Volunteer army wins hearts, minds of young Germans

Mon Mar 19, 2012 11:07am EDT
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By Alice Baghdjian

BEELITZ, Germany (Reuters) - When Christian Mumber told his mother he was voluntarily enlisting in the German army for eight months, she burst into tears.

"She was really shocked," said the 18-year-old, grinning. "She was worried I wouldn't be able to endure army life, that I'd be eaten alive."

Now, without his earring and dressed in a green camouflage uniform, Mumber is one of thousands of young Germans who have signed up for a gap year of 4.30 a.m. starts, 10-km (six-mile) marches and bellowing sergeants as part of Germany's new voluntary military service, created last year to replace the draft.

The paid scheme lasts from seven to 23 months and long-term volunteers can join peacekeeping missions abroad.

Voluntary military service has exceeded expectations in Germany, which continues to struggle to define its international and military role in the historical wake of past aggression.

Since its introduction in July 2011, around 9,000 Germans are estimated to have volunteered in the scheme - almost double what the government had estimated.

At the Hans-Joachim von Zieten barracks in Beelitz, a run-down east German town whose asparagus harvest is hailed as the highlight of the municipal calendar, all 140 places for volunteers have been filled every quarter.

Fears that scrapping the decades-old draft for male school leavers would leave the army desperately understaffed have proved unfounded, said Lt. Col. Boris Nannt, commander of Beelitz and the logistics battalion based there.   Continued...