Community Voices features opinion pieces from a wide variety of authors and perspectives. (Submission Guidelines)

The Donald and me: deferments and the draft

David Hawley

Donald Trump and I have a few things in common: We’re both 70 and we both sought ways to avoid the draft in 1968, a year when the ramped-up war in Vietnam was killing thousands of young Americans.

We both succeeded — in different ways. Trump avoided the draft by getting a doctor to certify that he had bone spurs in his feet that disqualified him from military service for medical reasons. Presumably, the problem with his feet meant he couldn’t march or tromp though jungles in southeast Asia. That’s despite the fact that he played football in college during the years when being a college student in good standing meant getting a draft deferment every year. 

In 1968 I managed to get a deferment by spending a fifth year in college, adding a second major — in history — to the one I was completing in music. That fall, I voted for Richard Nixon in the hope that his campaign promise of having a “secret plan” to end the war might have been true. We now know, of course, that it wasn’t — that millions of tons of bombs and a secret expansion of fighting into Cambodia didn’t bring the enemy to heel.

But just before graduating in the spring of 1969, I managed to win another deferment. I was a member of a singing group that landed a contract to work for the USO, performing on U.S. military bases in Greenland, Canada and Iceland. The tour began in late August and I was deferred from the draft because of “official government service.”

Enrolled against my will (and knowledge)

Meanwhile, my mother, who was registrar at the Louisville Presbyterian Seminary, came up with her own plan to keep her son out of harm’s way. Without my knowledge or consent, she enrolled me in a unique five-year educational program in which I would have earned both a divinity and a law degree. At the time, divinity students were automatically deferred. When she told me about this during a phone call I’d made from a desolate barracks in Tule, Greenland, I told her I wasn’t interested in attending the seminary. 

As the tour was winding up in Iceland, I made another call home. “You’ve been drafted!” my mother informed me tearfully. The letter with the trademark salutation — “Greetings” — had arrived in the mail, setting my induction date for just two weeks after I was due back in the U.S.

I knew how serious things were when I handed my passport to a U.S. Customs agent at the airport in Pittsburgh. He kept it.

Tried to be optimistic

So in November of 1969 I was inducted into the U.S. Army, along with a group of about 20 other guys who were assembled at the induction station in Louisville. The war was still going on, of course, but I tried to be optimistic about my future. After all, I had a college degree — and I could type! It seemed obvious to me that the Army, in its wisdom, would assign me to a clerical job.

My hopes were shaken, slightly, when a military guy stuck his head into the room where our future soldiers were sitting and announced, “Six of you are going to be Marines.”

Yes, the Marine Corps was drafting people back then. But fortunately, I wasn’t one of the few and the proud.

The induction ceremony was fairly simple. We stood up and when each of our names was called, we took one step forward — one step out of civilian life and into the military, where it was a crime to not follow orders. 

In December 1969 I was in Army basic training when the new lottery replaced the old, convoluted system of classified deferments. Under the new system, random numbers for each day of the year were drawn and those dates corresponded to the birth dates of prospective inductees. If your birth date got a low number, you were military meat. If you got a high number — say 310 — you were home free.

My number, which didn’t mean anything under the circumstances, was 14.

Balked at band commitment

During basic training I breezed through an easy audition for the Army band. But I balked when I was told that in order to get into the band I’d have to enlist for four years — two years more than my obligation as a draftee. I’ll take the clerk’s job, I thought.

But no. At the end of basic training I was informed that I was going to be trained as a military policeman. And when my training was done, I learned that I had been “selected” for additional training as a prison guard. I was dismayed until I learned that there was only one prison in Vietnam — Long Binh Jail, which was commonly called LBJ in honor of the president who expanded the war. The odds were very good that I would find work in other stockades at military bases, most of them stateside.

As it turned out, I spent the remainder of my military career at the jail in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, an old pre-World War II facility that reminded me of the decrepit, sweaty work camp depicted in the 1960s film, “Cool Hand Luke.” I also did some prison duty at the “United States Disciplinary Barracks,” at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where long-term prisoners are kept.

How was it? My MP comrades who had returned from Vietnam to work at the Fort Bragg lockup usually said the Fort Bragg “slam” was better duty than Vietnam. But there were scary moments and violent episodes. When asked about my experiences years later, I usually said that the people trying to kill me wore American uniforms. Shortly after I was discharged, a new, more modern (and much safer) stockade opened at Fort Bragg and the old facility where I spent so many dismal months became the first training center for the Army’s Delta Force.

I have ambivalent thoughts about that period in American history when avoiding the draft was widespread. The draft took place at a time when efforts to avoid combat danger or military service altogether were common. Men tried desperately to get into the National Guard or the Enlisted Reserves in an effort to avoid Vietnam. Others joined the Navy or the Air Force because the odds of seeing combat were minuscule compared to service in the Army or the Marines. 

No resentment

I never resented those who avoided the possibility of combat as a drafted soldier — even the National Guard members who trained with me during a period when N.G. (National Guard) was often said to mean “No Guts.” My younger brother registered as a conscientious objector. His motives were genuine and I admire him for the years of struggle and humiliation he endured as he battled a draft board that finally, reluctantly, granted him a C.O. deferment in 1972, one year before the draft officially ended and at a time when virtually no one was being drafted.

Today I think we see draft avoidance through the lens of a volunteer armed forces. We fail to see the draft system as a kind of involuntary servitude — even for those of us who felt, as I still feel, that serving our country in some capacity is a commendable thing that ought to be seen as a duty of citizenship.

And we fail to appreciate the influence-peddling that was used by many to get into reserves or National Guard or to avoid military service altogether. The Selective Service draft system had many twists and kinks and it is revealing to note that it snared an inordinate number of minority and poor inductees. There was an unspoken inequity about it, a feeling from time to time that those of us who had been drafted were suckers who hadn’t bothered or figured out how to game the system. Or didn’t have connections.

Combine that with a hugely unpopular war and there are plenty of reasons to justify draft avoidance. I have no resentment for those who avoided the draft on the basis of principle. For others, they have to live with their conscience.

David Hawley is a retired newspaper reporter and a disabled veteran. He was awarded the Army Commendation Medal for his actions as a military policeman.

WANT TO ADD YOUR VOICE?

If you’re interested in joining the discussion, add your voice to the Comment section below — or consider writing a letter or a longer-form Community Voices commentary. (For more information about Community Voices, email Susan Albright at salbright@minnpost.com.) 

You can also learn about all our free newsletter options.

Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Jim Million on 08/12/2016 - 03:17 pm.

    #14

    At least you were somewhat sheltered. I thought my close friend with #51 was surely a “dead man walking,” as was I with #57. We all have our personal stories, some related and others placed in our secret files.
    The incredible losses of 1968 made front and center in the election of ’68 very much changed many views with respect to draft dodging vs. “draft avoidance,” a more broadly accepted concept.

    Note: A few years ago I assembled an interesting retrospective of relevant data not available to us at the time. Contrary to our contemporary awareness, Nixon did begin troop draw down immediately after taking office. I’ve since wondered how many men who fled to Canada would have remained here had they known. Wasn’t it typical tactic for the DOD to withhold such data from the public when the enemy no doubt knew the facts?

    Oh, I was sheltered under 2-S until appearing at the Federal Building in Jan. 1970 for induction physical and reclassification pending June graduation. That was the first of 3 successive physicals over three months, finally resulting in the temporary medical deferment of 1-Y. Some power was seemingly darn stubborn with regard to this #57. I would have received an immediate 4-F, had my non-diagnosed Crohn’s Disease been documented. The Army doctors just repeatedly chalked my symptoms up to anxiety and stress. (No ____!)

    • Submitted by Dan Weaver on 03/10/2019 - 10:40 pm.

      Sir,
      I too am a Veteran. I used all 4 years of deferment for college. I then received a notice to show up for a physical in Louisville Ky. I had been diagnosed with heart issues, though I felt just find and could run for ever. My doctor told me that I should advise them of my heart issue as he thought I could be held responsible if they thought I was hiding the condition. He gave me all my tests and records to take to the physical. Once I got there we were marched like cattle through the process. We were told to strip and get in line. I do know that I held on to my records after I stripped. We were then run single file past the first stage. It was at that time that that I presented my records. The individual looked at me and laughed. THE TOSSED THEM IN THE TRASH. He told me that the ARMY would determine my condition. So I do not believe that any doctor influenced the Deferments for our Presidents. Were influenced by any of his doctors. I received the same reception when I enlisted in the AIR FORCE. Trump had the money and the influence to duck out of service which would have been so easy for him to take. I know democrat farmers who bought farms for their sons to avoid service. I was offered a cherished ticket to the National Guard by my Plant manager who had pull. No you need to check your facts. A bribe to the draft board would also have been soooo easy but he did go through a physical. Please do not spread untruths.

  2. Submitted by Michael Fedo on 08/13/2016 - 08:41 am.

    #14

    Post Korean war a good friend was drafted and inducted. He felt ill during his physical exam, and was running a high fever. Army docs told him he had a mild case of the flu, and passed him. Next day he was hospitalized with polio. But since he’d “passed” his physical, the army waited until he’d recovered–several months later. Since he passed the induction physical, he was deemed fit for service, despite a life-long limp resulting from his polio.

  3. Submitted by Don Evanson on 08/13/2016 - 09:42 am.

    ???

    “David Hawley is a retired newspaper reporter and a disabled veteran.”

    Is not the implication here that Hawley had a military disability, perhaps with a benefit that could have an effect upon his present viewpoint?

  4. Submitted by rolf westgard on 08/13/2016 - 02:28 pm.

    Trump deferments

    Even though I served, I don’t blame Trump for dodging the service. I do blame him for acting like a warrior who knows how to defeat ISIS, etc. He is a pompous fraud.

    • Submitted by Jim Million on 08/13/2016 - 10:12 pm.

      Well Said

      That was a very unusual era of turmoil focused on a rather small segment of young men, men who viewed issues fairly and from several valid perspectives. I was most upset with activists who denigrated men who accepted circumstances and did serve, as well as those who eagerly served. It was a tough time, a time that very much did challenge many firmly held views and solidified others. I think most all participants of that era have come to a shared understanding.

      You are so very correct in your “warrior” observation. Trump again exhibits his clearly shallow character.

  5. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 08/13/2016 - 02:57 pm.

    To close!

    Hello Dave,
    Coincidentally my induction was Dec. 2, 1969, my number was 204, I had already enlisted for 4 years, in the Navy under a delayed entry program. Good, bad or otherwise, never got the Nam ticket and ended up repairing Anti-submarine Warfare Aviation ground support equipment, looking back, including the GI bill, probably one of the best decisions I made in my life. Back to your point, Don’t think most Vets hold any animosity for those that tried to play the system, some successful, some not, but guys like me do get edgy when some one that played the system tries to mount the horse of those that served and critique, criticize etc. those that did their time. Like you, our name was in the pool, but we weren’t fished out for the hard time, count our blessings and respect those that were fished out. To a volunteer military, we should have a mandatory participation program, no separation for the rich from the poor: all men & women are created equal.

  6. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 08/13/2016 - 08:59 pm.

    Excellent story

    I believe in universal national service for men and women – some kind of service and no exceptions. When everyone serves, everyone sacrifices and you cannot easily fight wars without popular support. And universal service justifies the extra support our youth all need to have successful lives. It is good when thinking about the issue to understand the draft’s disproportional impact on people. The article did a great of conveying that.

    • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 08/15/2016 - 02:18 pm.

      Not a bad idea

      Especially as long as those who have the power to enact war are first in line, along with any direct family members, with no ability for deferment. I bet we’d spend a lot less on the military overall, and war specifically.

  7. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 08/14/2016 - 09:42 am.

    The soldiers of the Viet Nam era acted in good faith,

    …but not their leaders.

Leave a Reply