionally a proponent of peace.
Attending youth groups on Second Street as a child, he remembers talk of the draft and conscientious objector status, he says. He names Mother Theresa, Gandhi, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Martin Luther King Jr. and Church of the Brethren pastors as inspirational leaders who have tried to stay faithful. John Naas, in particular, is influential, Enten says. Naas is known for his contributions to the expansion of the Brethren faith in America and for standing up to the King of England by refusing to serve another king besides God. Naas immigrated to America on September 18, 1733, Enten’s birthday.
Enten remembers being 6 years old and attending congregational business meetings at Praise Fellowship, which was a free ministry located in La Verne, with meetings run by the congregation and not a church board. By age 9, he was put in charge of taping services because at that point he was not interested in listening. “They realized that made me committee chair, so they changed that real fast,” he says.
To this day, the pacifist church continues to support Enten’s protest. “I respect Enten’s decision,” says Susan Boyer, pastor at the La Verne Church of the Brethren. “He is a model of following exactly what we believe at the Church of the Brethren: All war is sin.” Other elements of his childhood that contributed to his faith stem from his parents’ teachings. His father, Vernard Eller, was a professor of religion at the University of La Verne, and his mother, Phyllis, a homemaker. They taught him love for the Church of the Brethren and a commitment to nonviolence.
But his parents were not supportive of Enten’s decision to protest, which Enten justifies as any parent’s unease “at their kids toddling off into the jaws of the lion. They were just scared for me. FBI agents were at my house asking questions,” he says. “They didn’t have the same calling I did, but they taught me to obey it anyway.”
Although he could have slid under the radar by simply not registering, Enten forced an otherwise silent protest to become the center of public discussion and government attention. The government had no choice but to respond with felony charges. This is what Enten wanted. And he got plenty of publicity—the Washington Post picked up the story of his trial. “The trial created a media storm,” he remembers. He says his form of protest was similar to the protests of the 1960s and 1970s, but it was clearer in earlier protests of what was being protested, he says.
“There was a war going on, and people could clearly identify with the protesters,” he says. However, many did not understand why Enten would not register in the 1980s, a time that was not shadowed by a major war.
“I felt great about the experience, about being obedient. It helped even the average Joe on the street stop and say, ‘What’s going on?’” He says it was a fluke that his case got so much publicity. He remembers hearing from an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer whom he befriended during the trial that men in a bar were discussing the case and the possibility of an individual receiving a calling from God. He had created a major conversation piece without knowing it.
“I’m in awe of how things worked out. I don’t think I could have planned it better, even though I didn’t plan it,” he says. Although the government asked for a 5-year sentence, Enten was originally sentenced with 250 hours of community service and given 90 days to register. After 90 days, he would still not register. But this sentencing was really just to buy the judge some time for a final ruling, he reasons.
In the end, the judge sentenced him to 4,000 hours, or two years of unpaid alternative service, which Enten responded to positively. “The first court order placed me in a VA [Veterans Administration] hospital—I assume as a researcher not as a guinea pig,” he jests. “I had the academic background for it, and it would have been fun.”
The VA hospital would not accept the court order, so he started working with a social program through the Church of the Brethren called Total Action Against Poverty. “I got a lot stronger, and I was the best forklift driver,” he says.
During the trial, Enten was not allowed contact with anyone affiliated with the Church of the Brethren. With Enten bringing the church’s anti-war values to the forefront of public debate with the government, the church was considered a hot issue at the time. But by the time his sentence had to be served, things cooled down enough to where he could work within his Church for the social program. This second placement with Bethany Hospital in Chicago, founded by the Church of the Brethren, was cut short because he discovered a stealing ring within the hospital. His life was threatened, he says, so he left. He served the rest of his time at Good Samaritan Hospital, also in Illinois.
While finishing his hours at the hospital, Enten had already been planning ahead, taking classes at nearby Bethany Seminary, where he later obtained his master in divinity degree.
Now, 22 years later, two things strike him most while looking back on the ordeal. He says he was surprised how affected people were by his protest, and the impact it created to get others thinking about war, peace, registration and alternatives to selective service. For example, millions of dollars are wasted each year on the Selective Service System, he says. According to Selective Service System reports, the 2004 fiscal year allotted $26,100,000 for the agency’s budget.
He also questions the logic of Selective Service registration if politicians say there will never be another draft. At the same time, Enten calls attention to what has been dubbed the backdoor draft that takes place today. He points to the recruitment efforts on high school students who have not yet fully developed their opinions about war and military service, in addition to monetary and college incentives to enlist that often do not come through. “The more incentives there are, the more consumers should wonder, ‘What’s the catch?’” he says.
More and more young people today are questioning the selective service, says ULV campus minister Debbie Roberts. “A lot of young people turning 18 are contemplating what registering for the draft means to them. Through their parents, through our generation, our children are starting to wonder what it means,” she says. “Enten was a hero. He took a very courageous stance.”
Enten continues to take part in the discussion against registration. He counseled Boyer’s 18 year old son, who is currently grappling with the same decisions Enten dealt with, Boyer says, but this time the war in Iraq replaces the relative calm of the early 1980s. Enten’s name is well-known within the church, and his story is one that Boyer shares with prospective members. “We have a clip at the church of Dan Rather years ago bringing Enten’s news to national attention. In it, Enten stands very tall and conscious of his decision to serve God,” she says.
During Enten’s trial, the prosecuting attorney told him, “I believe you’re sincere, and so you don’t deserve to go to jail, but because there are 500,000 others out there, I’m asking for a five-year prison term,” recalls Enten. “It was a show trial. They had to look like the big, bad government and go after people for not registering. That’s not justice. It’s not making the punishment fit the crime.”
Today, Enten says the government’s tradition of throwing around its military weight is possibly worse than before. “I am less patriotic these days. The word ‘patriotic’ has been redefined as someone who supports what President Bush says and asks no questions,” he says. “If ‘patriotic’ means love and support for country and wanting the best for it, then yes. But as the term is used now, unless you think war is great, you are not patriotic. I don’t buy that version of patriotism.”
Nevertheless, Enten looks back on his decision positively. “I felt it was a big step in my discipleship—not the last or the biggest. In 22 years since, I can’t identify something being that critical a step. I wonder if there are still not more steps to come,” he says. “God continues to call, and we have to continue to listen.”