Monday, March 21, 2011

REGISTERING FOR THE MILITARY DRAFT

At the beginning of World War Two, President Roosevelt implemented an active military draft.  The idea was that we needed far more troops in the military to carry out the war than an all volunteer army could sustain.  I believe it was a wise decision.  In order to be drafted the government had to know who you were and where you were and so the requirement to register for the draft on or about your eighteenth birthday was established.  It became law that you register for the draft.

The draft allowed our armed forces to grow to a point of being able to defeat the Axis powers along with our strong allies Great Britain and Russia.  I know there were more allies than those three but Great Britain, Russia and the United States were the bulk of the war machine against the Axis powers.

The draft also allowed a non-discriminatory population to be drafted.  The well off and better educated were put along side those not so lucky.  Soldiers became equals more or less in the fight for a free world that would not be run by a mad man in Austria or Berlin.  Young men with good minds were discovered and placed in positions where they could be most helpful to the military machine.

The draft continued after the world war was over as the United States began policing the world, first in Korea and then in Vietnam.  We are still policing Korea, but Vietnam fell long ago mainly because of lack of support from the American public.  President Johnson found himself fighting on two fronts as he increased the war effort in Vietnam.  He was of course fighting the war across the Pacific, but was also fighting a war on the mainland of the United States.

Young men were fleeing to neutral countries, Canada being the most popular choice.  Draftees were burning their draft cards in public squares as a gesture of defiance against the policy in Vietnam.  The American public was for the first time being given live reports from the battlefield as the new age of television grew up and came of age.  I remember watching the Evening news with Walter Cronkite every night with my dad as Cronkite would end each show with a death tally of Americans for the day and a death tally of North Vietnamese for the day.  The numbers were staggering and as you watched each and every day you begin not to be able to avoid silently adding up the numbers in your head.

There were legal ways to avoid the draft.  You could go to college after high school and avoid the draft.  Well, you could go to college if your grades were good enough and your parents had enough money to send you to college.  otherwise you could expect a letter in the mail one day with orders to report to be inducted into the military for service in Vietnam.

They use to hold a lottery.  They called it the Selective Service Lottery where each year three and sixty six capsules, each with a separate date inside them, were drawn one at a time.  That was your birth date being represented in that lottery.  If your birthday was one of the first hundred and fifty or so chosen, it was a pretty good chance you were going to go to Vietnam. 

I remember as I began to grow older thinking about how many years I had until my lottery would be held.  When I was fifteen and sixteen I remember a couple of guys that attended my church drew fairly high lottery numbers.  It was like a sentence passed on a convicted criminal.  There was no legal way out except for college or if you weren't healthy enough to go.

As I turned to the age of seventeen, I became more aware of politics then I ever had before.  President Nixon had promised to start to withdraw troops from Vietnam.  He called the process Vietmization.  It was the idea that as we trained the South Vietnamese armed forces to fight the battle themselves, we could bring more troops home and send less over.  The President was holding to his word and had been withdrawing forces for a couple of years.  Still the lottery and the draft edged ever closer to me as I neared that final year before I could be called into the military.

Then a magic thing happened.  As President Nixon continued to downsize the military presence in Vietnam, he came to the conclusion that we could end the draft.  In all honesty he was helped in this decision by the still sometimes violent protests going on here in the states.  Campuses across the country were high tension areas even as the President kept his promise to de-escalate the war.  The magic thing?  President Nixon announced an end to the Selective Service Draft in 1973.  I can not tell you or describe to you what it felt like inside of me when that announcement was made.  It looked like unless things took a tragic turn for the worse, I had escaped forced military service.

I spent that summer  a little more relaxed then I was expecting to spend it.  I was beginning my career in engineering design, I was dating my future wife and over all enjoying my last summer before I became a senior in high school.  Troops were still over there but they were coming home fast and the nightly news was not near as depressing as it used to be when I was younger.  We just wanted to get out of there with as little egg on our face as we could and President Nixon was doing it in spite of having to deal with a new battle front for him called Watergate.

As I began school my senior year I had all but put the draft out of my mind.  I didn't have to worry about the lottery.  I didn't have to worry about being sent to Mississippi or or the Carolinas to be inducted.  I was free to make plans for my future which at this time was looking fairly good.

Then came October 13, 1974.  It was my eighteenth birthday.  I had some plans to celebrate this big day in my life.  I was going to go register to vote because President Nixon had signed into law the right for eighteen year olds to vote.  I was going to go out with Barb and celebrate.  At last I would be a man in my grandpa's eyes as well as most of society.  I awoke that wonderful October morning with nothing but good things to look forward to and I headed off to school.

It was going to be a good day at school as well.  It was my senior year and I already had almost all of my credits for graduation.  My schedule that year was very light and it was just a matter of cruising through to the finish.  As I entered my home room class and took my seat I was in a very good mood.

Soon the morning announcements were being made over the speaker system.  This club and that club.  I wasn't paying much attention to anything that morning.  The announcements ended and we began the task of waiting for the bell to ring so we could go to our first class of the day.  Then I heard a voice come over the speaker asking the teacher send me up to the office.  Really?  It was way too early in the day for me to be in any kind of trouble.  I hadn't done anything for days to get me into trouble.  I began to sweat as I picked up my books and headed out into the hallway and towards the office.  The whole walk up to the office was spent going over any practical jokes or anything I had done over the last week or so.  Nothing came to mind.

As I turned into the office I caught the eye of the lady who worked there.  We knew each other fairly well from three years in the same school.  She motioned me over and walked up to the counter.  She slid a card across the counter towards me and told me to fill it out, it was the law.  I looked down and saw in big blue letters "SELECTIVE SERVICE REGISTRATION" printed across the top of it.  I looked at her with a question in my eyes and she explained that I was eighteen, I had to register.  I was stunned that the school would force me to do this.  Surely I could skip across the street, as I had dozens of times before over the last three years, and register at the Post Office.  No, they wanted to be SURE I registered.

So dear old Ruskin High wished me a happy birthday by starting my day off making me register for the draft.  It was the most somber happy birthday I ever got.

I want to make one thing clear here.  I support our military and all of those who serve in it.  I have a great respect for veterans from any part of history.  I know that if it were not for them we would not have the freedom's we have today.  Would I have gone to war if drafted?  I would have.  I would not turn my back on my country if it called.  Am I glad I didn't have to serve?  Well, I wouldn't say "glad" but I was relieved.  By the end of 1975 I would be in a full time job starting a career that would last me the rest of my life and would be getting married.  So relieved ... yes.

Arlo Guthrie singing his Classic about signing up for the draft "Alice's Restaurant Massacree" in 2005

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