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The Donald and me: deferments and the draft

Donald Trump and I have things in common: We’re both 70 and we both sought ways to avoid the draft in 1968. Our military outcomes, however, were different.

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. 

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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.


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