My Road to Vietnam: A Very Inartful Draft Dodger

1969 was quite the remarkable year. If you are into 50-year-old hallmarks, your memory may conjure some historic worldwide events like the first manned moon landing, the three-day Woodstock “Peace and Music” festival, and when the Beatles came together for the final time on Abbey Road. 

In the US, it was also when the Stonewall Inn riots occurred in Greenwich Village, the year that Mario Puzo’s Godfather was published, and the year of the savage Hollywood murders by the Charles Manson “family.”

More personally, for me it was the year Joe Willie’s Jets won football’s Super Bowl, Tom Seaver’s NY Mets won the baseball World Series and—on August 18—when I was inducted into the US Army and set forth on a path that led to the Vietnam War. Talk about one small step for a man…….

I distinctly remember that sultry summer morning, despite a hangover from a nervous week’s worth or booze and amphetamines (I had a good friend with pharmacy access, but I’m not mentioning any names). Big brother Frank drove me to the Fort Hamilton Army Base in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, in his gleaming 1964 Buick Riveria, the White Whale, which I painstakingly cleaned and polished all summer long for the privilege of driving it on a few dates with Natalie.  Fort Hamilton is a languid and picturesque army base, overlooking the entrance to New York harbor from a grassy hilllock in the shadow of the Verrazzano Bridge.  Befitting its pastoral postage stamp presence, Fort Hamilton was then home to a Military Chaplain school. Also a key induction point for new soldiers.

POINT OF NO RETURN: My path to Vietnam began at Fort Hamilton, on Brooklyn’s idyllic waterfront. 

Without leaving his driver’s seat, Frank signaled his farewell and best wishes with a sympathetic shoulder shrug. “Hope for the best, prepare for the worst,” he seemed to say. This was my H-hour: separating from family, friends, lovers, and all things familiar to me — good bad or indifferent. I knew this day was coming for the entire summer. Having finally arrived, I was floored; still unprepared. And that’s pretty much a spot-on description of how I got myself drafted into the Army —and eventually sent to Vietnam—in the first place.

Yes, I said drafted. Unlike the bonanza pro-sports “drafts” we’re familiar with today, back then, the military draft was clearly the greatest dread of young adult men in the US. If you didn’t enlist in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines or Coast Guard for four years, Uncle Sam came and got you for two. Unless, that is, you were shrewed or deceitful enough to keep the wolf from the door. Can you say bone spurs? 

At the time, every male US citizen aged 18 to 25—approximately 27 million of them—was required to register with the Selective Service, becoming eligible for conscription into the Army. However, only a tiny fraction actually served or was called. The bulk of the armed forces, including the Army, and all who served in Vietnam, were volunteers. Of some 10 million US military members during the war years, only about 2 million were draftees. Many many millions received deferments. They became exempt from the draft for reasons ranging from poor health or injuries, family hardship, religious beliefs (conscientious objectors), military sensitive jobs, criminal records or, college studies.  Hundreds of thousands became “draft dodgers;” they openly defied and refused military service, or skipped out to Canada, Mexico, Scandinavia or elsewhere beyond its reach. 

Statistically, an overwhelming majority of my generation qualified as one or more of the above.  They did not serve. And an even larger percentage of my demographic—middle class, college-eligible, white males—never came close to seeing Vietnam let alone military service. Even among those conscripted, less than one-third went to the war: a total of 650,000. Draftees like me were a minority in Vietnam—though their casualties were proportionally higher.

Indeed, none of my friends or relatives served in the military full time during the war, let alone got their butts shipped to Vietnam like me.  Most either held onto their student deferment long enough to run out the clock, or managed to finagle their way into homebound National Guard units.  As weekend warriors, they lived as civilians following a few months of training, six years of local meetings, and a few weeks of sleep-away camp each year.

HELL NO; THEY DID NOT GO: Nearly every young American male was required to register for the military and carry his draft card……
….But very few were selected and served.

So what was my problem?  How come I wasn’t able to pull off what most of my contemporaries did?  Why did I wind up in the Army and Vietnam, when so many others did not? Worthy questions. There’s two answers really.  One is that I screwed up.  The other is that I screwed up real bad.  In fact, I was lazy and totally irresponsible for my existence.  Rudderless, I think, is the best descriptor for what my life looked like in 1969.

After 4 college semesters of embarrassing academic underperformance (which was totally predictable from my lackadaisical attitude at one of New York’s elite, entrance-exam high schools), I was politely asked to “take some time off” from the University of Bridgeport. Immediately, I lost my 2-S student deferment from the draft. The hallowed 2-S designation was doubtless the most coveted beat-the-draft, get-out-of-jail card of them all. An undergraduate student was required to be in good standing with an accredited college and carry a full matriculation course load—typically 12 credits or more. 2-S accounted for the lion’s share by far of the 15-million plus draft deferments. I was not clever enough to hold onto mine.

I got a job in New York City in the spring of 1969, with a plan to get back to school and regain my student deferment by the fall semester. Part of my problem was I was broke. I asked my dad for a $3,000 tuition loan, but never got it. My father, and by extension our family, was not wealthy by any means.  He had a steady job, and we always lived comfortably, if modestly.  We never owned a new car nor took a vacation to anyplace beyond Long Island beaches. So, perhaps he didn’t have the money. Or, he didn’t think I was a worthwhile investment. Considering how I squandered my first two years of college, that wasn’t an arguable conclusion. Truth is, I don’t know which was the issue because my father essentially never answered my request. As lawyers might say, he was silent on the topic. 

My attempt to join the National Guard was half hearted and totally unsuccessful.  My application didn’t impress the unit commander with the same conviction that a case of Scotch might have. I was too proud to beg. I opted instead for a summer scramble to build a bank roll in time to return to school. My strategy was a long shot race against the clock that I lost by a couple of weeks. The result was the proverbial “Greetings” letter announcing my induction date.

SUNRISE SERANADE: At Woodstock, Hendrix played the anthem; in Brooklyn, I took the oath.

So, early on that midsummer’s morning, as Jimi Hendrix turned the Star Spangled Banner into a psychedelic anti-war anthem at Max Yasgur’s farm, I raised my right hand in Brooklyn, peed in a cup (alas, booze and drugs was not my salvation), and took the proverbial step forward that Muhammad Ali and tens of thousands of others bravely did not.  Less than four months hence, the draft “lottery” was instituted.  Numbers from one to 366 (for leap year) were assigned to birthdates, designating the order in which men aged 19 and older would be conscripted into the army from then on. Anyone with a lottery number of 196 or lower was eventually called for service. With chagrin, I and a barracks full of shaved-head GI’s watched this spectacle on TV.  My number?  October 13: number 138. My destiny was inescapable.

THIS CHANGED EVERYTHING : On Dec. 1, 1969, who went to war and who didn’t became a numbers game.

13 Replies to “My Road to Vietnam: A Very Inartful Draft Dodger

  1. More things here I did not know!!! Where was my head in 1969 ???? Love you my dear brother.

  2. Very interesting. Luck of the drawer in my case was a 321 while a neighbor pulled a number in the lower third and promptly joined the National Guard. So, my main memories of `69 were working a summer job at a supermarket, watching 2001: A Space Odyssey on the Quad my first night as a freshman at Syracuse University and experiencing all hell breaking loose in my high-rise dorm when the Mets won the World Series. My freshman year ended two weeks early in May, 1970, when other freshmen were killed at Kent State and rioting at our campus closed down the school. Fred: thank you for your service. Too bad it was all for nothing.

  3. I was drafted in 1968 after leaving a Catholic seminary after 3rd year of college and then bumming around after 1 semester at public University. My dad gave me about as much direction as yours. Ended up getting a Chaplain Assistant MOS and spent approximately 5 weeks at Ft. Hamilton August 68 before getting orders to the ‘Nam. Ft H was the best Army assignment in the world as far as I was concerned, a Missouri hick who had never been to NY. ALSO SAW 2001 IN Manhattan with my soon to be fiancee who came to visit me one weekend.
    So Fred, do you think we were “unbrave” for answering the call even if very reluctantly. I wondered so at that time, but, with many years of reflection and contemplation I have grown to accept and even find pride in the service we gave.

  4. Gives a whole new meaning to stay in school, kids. Enlightening, as always. I dare say you might not be the man you are without all of the good, and bad, experiences. But who knows. Thanks, Fred.

  5. Brave or courageous I was not. Lost and confused. All wars are heinious; this one was additionally unjust and politically reprehensible. I give thanks every day that I am lucky enough to be here to tell about it, and I cry everyday for the millions who are not.

  6. No telling what the course would have been for fabatemarco had the butterfly not flapped it’s wings in 1969. Unlikely to have met the BW, so not complaining.

  7. My experience with the draft and the war in Viet Nam was quite a bit different from yours. I spent most of my college years dating a very nice young lady and studying a lot. I was going to go to graduate school, get a master’s degree and teach English Literature. How naive. By the spring of my senior year (1970) my college had erupted in anger at the war and I was thinking a lot about it. I was scared. My lottery number was 135. For me, too close for comfort. I talked to a lot of my classmates and many of them confessed that they had gone down to the local National Guard office and enlisted. I was not crazy about this option. But one afternoon my fear of dying got the better of me and I drove down to the National Guard office and met Major McGuire (not Barry McGuire). No finagling, no Dan Quayle maneuvers were required–he signed me up on the spot. He then directed me to a supply room where they gave me a shit load of equipment. My roommate and I camped out with it in a verdant portion of the campus that night. One night not long after I heard cursing and screaming from a nearby dorm room, and I went out to see what was up. They were cursing about footage from Kent State, cursing at the National Guard. What had I gotten myself into?
    I went to basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, where it was very very hot. While it was objectionable to be ordered around and fire guns and march all over the place, Basic was tolerable. I told myself that it beat Viet Nam. Many of the trainees were guys like me–college grads who took the cowards way out. I have always been a shy guy, and it felt good to be able to sit down at any dinner table and talk about the common enemy: the drill sergeants. Also, I dropped 30 pounds and got into great physical shape.
    When Basic was over and I got back to my unit I found that almost everyone was like the guys I met in Basic. I’m not proud of it, but most of us did as little as we could at the monthly meetings. The new trend of National Guard units being activated and sent to dangerous places overseas, never happened to us. If it had, we all would have been killed. We were pathetic excuses for soldiers.

  8. Basic training was like being hit in the head with a shovel everyday. When it was over, you were a mess, but it felt so good that the head banging was done.

  9. Bob… I checked with the judges, and you still get a thank you for your service! Hope you’re well.

  10. Fred-my “get out of the draft card” was my new born daughter, Tricia-1/4/70. Unlike my father in WW2 who was drafted with two kids they never got around to drafting fathers of one kid for Nam. Being a father & supporting a family at 21 had its challenges but it was nothing compared to what you & many others had to live through. Thank you for your service!

  11. Felix–Linda Tesorierio faithly kept me informed of the goings on among you and the other guys all through my army time. I still have letters referring to your marriage and the birth of your daughter. She also sent me clippings of the NY Mets march to the championship in 1969. I owe my mental health throughout my service to good friends like her and you and BW and so many others.

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