I won a lottery in our fraternity section (Phi Kappa Sigma) for having the best draft number. My next older brother was just finishing his PhD, and received a low draft number and after extended discussion of fleeing to Canada, submitted to the draft and was taken into the Army for two years and a tour in Viet Nam.
I entered medical school in the Fall of 1969, and felt a significant pang of guilt that I was not going to serve. My Father had served for a miserable 6 years at sea in the Navy during World War II, and my brother was serving in Viet Nam. I felt some comfort that if I joined, it would be as a doctor, and likely not in a serious combat situation, excepting forward duty with a Marine unit.
In the Fall of 1969, I enlisted in the U S Navy Medical Corp as a freshman medical student, anticipating service after a year of internship. I graduated from the Medical College of Georgia in three years by attending all year, and was accepted in to an Internal Medicine residency back at Duke, and returned to Durham.
In 1974, after two years of training, I was called to active duty in the Navy. I remember a sense of being a real oddity in my internship group, as no one else had a service obligation. I attempted to be assigned to the National Naval Medical Research Institute in Washington, but was not successful, and in July of 1974 left my wife and two children in Durham and reported aboard the USS Shreveport, LPD-12, in Norfolk, Va, for duty.
The United States was withdrawing from Viet Nam, and I subsequently served a year of primarily sea duty in the Caribbean on the Shreveport as the squadron’s only medical officer with ~ 50 corpsman serving under me in various ships.
It was one of the best years of my life. I saw most of the Caribbean and northern South America, and found the year at sea a real joy after my two years of training at Duke Medical Center. I had a high level of responsibility for my age (26), and enjoyed a rank that was disproportionate to my experience and maturity.
I spent a second year of active duty at the Naval Air Station Atlanta, my home city, and enjoyed an easy year back with family and friends not seen in six years.
Subsequently, I was released from active duty and returned to Duke to finish my Internal Medicine and Rheumatology fellowship training.
Perhaps even more bizarre for the times, I volunteered for another six months of active duty in the Navy in 1979, and served on the USS Midway, CV-42, during the "Boat People" crisis of that year. I once again had a wonderful experience, although I just missed being pressed into more lengthy service after the Iranian embassy was taken over and the Midway found itself the closest carrier group to the Persian Gulf at the time.
I remember those years, and particularly the divisiveness of the Viet Nam war, with very mixed feelings and ambivalence. The Viet Nam war was a big mistake, but it was the result of serious misjudgment by our political leadership, not any lack of commitment or resolve on the part of those who ultimately served in our military. I also understood and never felt any criticism of those whose response to the draft was different from my own.
As my generation has come to political leadership, I have been astounded that many of the same mistakes that led us in to the debacle of Viet Nam now (2010) find us mired in lengthy and expensive wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan. All wars to me are a complete failure of political leadership, and the aphorism that old men make wars in which young men must fight and die, seems as true as ever.