I did not watch the first half of the lottery, having had a bad (and accurate) premonition of how it would turn out for me. What I remember most about what I did watch was the smiling faces of the people my age as they participated in the process of selecting numbers for people who would live or die. I never understood how they could be a part of that.
A re-sorting process occurred over the ensuing weeks, as lives were rearranged to address the new reality. Those with safe numbers resigned from ROTC, began planning for marriage and selecting a grad school. Those with marginal numbers began praying and working for an earlier end to the war. Low numbers like me began researching and evaluating all the alternatives to being drafted and sent off to war.
Needless to say, some friendships were damaged by a general lack of empathy from those who were lucky toward those who were not. I remember watching the movie M*A*S*H with a couple of friends who thought the repartee between the surgeons as they operated on the wounded was hysterically funny. My different perspective caused me to get up and leave the theater. After the show I had to explain it to them. I still don’t know if they got it.
As I looked for alternatives, what I found were long waiting lists for National Guard and Reserve units. I underwent so many physicals that I had track marks on my arm like a heroin addict. (Unfortunately, that didn’t faze them at my preinduction physical). I learned that even if you flunked the intelligence test they could give you an administrative pass and draft you anyway. I learned that some physical deficiencies which would disqualify you from joining voluntarily would not disqualify you from being drafted. After much soul searching I decided that I respected my obligations to my country and my fellow citizens too much to evade service.
So, I joined the Navy as an active duty reservist with guaranteed shore duty in the continental United States. I drove to Norfolk on a Friday afternoon without checking my mailbox, enlisted, and returned home on Sunday. My induction notice was in the mailbox when I got back. Monday morning I called the draft board and informed them I had received their notice, but would not be reporting for induction. I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed their reaction to that…the self-righteous indignation, the threats to send the FBI to arrest me. Only then did I tell them that I had enlisted before I got my notice.
I spent three years training my peers who had been able to join the reserves and serve one weekend a month plus two weeks’ active duty. I made many friends with my fellow "draft dodgers", as the career sailors called us. While the lifers knew we didn’t want to be there, they soon found out that we were a pretty well educated bunch, and if treated half way decently, they could get lot of good work out of us. So, an uneasy truce was declared. When the draft was ended the quality of the newly enlisted personnel dropped off dramatically. Only then did the lifers admit that we weren’t half bad and that they didn’t know how good they’d had it.
I was still on active duty when the draft was ended and Jimmy Carter proclaimed amnesty for all those who had left the country or otherwise illegally evded the draft. I wondered where my amnesty was. For three years I had been shunned by my fellow citizens, had rocks thrown at my car by protesters and been called a baby killer by a young lady in an airport. I could not wear the uniform with pride on base because I was considered a draft dodger with less than pure motives for being there, nor could I wear it off base because somehow I was responsible for the war and was therefore a legitimate target of protest. I think this is why so many Vietnam Era veterans have not fully reconciled their feelings about their service. And those who served in combat have so much more to reconcile than those of us who weren’t exposed to that horror.
My deepest regret is that those who actually gave their lives cannot respond to this project, for it is their stories that I really want to hear. My respect and love goes out to each and every one of their friends and families. The trials and tribulations of the rest of us are nothing in comparison.