Are Only Sons or Daughters Exempt From War?

Soldier Holding a Rifle

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There is some confusion to the military service of the only child in the United States military. Many rumors and myths surround the process of being eligible for exemption from war for the only child or the surviving only child. There is a difference in the two. For instance, in the movie "Saving Private Ryan," Tom Hanks plays a World War II Army captain charged with rescuing Matt Damon's character, a private whose three brothers have all been killed in the war.

While it made for a compelling drama, and is loosely based on a true story, many believe that if a soldier (or sailor, or Marine) is an only child, he's ineligible to be drafted at all. But that isn't quite the case. In fact, if you check the official Selective Service Website, it will further explain more of the details. All males must register for the draft at the age of 18 years old - period.

The underlying rule of the ONLY CHILD deferment depends on one important factor - the United States is not at war. However, if this war has been declared by Congress the only son or only surviving son deferment does not apply.

History of the Surviving Son Provision 

The sad story of the Niland brothers was the real-life inspiration for "Saving Private Ryan." When it appeared three of them had been killed overseas during World War II, the fourth, Fritz Niland, was sent back to the U.S. to complete his service. It was later discovered that Edward, one of the Niland brothers believed dead had not been killed but rather taken prisoner. 

There was no formal law in place covering the Niland family. But there were other instances in World War II that led to the "surviving son" policy becoming more common. Four brothers from the Borgstrom family were killed in combat in 1944. Their parents petitioned for their fifth son to be released from service, and a sixth son was exempted from the draft. 

And after two of the Butehorn brothers were killed in 1944 and 1945, the War Department (as it was then known) ordered a third son to be sent home. Though it was not a written law, common sense and decency prevailed among the military brass and the politicians of the era to remove remaining family members off the battlefields and even draft exemptions in some cases.

These tragedies, along with the 1942 deaths of all five Sullivan brothers aboard the USS Juneau, prompted the War Department to adopt the Sole Surviving Son policy as law. The Navy also created a directive prohibiting siblings and family members from serving on the same ship during war. However, during times of peace, siblings and other family members can serve on the same ship.

The Department of Defense directive protecting family members from the draft or combat service was established in 1948. It's been updated several times since including during the Vietnam War, to cover not only a sole surviving son or daughter but any son or daughter with a combat-related death in the family.

Combat-Related Death

Federal law allows a "peacetime" draft exception for those who have had an immediate family member (father, mother, brother, or sister) die or become 100 percent disabled as a result of military service. Note the law does not require the person to be the "last" in their line. This exemption only applies to peacetime and not to periods of war or national emergency declared by Congress.

Additionally, the Department of Defense does allow a military member who has an immediate family member who dies on active duty, becomes 100 percent disabled, or becomes a prisoner of war, to request a voluntary discharge. Again, note that the member doesn't have to be the "sole survivor."

This program is also not applicable during times of war or national emergency declared by Congress. Also note it's a voluntary program, for which the military member must apply. Any military member who choose to enlist or re-enlist after the family member's death is considered to have waived their status under this program.

Each branch of the U.S. military has its own regulations which exempt surviving sons and daughters from serving in combat zones. This too is voluntary, and they must have an immediate family member who has died on active duty, become 100 percent service-connected disabled, or in POW status.

Simply being the "last in the line" doesn't qualify someone for this type of discharge.