One surmises that the volunteer military system devised after the Vietnam debacle erases what had transpired before. Perhaps we all need to revisit that terrible era, when phony US incursions overseas had such horrific repercussions… on foreign nations and on our young men. As a college student in the late 60s and early 70s I had the ‘ Get out of draft ‘ gold passport of my 2-S deferment. As long as I maintained 12 undergraduate credits Uncle could not touch me. By the time I had reached 18 years of age the rhythm of pro war sentiment had changed for many young Americans. Yes, we still had a lot of guys my age who still supported our being in Vietnam militarily. Alas, thank goodness their numbers were evaporating after the 1968 Tet offensive when the Vietcong attacked within the previously safe haven of Saigon and thereabouts. When Nixon took over in ’69 and started bombing the shit out of Hanoi in the north, his use of our B-52s attacking the NVM in neutral Cambodia struck a nerve within the US college community. The sad ‘ Icing on the cake ‘ was when, in May 1970, National Guard soldiers, the same age as Kent State students, fired and killed some of them during a protest. My school, Brooklyn College, saw hundreds of us strike and close down the university. We finally chased the military recruiters off our campus, something that should have been done years earlier. Another example of ‘ The worm turning’ politically in America.
Living in a working class neighborhood of Brooklyn I saw many of my peers going into the military. I can recall two such incidents that still remain in my baby boomer memory reservoir. It must have been 1968 when at Catholic Mass one Sunday I noticed Vito Putzko, son of my friend David’s building superintendent, standing in the rear of the church where I usually stood. He had on his Army Ranger uniform, replete with high combat boots and holding his dark beret. He was home on leave, and the next time he returned it was in a wooden box. Vito got killed on some hill in Vietnam and never got to receive communion again here in Brooklyn. Another of my permanent memories involved Mrs. Lombardo, whose son Tommy joined the Marines in ’68 or ‘ 69. She was a school crossing guard who worked the area across from our St. Edmunds Church. She always had that beautiful smile, radiating from ear to ear, as she helped us cross busy Ocean Ave. After her son Tommy came home from the ‘Nam’ in his wooden box Mrs. L’s smile seemed to be transformed into a ‘ Mona Lisa ‘ smirk whenever she greeted us on that corner.
In 1973 my student deferment ran out when I found a full time job and took the 6 credits needed to reach graduation. The letter came from Uncle and I had to scurry about to get notes from doctors before my physical. I went first to my football team doc, an orthopedic surgeon. He gave me a note in reference to the bursitis I had on my elbows. It seems that landing on my elbows repeatedly in games filled them with sacks of liquid- painful as hell. He had to drain them a few times when I was still playing. Why not take a shot now? I then went to my family doc and got a note stating that my stuttering was only getting worse in time. It really wasn’t. I still had the stutter, usually when under stress, but I was still able to act in college theater productions. So, off I went on the day in question to Fort Hamilton Army base with my notes.
When I arrived I could notice most of the other draftees in a not so happy state. One guy was obviously tripping on acid, thinking that it would get him out. Wrong! I later found out that they kept him for a few days under observation, and the effects would wear off. A few guys came there dressed in woman’s clothes, and that didn’t work either. I just hung onto my doctor’s notes. They had us in groups of six as they moved us from doctor’s station to doctor’s station. All of the doctors were Captains. The orthopedic doc read my note, examined my elbows and said ‘ No problem, you can serve son’. We then were sent to the doctor who handled hearing. This became a scene right out of Arlo Guthrie’s famous song Alice’s Restaurant and the induction center physical. The Captain had us go into this glass booth with six chairs, each having a headset attached. He told us to put them on and when we heard a noise to raise our hands high. He closed the door and waited . The sound came through and five hands went up. The other guy just sat there. The Captain came in and tapped the guy’s arm. The guy took off the headset. ‘ Didn’t you hear the sound son?’ The guy shook his head and said ‘ Hah?’ So, the Captain told him to put the headset back on and listen again. We all waited as the hand never went up. The Captain ran in, pushed the guy’s shoulder and told him to take off the headset. ‘ You still didn’t hear the sound son?’ The guy looked at him and said ‘ What?’ The Captain grabbed his arm, real hard, and looked him eye to eye, real close. ‘ We’re gonna do this again, and if that fucking hand doesn’t go up son, you’re gonna be here all day until it does!’ He then told the rest of us to go on to the next station .
As I floated by the medical examination stations I could sense that my efforts were in vain. Finally, it was my turn to meet with the shrink. I had my note ready and sat outside his door while he continued inside with the guy ahead of me. Using all my theater major experience I practiced whispering with a stutter as I waited. Should be no problem. Suddenly there was a loud noise coming from inside. It was shouts, loud shouts as the door opened. The guy ahead of me was standing across the desk from the shrink, his hands flailing. ‘ You’re a fucking murderer. You send kids like me to go over there and kill or be killed! I hope you go to hell you bastard!’ He slammed the door and as he passed me by, in a calm voice said ‘ He’s tough.’ OK here goes. I went in, handed my note, sat down and did my best impression of a man with a stutter. Not too overt, but enough to show that I couldn’t say a sentence without beginning with a stutter. He asked me questions as he read the note. After a few minutes of conversation, he told me that ‘ Well, son, you have a speech impediment, but not enough in my view to keep you from serving.’ I asked him if this was the final medical exam. He told me I still had to go down the hall for the last one. I walked to the next room, feeling as if all was in vain. The doctor inside said he needed to check me for any hernia or rupture. When I dropped my drawers and he grabbed my genitals he exclaimed ‘ Are you aware that you have a varicose vein in your left gonad?’ I told him I was born with it… had it all my life. ‘ Oh, well you cannot serve with that son. You are 1-Y, but it is an easy procedure to get the varicose vein fixed. Just please notify us when you get it taken care of.’ I laughed and said ‘ OK doc, you guys will be the first to know.’