Hey young men. When you turn 18 years old you still have to register for the military draft and you only have 30 days after you turn 18 to do it. Today, you can do it online.
I vividly remember a newspaper headline when I was 15-years-old. ‘Vietnam War Could Last Another 10 Years.” At age 15 a young man has no worries other than passing all his school classes and enjoying going to high school, playing sports and girls, girls, girls. We had no thoughts about going to war. However, that didn’t last long.
At Science Hill in those years we were required to be in ROTC for two years and if you were lucky, during your senior year you could earn an officer rank and get to wear the ROTC uniform three days a week for another year. It was a prestige thing to achieve officer rank. Many of my buddies became high school ROTC officers.
During our senior year in 1965 the Vietnam War started to crank up. When we turned 18 we were required to visit the local draft board and get our draft card. Most of us headed to college. We didn’t have to worry about being drafted if you had a college deferment. As the war intensified more the rules changed a bit and more college age young men were being drafted.
It was tough leaving the warmth of your mom’s hug, morning breakfast and luxury of being the only son in the family. My Army drill sergeant was nothing like mom.
The possibility of being drafted dominated our life. In between college football games, going to class and fraternity parties there was always that lingering worry that you could be drafted.
Today, young men don’t have that worry. The draft controlled your whole life with worry and anxiety. Each day the news let us know soldiers were getting killed in Vietnam. The worry hung over all our young heads knowing we could get sent into combat.
I saw an old friend and fellow fraternity brother Saturday, Mike Stott, who was a standout athlete in Jonesborough. We were both excelling at fraternity but not so much at biology or psychology class. I reminded him of our mutual agonizing over our college grade point averages because if they were not high enough we would have a good chance of getting drafted. Mike and I both remember sitting on that bench at the ETSU Student Center building when Mike suggested we join the Marines.
“What!!!! Mike you’ve got to be kidding. The Marines will eat us for lunch,” I replied.
I would say today, after my second quarter at ETSU my grades were not up to par. My dad had a different description back then. I soon received my so called “greetings from the Selective Service Office” letter offering a chance to serve my country for two years. Getting your draft notice in the mail was the most devastating news for a young man. If I could just get that dear old psychology professor to change my grade to a C from a very low D, I might get my deferment back. It didn’t work.
The alternative was to join the Army for three years which would give you a better chance of getting an administrative job in the service. I joined. The year I joined 382,010 young men were drafted, the most ever during the Vietnam conflict.
Many young men saw the handwriting on the wall and joined, mostly the Army or Marines as the Air Force and Navy were full. Very quickly for us our lives were changed forever, from young fun-loving kids to manhood overnight.
Not surprising, most young guys tried to elude the draft by getting special deferments or doing whatever they could to avoid going to war. Who could blame them? Over 400,000 hightailed it to Canada to avoid the draft.
During the Vietnam War 9,087,000 Americans served in the Vietnam War era with 2,709,918 of those serving in Vietnam. Of that total serving in Vietnam, about 25% were draftees.
As most veterans will tell you they wouldn’t trade their experience in the military but that may not include the true combat veteran. I have interviewed a number of combat vets. Many shared their stories with me but others won’t speak of their painful experiences.
I had worn a uniform three days a week for three years in high school ROTC and was familiar with many military procedures. However, during the first week at Fort Benning I thought I had been sent to hell. It was tough leaving the warmth of your mom’s hug, morning breakfast and luxury of being the only son in the family. My Army drill sergeant was nothing like mom.
I’ve written about Sgt. Solomon before. During early morning drill he asked if anyone had ROTC training. I stupidly raised my hand. I was instantly promoted to squad leader. Sgt. Solomon gave our squad the job of cleaning our barracks latrine for six weeks. Bless his heart.
During basic training our group bonded as best we could. As a squad leaders we were given the luxury of having a private barracks room. Another new GI, Percy, whose last name I can’t recall, was an African American. He was from Mississippi and about 6’4” tall and a super nice young man. We became friends during our six weeks of training. He was tough and had probably never slept next to a white boy. It was new for both of us. We laughed at our differences.
When we graduated from basic training we said our goodbyes and wished one another good luck. My orders were for Defense Information School in Indianapolis. I was also offered the opportunity to attend Officer Candidate School with another 10 or so weeks of training to be a Second Lt. I decided on becoming a journalist which focused my entire career.
I had a great Army experience and was lucky. I served in Korea as a photographer and news writer for our base newspaper with the opportunity to cover some historic news stories and make lifelong friends. After 13 months in Korea I was stationed at Third Army Headquarters in Atlanta. That duty was not so tough and lived off base in a nice apartment complex near the Atlanta Airport.
My military experience focused my future and was a maturing experience. I finished college with a degree in journalism that set me on my career for life. I was lucky. Still today, many Vietnam era veterans still fight their experiences or suffer from lingering exposure to Agent Orange. Their war still goes on.
Happy Veterans Day brothers. Stay safe.