A short story of how the Vietnam War impacted my life from draft age to present.
I originally wrote this not to post on the website, but for my 3 sons to read sometime later. We never talked about wars and such, I just wanted them to someday see my view on this war that affected my life.
The Vietnam War, fought from 1955-1975, ironically was the war that saved my life. Yes…saved. I was born in April of 1953, a time that was ripe for me to be eventually drafted and sent to Vietnam to fight. It was a war that the majority of our country rejected, believing we had no business being there fighting a war that we could never win. The United States got involved because we wanted to prevent communism from taking over South Vietnam and its surrounding countries. During the 60’s, communism was running rampant and spreading throughout Europe and Asia. The U.S was in a “battle” with communist Russia to stop this, with communist Cuba knocking on our door just 150 miles off the coast of Florida. To us it was simple: Russia and their territories = communism; United States and ours = freedom. The United States was willing to do whatever it took to keep freedom in countries that already had it or wanted it. Whatever it took. That included going to war.
Now I’m not going to get into an entire history lesson here about Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, our country and all the politics involved – there are many programs and books you can get that information from. This is just my story, my side of the war, my feelings and how it has affected my life, back then and up till now.
On February 2, 1972, the draft board held another draft lottery in a series of lotteries scheduled for inducting men into the military to help fight the war. This one I remember like it was yesterday. There were 365 pieces of paper in a drum, each one had a month and day of the year printed on it signifying birthdays. The days were drawn randomly, men (actually boys) being called to active duty in the order they were drawn. I was still 18 years old. I remember walking from my bedroom into the kitchen, mom and dad were in the family room reading the morning paper. They were silent. Mom was upset. Dad was not his usual funny self. “Well?” I asked. “Where am I?” meaning where’s my birthday fall on this draft lottery. Mom, barely getting it out, said “You’re number four.”
“Four? Out of 365? I’m four?” I said shockingly.
Right then I realized mom and dad’s silence. They knew, as I did, I was going into the Army and off to Vietnam. I graduated high school eight months before, saw many of my older friends get drafted and head off to war. Some came back…some did not. I suddenly realized I was going to war, as my dad did in World War II, but like everyone else in the country, they thought it was a war we shouldn’t be in and mom was willing to send me to Canada to avoid the draft. Anybody that defected to Canada to avoid the draft was never allowed to return to the United States. At the time the idea was enticing, but I soon realized it was stupid to run away. I needed to stand up and be responsible. If I ran my mom would’ve been happy, but I could never forgive myself for abandoning my country and friends. I accepted the fact that by this time next year I would be drafted and reporting for military duty.
By spring I was called to report to the draft board in downtown Detroit to get my physical exam along with 200 other guys, some I knew, most I didn’t. Now we were 18 and 19 years old, still kids so to speak, still wanting to goof around. And that’s what we did at the draft board. Or at least we tried. That lasted a few seconds. The drill sergeants were on our asses like flies on shit. They scared the shit out of us, and suddenly we knew what it was going to be like at boot camp. We didn’t like it. The yelling. The screaming in your face. The authority. We all just wanted to go home.
The physical exam lasted all day long, from 8am to 5pm. They probed areas I didn’t even know I had. It wasn’t pretty. And finally it was over. We all went home and waited for that call…the call that said get yourself together because it’s time to report for duty. It was like walking on thin ice for months on end.
Later that same year, in October, Kathy and I were married. We both knew it was just a matter of time before I was headed out, in the back of my mind I’d figured I’d be called to duty at my next birthday in April. I would be 20 years old then. In my mind I had accepted the fact that I was going to Vietnam. I had already tuned my mind to that and I was okay with it. But I also had the overwhelming feeling that if I was sent to Vietnam to fight, I wouldn’t come back. I just knew that for some reason. But I knew I would be fighting for our country. I didn’t like it, but I was okay with it.
Then something happened. It was late January in 1973, about 3 months before I was expected to be drafted. Kathy and I were in northern Michigan with family members skiing. President Richard Nixon came on the TV with a special report. He said troops were being withdrawn from Vietnam and he felt there was no further need to draft men into the military. Anyone who has not been called to report for active duty as of this day was not required to do so. He ended the draft.
The draft was over. I was not going into the armed forces. I was not going to Vietnam. We all celebrated that night and about the only thing I can remember is being drunk. (Back then the drinking age in Michigan was 18, but I'm sure it wouldn't have mattered anyway). I could now think about starting a family. About living a full life. As bad as people think Richard Nixon was, with Watergate and the way he was dishonest on a majority of things and did things behind our country’s back…he is still my hero. President Nixon ended our part in the Vietnam War. He withdrew our troops and brought them home. He ended the draft. He stopped me from very possibly being killed at war.
It’s this reason that I say the Vietnam War saved my life. Even though I could actually credit Nixon for it, and I do, I credit the war because it made me think more like a responsible adult at a younger age. My mom was willing to ship me off to Canada because she loved me and wanted me to stay alive. Many guys were doing that, even knowing they could never return. They were considered deserters in the eyes of the government. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter pardoned all who went to Canada that were “draft dodgers”, so many came home. But to me I would be returning as a coward. My friends weren’t going to Canada, they were being drafted and going to war. I needed to stand my ground, accept my fate and move forward. It was our duty. It was my duty. Can you imagine what it would’ve been like to move to Canada to avoid the draft and return to the U.S. after the war? I would always be looked at as a coward that ran away from his country, his fellow men. Except by my mother of course. And how could I live the rest of my life knowing that men died for me and I turned my back on them? That’s what I mean, it saved my life, instead of destroying it.
It’s funny, the older I get, now in my early sixties, the more I think about that war. I watch programs on the war, the Vietnam Memorial in Washington DC, which I have visited, and seem to feel more for these Vets than I’ve ever felt before. I suppose it’s mainly because of how they’ve been mistreated and ignored in our own country. They never got the warm welcome home, the parades and celebrations like the World War II Vets. They were ignored, and still are for the most part, because the country believed it was a war we shouldn’t have been in. They should never be mistreated like that, they’re war Veterans. They fought because our government sent them there. Did they want to go there? No. But it was their military duty to fight. And they did. The people should be pissed at our government, not the Veterans. Anyone that holds a grudge against our Vietnam Veterans should be ashamed. And in my eyes, deported from the United States because they’re not true Americans.
There were countless numbers of anti-war protests, guys that burned their draft cards in protest of being drafted and going to war, and it was considered the first “dirty war” we fought, meaning that it wasn’t fought by the “rules” so to speak. By that I mean the opposing tactics were beyond comprehension. The Vietcong used common villagers to fight their war, brainwashing families and individuals to forcibly do the unheard of. They would strap bombs and explosives on these people and send them into the U.S. troops, making believe they needed help only to detonate the explosives when they came into contact with the troops. They would booby-trap the village huts and make the people be silent or they would be killed and then explode the huts when our troops entered. Cease fires were not honored by the Vietcong either. They would agree to it and then open fire when they knew our troops were vulnerable. Prisoners of war were terribly mistreated and tortured, and some are still there, to this day. Now I know these tactics were probably used in previous wars, but this is the first one that made us aware of it. By the war’s end, 58,220 American soldiers had been killed, more than 150,000 wounded and at least 21,000 had been permanently disabled. There are still over 2,500 missing in action or prisoners of war. Almost 40 years later. The Dirty War.
So how do I feel today? Forty-two years after my birthdate was drawn for the military draft lottery? Well, definitely lucky. Someone was watching over me. More than my mother. I’m lucky not to have gone to war to fight for something we never really won. When the U.S. pulled out all of its troops, the communist North Vietnam, backed by Russia, moved into all the countries we were protecting for years, taking them over and executing thousands of people. We fought that war for 20 years, lost countless lives, destroyed thousands of American families…only to see the communists do what they intended from the beginning, just like we were never there. I was the last male in my family to carry on the family name, which was so important to my grandfather, my dad’s dad. I was able to have a great family with 3 boys, and now because of that I have 2 fantastic daughters-in-law and 3 remarkable grandsons. The name carries on! I’ve had a good life with so much more to come. In spite of two divorces, I’ve found the woman to spend the rest of my life with. And we all blend so well as a family. But let’s take my thoughts a little deeper.
To this day I have regrets about not serving our country in the military. I always looked up to my dad, he was my hero. He served in the army in World War II, ironically fought the Germans in Europe, and we are German descent because my dad’s parents came to the U.S. from Berlin in 1922, and he was honorably discharged in 1945, then joined the Michigan National Guard and served until his honorable discharge in 1952. He had quite a military history. He was drafted, he served his duty, and he came home. Then he re-enlisted in the National Guard because he and his young wife, my mom, needed money. It was a guaranteed income. He told me stories of being in Italy during the war, the funny stories of course. He told me of the few, yes few, times he got busted (meaning de-ranked) from stupid shit that he and his buddies did. The trouble is they got caught and busted. He probably could’ve come out of the Army as a Captain or something instead of Staff Sergeant if he wasn’t busted so many times. But he never, not once, ever talked about the war, the real war, or what it was like being fired upon with bullets and bombs exploding all around you. Never. I guess he wanted to spare me from such unimaginable horror.
At the time of my draft I didn’t want to go. I mean, there were guys going to Vietnam and not coming back, or coming back with parts missing. It didn’t seem worth fighting for when you’re 18 years old. It ended up that you weren’t fighting for your country, you were fighting for your life. At 18, I wasn’t ready for that…not until I totally accepted it and tuned my mind to it. My good friend Pat, whom I met at work back in 2000 and is 3 years older than me, fought in Vietnam when he was in the Navy. He wants nothing to do with Vietnam and its surrounding countries today. The company we worked at together had company shirts with the company logo stitched on the front. Everyone was required to wear the shirts. He saw the tag on the inside…”Made in Vietnam.” He wouldn’t wear it. When the boss asked why he said,
“I served over there. I’m not supporting anything for that country. Fuck them and I’m not wearing those shirts.”
The boss looked at him and said, “Okay,” and walked away. Pat was the only guy in the company that did not wear the shirt.
But I’m older now. And it seems that with every year that passes I have the regretful feeling of not serving. Of course once I started a family I had no intentions of enlisting or anything, but the thoughts are always there. I see guys wearing baseball caps all the time saying “Vietnam Veteran.” I try to thank them when I see them. It would’ve been an honor to serve and an honor to be a Veteran.
I’ve had a taste myself of what my mom and dad went through with me being of age to be drafted. I have 3 boys of my own, all about 3 years apart. The Persian Gulf War started in 1990, the U.S. of course got involved to try to stop terrorism from spreading in the Middle East, battling against Iraq. My boys were coming of age to be called to fight in this war, a war that Saddam Hussein threatened to use chemical warfare on. For years I sweated, hoping that none of them ever got the call to report for duty. The calls….thank God, never came. I know exactly what mom and dad experienced. And it wasn’t a very good feeling.
The war in the Middle East continues today. The U.S. still has troops there and is still sending troops to continue fighting terrorism, another war we will never win. Nuke the entire Middle East and there will still be terrorism in the world. The only way to stop terrorism in this world is to…end the human race.
So the next time, and every time, you see a war Veteran, whether it be the few left from World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, or the Persian Gulf War…stop for a moment, shake his or her hand and say “Thank you. You saved my life.”