The night of the 1969 draft lottery, about a half dozen of my college friends in Avery Dormitory at UNC-Chapel Hill gathered in one room to watch the lottery on television. All of us would be subject to the outcome of this draft. Perhaps it was a premonition that prompted me to bring a bottle of whisky with me. All of us made it through the first couple of dozen dates drawn, but when March 2 was picked as number 29, I uncorked and turned up the bottle. I was the first in my group to go down. I knew my fate had been sealed by the random chance of my birth date coming up in the first 100 dates.
My student deferment was still good for two more years. I would not graduate until 1971, and I began scheming for some way of avoiding the draft while hoping that the hated war in Vietnam might end. I took a few half-hearted attempts to build a negative medical history. I went to the student infirmary when I slightly twisted my knee on some stairs. I talked to guys who claimed to have faked the hearing test. I considered going on a starvation diet that would put me below weight by losing just 10 to 15 pounds.
The draft board in my home county where I was registered was notoriously aggressive, so I was not surprised to receive a notice to go for my draft physical a couple of months before I was to graduate. I wrote the board, explaining that I was a student at Chapel Hill (they knew that), and requesting that my physical be transferred to Orange County. With some luck, I figured I might be able to keep switching locations for the physical and avoid conscription for months. But the draft board was efficient and transferred my physical to Orange County.
So on the appointed day I drove to Hillsborough, where I boarded a bus with about 50 other young men, many of them students from Carolina, and rode to Raleigh, where we underwent the physical and mental tests to see if we were good enough to be drafted. The written test really was about as hilariously silly as the one described by Arlo Guthrie in "Alice’s Restaurant." And there really was a "Group W Bench" or something like that where guys who must have been mentally retarded went to await further questioning after taking the written test.
During the physical, I complained to a doctor about my knee, but he was not impressed. I also tried to figure out how to fool the hearing test machine, to no avail. I was declared physically fit and ready to be reclassified 1-A.
The most interesting thing about my draft physical was that among the other students who were on the bus with me was Don Mc., UNC’s star running back. I passed the physical, but Don, whom I knew slightly from having a couple of classes together, failed. He was able to play several years in the NFL but was too disabled for the Army.
The day after I took the physical, as I was walking back to my dorm from a class, I spotted a Coast Guard recruiter set up at a table in front of the Undergraduate Library. I talked to him a few minutes and picked up an application. The Coast Guard, which was part of the Department of Transportation, not Defense, and was primarily involved in lifesaving, ship inspection, harbor patrols, etc., instead of fighting in Vietnam (although the Coast Guard did have a presence in the war), appealed to me. Serving my obligation as an officer rather than as an enlisted grunt also appealed to me. So I applied and drove to Portsmouth, Va., a few weeks later to take a series of tests, including another physical, to apply to Coast Guard Officer Candidate School. But I would have to wait to hear whether the Coast Guard would accept me into OCS. Meanwhile, I would be vulnerable to the draft. The Coast Guard would not protect me until I was actually accepted and sworn in. The OCS class would begin in September, but I might be accepted and sworn in before that date, remaining in a reserve status until the class began.
I waited nervously, along with my pregnant wife, while the Coast Guard and the Army battled for my services. Fortunately for me, Congress got involved in a nasty dispute about this time over continuation of the draft. For several months in the summer of 1971, there was no military draft because Congress did not renew the draft law. So I waited, worried that Congress would take action before the Coast Guard did. If that happened, my hopes of avoiding Southeast Asia would be shattered.
My wife and I were working and living in Charlotte when I received the long-delayed notification that I had been accepted into OCS. I was told to go to Greensboro, the nearest Coast Guard recruiting station, to be sworn in. I drove alone to Greensboro, signed the paperwork, raised my right hand and promised to defend America against all enemies, foreign and domestic. Left unsaid was that I would be saved from the draft. As I was driving back from Greensboro, I heard on the radio that Congress had passed a new draft authorization bill. I had just made it.
Because Coast Guard OCS was over-subscribed, I was accepted into the February 1972 class instead of September 1971, but that was fine with me. I got through the four months of OCS without any great difficulty except for missing my wife and newborn daughter and was assigned to the Enlisted Personnel Division at Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington.
I spent three years answering letters from members of Congress, who would forward letters they received from constituents, most of them along the lines of "my boy joined the Coast Guard to guard the coast, so why did they send him to Greenland?" Or on an icebreaker. Or why can’t he guard this coast instead of that coast. I was essentially the in-house writer who would draft letters of reply to be signed by the admiral in charge of the division or, in some cases, by the commandant of the Coast Guard himself or even by the secretary of transportation, depending on the seriousness of the matter and the seniority of the member of Congress. I was required to wear a uniform only one day a week, and the job was frankly easy, once I caught up on the backlog of correspondence that had built up before I got there. Three years in Washington taught me a new respect for military personnel, whom I came to know as dedicated professionals. I also developed a distaste for governmental bureaucracy as I frequently heard civilian employees refuse a task by saying, "not in my job description." The captain I reported to when I arrived was an outstanding officer, who was deep-selected for admiral while I was working for him. He later became vice commandant of the Coast Guard.
The Coast Guard gave my wife and me the opportunity to live in the Washington area for three years, which we probably never would have done otherwise. After we got used to the traffic, we came to like it. Watergate and the Nixon resignation happened while we lived there, and I was a subscriber to the Washington Post. But I was eager to begin my civilian career and took a $5,000 (35 percent) pay cut to take a job in Hamlet, NC. Had I been smart, I would have stayed in, served my 20 years (or more) and be retired now, perhaps in a second career.
The draft was terrible in that it caused me and my family great anxiety, but its side effect, sending me into the Coast Guard, is not anything that I regret. I consider myself fortunate to have been able to serve. I am proud to be a veteran, proud to have been in the Coast Guard. The experiences I had would benefit a great many aimless young people I see today. Although I do not support a universal military draft, I think some form of national service obligation, either civilian or military, would be a good thing.