Germany's Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer kicked off a new voluntary military service program on Tuesday.
The "voluntary military service in homeland security," which aims at enticing young people to take a year off before starting their studies or career, was first announced last summer under the motto: "Your year for Germany."
Training for the program officially began on Tuesday with the initiation of 325 volunteers, of which 52 were women.
"We came up with this program after seeing that there were young people who were interested in joining the Bundeswehr but didn't want to tie themselves down," Kramp-Karrenbauer said during a press conference for the launch.
The plan has received keen interest, with some 9,000 people applying for the 1,000 spots available this year, the Defense Ministry said. Of those, 20% were women.
What does the voluntary military service year consist of?
The project was first announced following the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic and aims for training that mixes "combat and helping."
The volunteers will start off their service with a three-month military basic training in 13 locations across Germany.
After that, they will take part in specialist training to learn how to protect buildings, depots and bridges, German public broadcaster Tagesschau reported.
Following seven months of training, the volunteers will then be committed to serving for five months at some point during the following six years. Their service can then be used when natural disasters hit — or during the next pandemic.
Criticism of the project
Charities have hit out at the planned use of volunteers by the military, a service they consider more apt for civil society.
Others have highlighted the problem of offering people as young as 17 the chance to be given a rifle.
The German name of the program also includes a term with far-right connotations ("Heimatschutz" or "homeland security"), which sits uncomfortably with many considering the ongoing problem of neo-Nazis in the Bundeswehr.
The defense minister defended the use of the controversial term, saying that the mistake had been to let the far-right appropriate it.
Around the same time as the initial announcement of the volunteer program, Kramp-Karrenbauer also announced the disbandment of one of Germany's four elite force companies (KSK) after its soldiers were found to be covering up far-right activities of certain comrades.
Lieutenant General Markus Laubenthal said that volunteers would be screened to prevent far-right extremists from joining the program, although he did not provide details of how such tests would be carried out on 16-year-olds.