This week Robert S. McNamara, Secretary of Defense from 1961-68, died at age 93. His passing reminded me of that tumultuous and troubled time in our nation’s life, and my up-close and personal encounter with the draft.
Forty years ago this month I received the famous Draft Notice from the U. S. Army to report to their nearest facility for processing. I had graduated from college and enrolled in seminary, but they wanted me to come see them anyway. After discovering where I was to report and finding a way to get there, I was immediately put on a bus with about 30 other young men and taken to the processing center.
On the ride over one young man stabbed himself a number of times in the leg with a pocket knife, and then cut his wrist. This created quite a scene, and he was quickly escorted off the bus as soon as we arrived. He did not want to go into the army. He did not want to die in Vietnam.
Since I was enrolled in seminary but would not start classes for another six weeks, I decided not to apply for the seminary student exemption. I would still face a possible draft upon graduation. So there I was, standing in a long line waiting. First we filled out a detailed military form or two or three. Then we headed to another area and were told to stand in line in our underwear.
I went through the whole process. I even got my own clothes back; some were not so lucky. Finally it came down to the one-on-one review/interview with a weary officer. He said that it looked like I had passed everything with flying colors and that he wanted to welcome me into the army. Then he noticed the long scar on my right forearm. “What’s this?” Two words that forever changed my life. I explained about the car wreck two years earlier, and the surgery to transfer muscles in my hand and arm to compensate for some nerve damage.
To paraphrase the Apostle Paul (Rom. 12:1), I had presented my body as a living sacrifice and the U. S. Army found it wholly and unacceptable in their sight. They did not classify me 4-F. They classified me 4-Y, which meant I could still be called up if things got more desperate with the war effort. They never called on me again. I did receive a letter one day about seven years later saying that I was no longer under my military classification.
I wonder sometimes what my life would have been had I gone to Vietnam like so many of my friends and classmates. Would I have even lived through it? That war was awful. In my opinion those veterans still have not been recognized or treated with the dignity and respect each one deserves. Over 58,000 soldiers died, leaving grieving family and friends an empty place at the table. So many were mentally traumatized by the brutality of war, or damaged by disease, drugs and alcohol. We are still reacting to the effects of the Vietnam War even as we fight wars in Iraq and Afghanistan today.
If am a reflecting this way, I believe thousands of men and women who served in our military around the world are thinking about those days. Say “thank you” and give a word of peace to these veterans. Let’s extend grace, loving kindness and even forgiveness today.
“We of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations acted according to what we thought were the principles and traditions of our country. But we were wrong. We were terribly wrong.” —Robert S. McNamara, The Associated Press, 1995.