BERLIN (Reuters Life!) - Plans to scrap compulsory six-month military service for young men in Germany and the alternative community service look set to cause chaos at universities and deprive the elderly of a valuable lifeline.
Solveig Uhrmann, an 89-year-old pensioner, can only stay in her own home thanks to "meals on wheels" delivered by young men who refuse to do military service, first introduced in 1956, and do the community service brought in five years later instead.
Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats voted to end conscription at their party conference this month despite the conservative party's traditional advocacy of military service.
"It would be a catastrophe if they got rid of community service," Uhrmann told Reuters. "It would be awful -- I wouldn't know what to do if the meals on wheels service packed up."
The well-dressed senior citizen is clear-minded but can no longer walk far or cook, making her "totally dependent" on the delivery of hot food provided by meals on wheels.
The warm three-course meal that comes plated up in a thermal box is also not the only thing Uhrmann looks forward to as she waits for Benjamin Klemstein, a 24-year-old conscientious objector, to knock on her apartment door.
"It's a real treat when he comes, I'm always so pleased to see him and have a chat," she said. "He brings a little bit of light into my life -- this place is full of old people and most of them are cranky but he is young, fresh and cheerful."
For Uhrmann and many others with limited mobility, snatched exchanges on the doorstep with young people doing community service become a crucial link to the outside world.
The experience works both ways. Klemstein, who trained as a plumber and gas fitter before starting his service in June, said contact with the elderly and disabled has been an eye-opener.
"I had never come across these kinds of people before," he said. "I've learnt to deal with all sorts of people, including people with dementia."
Setting off at six o'clock every morning, he drives two handicapped adults to work and three more to daycare centers before delivering meals to senior citizens for 4.95 euros ($6.80) each.
"I really enjoy the work because the people are so friendly," he said. "Most people don't want to do community service at first because they think taking time out will mess up their career plans. But once they're doing it, they realize it's worthwhile and they can still work on their career afterwards."
Klemstein belongs to a 90,000-strong species of "Zivis," or young men doing community service, that could become extinct in July 2011 if the abolition proposed by Defence Minister Karl Theodor zu Guttenberg goes ahead as part of budget cuts.
Klemstein, who is already the only Zivi left at the "Johanniter" humanitarian organization in Berlin and could well be the last, slammed a government proposal to introduce a voluntary community service program instead.
"If it becomes voluntary, people will probably choose to try and get ahead in their career for themselves rather than do community service," he said. "Six months should be compulsory."
Uhrmann was also skeptical: "I'm not sure young men would choose to do community service if it wasn't for the fact they'd otherwise have to join the military."
Wolfram Rohleder, a Johanniter board member, said scrapping compulsory service would have a detrimental impact on society.
"The independence of many needy people would be radically impaired," he said, adding that it would no longer be possible to provide care to the same extent. This could mean more people need in-patient care, requiring investment and driving up costs.
Scrapping compulsory service would also mean replacing low-paid workers in the program with employees on full wages.
The German Red Cross hopes to replace the 9,371 school leavers it now employs for community service with volunteers. It plans to offer 10,000 voluntary places on top of 10,000 more via an existing voluntary program for young men and women.
The Red Cross has spent 1-1/2 years protesting against plans to abolish compulsory community service but hopes to compensate via the already over-subscribed existing voluntary program.
The voluntary program has the advantage of lasting a year whereas the Red Cross believes compulsory service is already too short after it was cut to six months from nine this summer.
"Also, because it is voluntary, the people who choose it do it with a real sense of conviction, whereas community service was just the lesser of two evils for some," a Red Cross spokeswoman said.
Scrapping national service may also cause chaos at German universities. Bavaria's culture ministry says universities can expect to see the number of applications rise by around 50,000 in 2011 if military and community service are scrapped.
This would put a big strain on universities at a time when they already expect record applications, according to Margret Wintermantel, President of the German Rector's Conference.
Twice the usual number of students will sit school leaving exams in Lower Saxony and Bavaria this summer as the length of secondary school education is cut by one year in these regions.
Wintermantel told Reuters the extra numbers represented "a big challenge" but said universities would "do their best to ensure the quality of education does not suffer or that entry requirements are toughened."
Writing by Michelle Martin; editing by Stephen Brown and Paul Casciato