I suspect I come from a long line of draft dodgers. I know my father avoided the Second World War by making sure that his blood pressure was too high so he failed his physical – he also happened to work in the war industry, a machinist building planes in Baltimore, Maryland. Neither of my grandfathers got anywhere near World War I – both were born in central Europe and in one case, his English must have been very limited at the time.
I grew up outside of the US, and so when I turned 18 in 1966 I trundled down to the US Embassy in London and obeyed the law by registering for the draft. I was still in High School, expecting to go to University, seemed assured of a student deferment, and planned to be too old for the draft by the time I finished with school. Those were the good old days. The rules were soon to change as the Viet Nam war chewed up soldiers and the US Government increased the number of young men sent to war to over half a million.
Registering for the draft didn’t seem to be a big deal, and despite a huge anti-draft movement in the US, I consulted with no one beforehand which proved to be a huge mistake. One of the questions on the registration form asked me for a US address. My father lived in east Los Angeles and so I put his address as my own, as well as my London address. I later was to discover that had I not put a US address, I would have automatically been placed under Draft Board 400, specially designed for the brats of US embassy personnel, ie specially designed for the high and mighty, and from which no one was actually being drafted. In stead, because of my father’s address, I was placed in the heavily Latino working class draft board based in San Gabriel, California from which they were taking everyone they could lay their hands on.
None of this bothered me immediately. I had a student deferment and intended to keep it. However as noted earlier, the rules were soon to change. As the number of soldiers coming home in body bags escalated, and the growing Black and Brown Power movements in US, pointed out that a disproportionate number of those in the body bags were working class, Black and Latino. White kids who had the resources were doing what I did, going to college and getting student deferments. There was a growing outcry that the children of the lawmakers who were prosecuting this “Police Action” – officially it was not a war – were avoiding the draft.
Under tremendous pressure to put some semblance of equality into the system – nothing could change the fact that access to resources such as attorneys and advisors would make it less likely that you would be drafted – lawmakers devised a lottery plan which was based on your birth date in the year that you turned 18. Those of us who had already passed that landmark, were thrown altogether into the first lottery, in 1967 I think. Student deferments would still exist, but they would be just that, merely a deferment. You would be assigned your draft number when you turned 18 (a number between 1 and 365) – each draftboard would have a quota to fill and would start at number 1 and keep drafting until they filled their quota for that year. If you had a low drat number, you were cannon fodder. A high draft number probably meant they would fill their quota before they got to you and you would not be called up. Those with student deferments would be left in school through a maximum of 4 years of undergraduate work, and then would face the draft based on their draft number already assigned.
My draft board was taking numbers all the way up to 300 which didn’t matter particularly to me, because, having been thrown into the first year of the lottery, they pulled September 26 as number 18, meaning I would get drafted almost anywhere, except perhaps Draft Board 400 – the one I should have been in. I got the news of my unlucky draw via the newspapers I think. But for young men and the women around them, apparently that first night when they did the draw on national primetime TV, was an unbelievable experience as millions of baby boomers had their fate decided by a lottery. For a few their worries were over. For others, they began to face even more unpleasant certainties.
I also faced a further problem: Having gone to university in England, my undergraduate course was only three years in duration. So my student deferment was slated to end one year earlier than for most kids in the US. But I did have one option that most others did not: I could just remain in England and refuse the draft by giving up my US citizenship in favor of UK citizenship. I was reluctant to do that, since at the moment I had pretty much full rights in both countries – could live and work in either. I did not have dual citizenship since the US would not allow it at the time. The law has since changed.
In my final year of University, facing a war that had now spread to the whole of South-east Asia, I decided I would see if I could postpone the inevitable by getting one of the professors at the university who was publicly a member of the Communist Party and who I had seen on TV speaking strongly against the war, to write me a letter for my draft board saying I was still a student on official letter head. He said he wanted a couple of weeks to think about it. When I returned for the answer, he said he had an ethical problem with doing what I was asking, to which I responded that his ethical problem was for me a life or death question and stormed out.
Fall of 1970 rolled around, I sent no letter to my draft board extending my deferment and eventually they wrote me a letter inviting me to a pre-induction physical in Los Angeles on a specific date to find out if I was healthy enough to die for my country. But they had sent the letter by surface mail. In those days surface mail was really surface mail, and the letter had taken over two months to reach me in England. As a result the letter actually arrived after I was supposed to report!
I should note that they wrote me in England because on a prior trip to US I had gone to my draft board to make sure that all communications were sent to my English address. I was concerned that I not get instructions which I accidentally did not obey because they sent them to my father’s address and I find myself on America’s Most Wanted list. The draft board was an eerie experience. It was full of boys who had just turned 18 and were there to register for the draft looking absolutely terrified, as they sat next to the desk of women who obviously did not face the draft, taking down their particulars. I don’t think I saw a single official man in the place. It was completely run by women! The message was no doubt intentional.
Having received their letter too late (and I should note that they had no intention of paying my fare to get from London to East LA – that was my responsibility,) I waited a couple of weeks and then wrote back (also by surface mail) saying that I was really sorry to have missed the physical but the letter did not arrive until it was too late. Please reschedule. I did not tell them why it had arrived too late – I figured that was their problem.
This cycle repeated itself a couple of times – apparently they had never heard of airmail – before they got wise. They then sent me a request to appear for a physical at a US base in Weisbaden, West Germany, and this time the letter arrived in plenty time. This was serious, and I had to figure out what I was going to do. My mother, my girlfriend and I consulted with a friendly doctor (obviously based in Britain he was not experienced with dealing with draft avoidance, but he was interested in helping in any way that he could.) His best suggestion for failing the physical was to drink a bottle of whiskey the night before and then eat a dozen raw eggs that morning. I thought about this, and decided that the cure sounded at least as bad as the disease. I wasn’t sure I would survive the bottle of whiskey, let alone the raw eggs! So we moved to plan B, still to be created.
I so to speak called in sick for the physical, didn’t go to Germany (which of course I was supposed to do again at my own expense and at the time I was a bus conductor in Brighton – making about 16 quid a week including overtime, not a lot of money.) But consulting with draft councilors in the US with whom I had made contact on a previous trip, they had suggested that I could just show up for a physical at a US Base in Britain. The question was what to do when I got there.
I had for several years had problems wearing shoes with high backs. They almost inevitably gave me tendonitis in my heel and I would be unable to walk properly for weeks while it healed. This was on both feet. Boots (and in my mind army boots) were out of the question. I had hopes that this would be good enough to exclude me from the army. I also had had a lot of problems with my ears as a young kid, resulting in both eardrums getting pierced, twice on one side. Perhaps I had enough hearing loss to be excluded.
In addition, one part of the physical was filling out the security form to make sure you were not a security risk to the United States. My mother assured me that the organization that my step father had founded and that both she and he were members of would be on the security list and we concluded that with a strong statement calling for world revolution and the forcible overthrow of the US government, the chances of my getting drafted would be small.
With these possibilities open, I trooped off one morning in 1971 to a US base and begged them to give me a physical. Since they had no notice from my draft board and pre-induction physicals were not one of their specialties, it took some convincing that they should actually do this. But in the end they did. I walked around the army hospital getting poked and prodded, x-rayed and giving samples. I saw several doctors. It was without a doubt the best physical exam I had ever had bar none. And all for free. Remember, this from the country that has no national health care system – except for soldiers, would be soldiers, and prisoners. I don’t believe medicare had even begun at that time which means that there was not even national healthcare for the elderly.
As for my strategies for draft escape via the medical profession, my hearing proved to be better than normal (and I was doing my best to fail.) Growing up poor in England, I had only ever been to one Rock Concert in my life and that was to hear Bob Dylan at the Hollywood bowl in 1965, all of which probably made my hearing better than the average American teenager. And my heels were of little interest to the military medical profession. One doctor, after examining them and hearing my sob story, confirmed that he could “see the problem. It is not uncommon in young people. You will grow out of it. We call it ‘hump bump.’ If the problem persists, we’ll operate.” That was reassuring!
Since these folks were not used to doing pre-induction physicals, no one offered me an opportunity to fill in the security form. Locating one on the base proved to be quite a feat, taking a couple of hours as I was sent from one place to another in the hope that someone might know what I was talking about. Finally someone who I suspect was a Master Sargent, gave me the form, sat me down in a private room, and I spent the next hour poring over the form. My parents’ organization was listed as being un-American by at least three different names on the form and I claimed to be a member in each case. I then wrote about three paragraphs explaining my beliefs and why I supported the other side in the War.
It is worth noting that I had made a conscious decision not to try for conscientious objector status because I didn’t think I could sustain the argument, and even if I succeeded, I would still be drafted and made to work in a military hospital or some similar institution. It never crossed my mind to just say that I was gay, which would have been a very difficult exemption for them to get over. Probably since the gay movement was nowhere near as powerful as it is today, it seemed much more dangerous a course of action than the one I decided to take. However, I did once meet someone who got out by saying “yes” to the question whether or not he was a homosexual, crossing it out, saying “no” and doing this a few times on the line, finally ending with a “no.” They didn’t take him. He speculated that they decided that if he was that unsure, they didn’t want him.
Having spent an hour on the security form, writing my story and saying whom I knew and to whom I was related, I got up and handed it in. The Master Sargent, read it, turned to me and said, “Do you really want to do this, this could ruin your whole life.” He was trying to be friendly and give me good advice. I thanked him for his concern, assured him that I did want to do it, and left the base. A couple of months later, I got a notice from my draft board that I had passed the physical with flying colors and my draft status was 1-A, ready for immediate induction. As a friend quipped, if I was that much of a security risk, they must have wanted me on the front line immediately.
However, as I now contemplated applying for asylum in Britain, I got a letter from my draft councilors in the US saying that I should cancel any and all exemptions that I was applying for, because within a month or so, everyone from my year who had no exemptions pending and was 1-A, would be reclassified 1-H, only to be called up in time of national emergency. I was now entering my mid-twenties. I came to the conclusion that there were millions of young men like me, born in the same year or earlier who had managed to avoid the draft by one evasion or another for so long, that the government literally gave up. They just figured they were never going to get us.
It was, in a way, the beginning of the end for the draft as an institution. If dodging the draft was becoming such an accepted commonplace, with institutions growing up to help young men avoid it, then as an institution it was finished. There had to be another way getting people into the army. And indeed, as they did away with the draft, they raised the pay and benefits of soldiers, broke down even further racial barriers to promotion and training, and went out to recruit.Of course, even under these circumstances, the first thing they had to do was to end the war. They still can’t recruit when people think they might die by joining.