Summer, 1967. It was a week past my 20th birthday and I had just completed my second year at the local community college when the “good news” arrived in my mailbox. I clearly remember holding the unopened manila envelope in my hand, knowing full well what was inside. It’s difficult to fully explain my feelings at that fateful moment, but I guess numb would suffice. Dozens of thoughts started racing through my mind. I would have to quit my job and put school on hold. How will I tell my girlfriend and parents? As silly as it seemed, I even wondered what would happen to my car (I still had a few payments left). It was a very strange feeling to suddenly realize that I was now a conscript and my life would not be my own for the next couple of years or so.
I was majoring in electronics while working part-time at my dad’s TV store as an apprentice technician. My draft notice wasn’t a complete surprise, but the optimistic side of me kept thinking I might luck out and not get picked. Still, I couldn’t ignore the fact that I had already completed the pre-induction physical a few months before. And then there were my grades. Even though I was pulling straight A’s in all of my electronic courses, my lack of enthusiasm in all my other courses had pulled my GPA down to 2.0, not a good thing when the Selective Service is on the prowl. Student deferments had limits. A couple of my friends with better GPA’s had already been called up.
I packed up my few belongings in cartons, bid farewell to my roommates, and then drove to my parents home a few miles across town. They were away on a 2-week vacation to Canada so I let myself in and deposited the cartons in the entry way along with a short note about the draft notice (I later learned that mom cried when she read the note). I left my trusty ’64 Corvair in the side-yard driveway and then waited for my best friend to give me a lift down to the Greyhound Bus depot.
As we pulled away I suddenly felt very alone. I couldn’t say goodbye to my family. Even my girlfriend was away on vacation with her family. It was a bit awkward as my long-time school friend and I said our goodbyes. Although he had gone through the pre-induction physical his excellent grades kept him draft-deferred for the next 3 or 4 years (as it turned out, he completely avoided military service). Apparently, during this period of history, straight A’s had more value than just the honor of graduating Summa Cum Laude. Either that, or he had a disqualifying physical problem.
The bus was completely filled with draftees, each dealing with his plight in his own way. Most were quiet and gazed out the windows as if in a state of shock. A few were loud and boisterous and openly drank beer, much to the dismay of the bus driver. He pulled over at least once to toss empty beer cans onto the roadside.
After about 5 hours we arrived at the induction center somewhere in the central part of Los Angeles. We were immediately assigned a room in a dreary old hotel nearby. My roommate at the hotel was Ed Schultz, a former high school classmate. Although we both grew up in the same neighborhood, we were just casual acquaintances in school. The current situation brought us briefly closer together so we naturally spent part of the first evening talking about the Army and where it might lead us and of course, we talked about Vietnam. We both felt that the U.S. was doing the right thing in helping the South Vietnamese and if sent there, we would do our part.
Very early the next morning we began our exhaustive physicals. After two days of poking, prodding, blood-letting, etc., we were finally pronounced healthy enough to die for our country (I sometimes wonder why the poor quality hotel food didn’t cause us to flunk the induction physical). Shortly after passing the physical examinations we were assembled in a large room and duly sworn into the United States Army. Next, we were herded into another bus and taken to LAX (Los Angeles International Airport) where we boarded a red-eye special (night-flight) to Ft. Bliss, Texas, which was to be our new home for the next 8 weeks or so.
It was still dark when we arrived at the base and herded into the reception station. More paper work was completed. It was at this point that I made a fateful decision. I chose to enlist rather than remain a draftee. My reasoning was simple: draftees have no choice in their MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) assignment, while enlistees do. Probably without fully understanding the implications of my choice I picked field artillery radar (MOS 17B20). Of course, there was an obvious downside to this plan; enlistees have a 3-year active duty commitment while draftees have only two. In either case, the “fun” was about to begin.
I never saw Ed again. He was assigned to a different training company and eventually ended up in Vietnam as an infantryman. About 8 months later I received a letter from a friend, explaining that Ed had been killed during a battle north of Saigon. I’ll never forget that day.