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Reflections on the Vietnam Era on Memorial Day

Reflections on the Vietnam Era on Memorial Day
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By Steve Nubie

I had a low draft number and Vietnam looked like an inevitable destination in my life. Many of us remember the times, the fears and the frustrations of those days.

For many of us in our 50’s and older, Memorial Day is a multigenerational time of remembrance. We grew up with both the memories and the stories shared by our grandparents and parents related to World-War I, World War II and Korea. We’ve seen our kids connecting to recent conflicts from Iraq to Afghanistan either through their friends or from their own personal experience in the service. But for most of us boomers, the war that connects us to Memorial Day is Vietnam.

Some of us served in Vietnam. All of us knew somebody who was a part of that conflict, and just as many of us remember the confusing and dark times that surrounded world events from the late 60’s into the early 70’s. The assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. The riots across the country from Chicago to Watts. The always ominous nuclear-threat of the cold-war, the curious joy of the first moon landing and all of it taking place against the background of a war that was both confusing and devastating: Vietnam.

I was a teenager during the early years of the Vietnam War and always watched the draft lottery with interest. It was a simple determination where a date was picked out of a large, glass bowl followed by the selection of a number from 1 to 366. The reason the numbers went up to 366 was to accommodate those unique birthdays on February 29th.

This “draft number” was selected for males turning 19 years old for a given year. I remember the first year of the lottery when I was only 17. The lottery didn’t apply to me that year but I was still relieved to receive a number of 276. The way the lottery worked was the lowest draft numbers would be drafted first. How many were drafted in any given year varied, but it typically did not extend beyond 150.

The next year when I turned 18 my draft number was 327. It still didn’t apply to me but it was encouraging nonetheless. I think a lot of us assumed the war would end and none of us turning 19 the next year would face the potential for a tour of duty in Vietnam. But the war wore on.

It was 1972 and I was a student at the University of Dayton. It was late winter and it was a particularly cold day. I was living in the boy’s dormitory called Stuart Hall. There was no cafeteria in Stuart Hall so you had to walk across campus to the girl’s dormitory for meals. It was coming up on lunchtime and, as I walked through the halls of our dorm, there was a group of guys gathered around a small, black and white TV. On the wall was a large sheet of paper and they were writing down dates and numbers. It was the annual draft lottery and this year was my year in addition to about 600 other guys who lived in the dorm. I stepped up to the doorway and simply said “Do they have a number for March 29th, yet?” I expected to hear either “no” or another number in the 300’s. One of the guys checked the big sheet of paper and looked down. He looked up and said, “Sorry man. 21.” I didn’t believe him at first but then noticed how meticulously they had written down the other numbers that had already been drawn.

Not surprisingly, most of my friends at college were the same age. The big question everyone had that day was, “What’s your number?” As I walked into the cafeteria I didn’t get in line for food but just sat at the usual table where many of my friends were already eating lunch. I sat down with my hands in my jacket pockets and stared at the center of the table. It got very quiet. I looked up and simply said, “21.” Some of the girls at the table started to cry. My buddies swore out loud. It was at that moment the seriousness of the occasion occurred to me for the first time. I was going to Vietnam and there was nothing I could do about it.

I called my mother soon afterwards. She answered the phone in tears. She knew. She had been watching the lottery drawing closely and waiting to hear my birthdate. Her immediate response was that I needed to move to Canada. I said little but was patient and tried to reassure her as much as I could.

That day I learned that many of my friends also had low numbers and I made some new friends simply for the same reason. We almost immediately began to discuss options. Ideas like joining ROTC to avoid getting drafted immediately. One friend of mine was rather tall and had determined that if he lost 42 pounds he would fail the army physical requirements for height and weight and be declared 4F. He was actually successful. Some considered joining an arm of the armed services in the hope they could make a deal for a non-combat specialty in the navy or the coast guard. And there was always that “Canada option.”

I quickly dismissed the Canada option. I had little money and no connections in Canada and wasn’t ready to renounce my citizenship. In some ways heading off into Canada on my own was as frightening and unknown as Vietnam. I was also in excellent health and couldn’t see any 4F options.

Above all of these considerations was one over-riding and nagging feeling. My father was a war hero. He had received the Bronze Star and the Silver Star for valor in World War II. I felt a sense of patriotism and loyalty but it was severely challenged by the events, horrible decisions, casualties and continuing national protest of all of the decisions surrounding Vietnam. To make matters worse, we all had older friends who had returned from the war and none of them offered encouragement or support for anything that was happening over there. We also noticed the remarkable and chilling changes that had taken place with all of these friends. They were profoundly different and seem afflicted both physically and mentally. Ultimately, three of my older friends who returned from Vietnam committed suicide.

As result there was little incentive to join and even less incentive to allow ourselves to be drafted. I determined that my only option was to consider what I could negotiate with an enlistment. I set out to talk to the recruiters of all the armed services; take all of the qualifying tests that I could and try to get a contract that guaranteed me a course of training in a military specialty that might have value for me later in life. An assignment that would keep me out of a combat situation that miserably defined success by enemy headcount and the relentless re-occupation of meaningless hills and valleys in the jungles of Vietnam.

The Navy offered me an opportunity that seemed too good to be true: A fully funded Bachelor’s and Master’s Degree over 4 years plus an additional 6-year commitment with a full commission as an officer in the Navy. Unfortunately, the degrees were in Nuclear Science and it essentially meant I would be operating a nuclear reactor on a submarine or aircraft carrier. That may have been the opportunity of a lifetime for some people but for me it was nothing I had ever remotely considered as a career or a life. I turned down the offer and patiently waited for the draft.

Inevitably I received something called a “180 Day” notice. It informed me that I had 180 days to get my affairs in order both personal and financial and that I should expect to get drafted soon after.   I got angry and in that impulse went to the army recruiter and told them I wanted to become an Airborne Ranger and volunteer for Vietnam duty. Even now I can’t fathom how I came to that conclusion. Only one thing stopped me and it was the most unexpected set of events I could have expected. My father spoke to me in tears and begged me not to join. I was stunned. He was a war hero and my sense of duty was largely driven by the sense of honor he had in serving this country. I was surprised to learn that my father was also against the war in Vietnam and had also been affected and moved by the tragedy of young men returning from that war.

I stood in the driveway one morning in my flat-top haircut and politely told the recruiter who had come to pick me that I had changed my mind. I was surprised that he didn’t try to talk me into it, but he had 3 other guys in the car and I don’t think he wanted me planting seeds of doubt in their minds.

My Dad and I sat on the front porch that evening and I was surprised when he came out of the kitchen with beers for both us. It was the first time we had shared a beer together. We spent the night talking about good times, old fishing trips and some of the fun times he had in college. After that I continued to attend a local community college and patiently waited for my draft notice. It never came.

One afternoon while driving home from school an announcement came on over the radio. The government had just announced that the military draft was over. They repeated it twice. I pulled over to the side of the road and danced in the street. A block away I saw another guy my age doing the same thing. That night we had a big family barbecue and for the first time in a year began to think about college and my future and the rest of my life.

This Memorial day I probably won’t dwell on those times quite as much as I have here. As a family we’ll remember my Dad, the war hero. We’ll also remember the friends of our family and friends of our kids who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. As for me, I’ll take a moment to remember my friends who served and lost their lives during and after Vietnam. In so many ways their sacrifice was the dearest because so few were welcomed home after surrendering so much to a war that still leaves many of us confused, and is still questioned to this day.

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