For the graduating Class of 1963, Vietnam was little more than a distant rumble when we took our diplomas home from the coliseum that night. First we had to deal with the JFK assassination as first semester Freshmen, then continue our first semester studies while attempting to maintain new social lives in new surroundings with new girls, new boys, new teachers, new coaches. The film, Animal House, was set in this time frame.
The first hint of trouble afoot that I recall was that Life magazine issue showing the burning Monk. “What in the hell is that all about?” I thought. By Summer 1965, LBJ announced his decision to dramatically increase troop strength in Vietnam and it quickly became clear that without maintaining a student deferment, all lads age 18-26 were going to be drafted.
Our class game plan quickly became an extended infatuation with higher education. Since the trek of our age slot through history roughly coincided with draft pool for Vietnam—we were 18 in 1963 and 26 in 1971; the Vietnam War ramped up in 1965 and was in decline by 1971. So if we could get our BS in 1967 or 1968, our MS in 1969-70, and get into a doctorate program after that…well, we could keep rolling that student deferment over indefinitely or at least until that bloody war was over. That is what occurred and I would suggest that is why so many of our classmates became doctors or professors. And a number of them were not from our high school pool of top academic achievers…funny thing, motivation.
A wild card, in the form of the draft lottery, was introduced in 1969, so if your number was higher than 195 in that lottery, you were home free…you would never be drafted. Before that, from 1965 to 1969, there was a constant pressure to either stay in school in order to hold that student deferment or find a Reserve program that offered little exposure to the Vietnam jungles. I don’t recall ever meeting one of my peers who was anxious to be a soldier or sailor.
Six month active duty reserve programs were available through most branches of the military, but by 1965-66 there were 2-year waiting lists for those programs. These were good programs because with just a 6-month of active duty obligation, there was not really enough time to train someone to go to Vietnam, so most of those reservists served their active duty periods in the USA, “playing soldier” as most of them described it. Dan Quayle and Al Gore were two of those 6-month reservists, both I’m relatively sure, gaining entry around the waiting lists due to the pull of their politically connected daddies.
As a back up to the 6-month programs, 2-year active duty reserve programs were available from the Navy and Air Force. Even though the active service requirement was the same as an Army draftee, these programs were superficially attractive because neither the Navy nor the Air Force were in the business of crawling through Southeast Asian jungles. Of course, assignments to Sea Dragon, the MRF, Tuy Hoa or Da Nang were not mentioned in the recruiting spiel.
Reserve officers were obligated to 3-1/3 years of active service while pilots signed on for 5-year active duty hitches with about 18-months of that spent in training. After the training, pilots could look forward to 3-1/2 years on the line—plenty of time for a lot of them to die. Google, “Still the Noblest Calling” for one of the most poignant personal recollections of Vietnam combat air service I’ve read. Be sure to use the “quotes” in your search…it was written by J.D. Wetterling.
When you finished your active duty service, you were still obligated to be a member of the reserves for several more years until you had completed six. The newspapers and evening TV news talking heads continued bleating body counts, the “students” kept rioting on their university campuses, and oddly, very oddly, you didn’t care any longer—your time in that hell was done. Of course you grieved for those lost, you always do, but it wasn’t your war any longer—it was someone else’s turn.
The protest fervor continued building, but it didn’t involve you any longer. In fact, it seemed rather self-centered and selfish on the part of the students….Mommy, Mommy, not me, not me. Time to grow up kid, you thought. Time to grow up. For years after the service I could quickly tell if someone had served or not…it was something in their bearing and in their humor.
Age and experience adds perspective that youth can never possess—it takes time, kid and you won’t find it in the books. A well-regarded personality recently visited our soldiers in Afghanistan and returned home in awe of the young soldiers he met. He said that he felt small in their prescience. “The opportunity to serve occurs only once while you are young,” he observed. “I had the opportunity to serve during the Vietnam War, and did not take it,” he said. “My draft number was high so I didn’t go,” he continued, “and I have regretted that decision all my life.”