Peter Huidekoper (unedited – not in CALLED TO SERVE)

Peter Huidekoper is an educational consultant and writes an education newsletter on issues that pertain to Colorado schools. He taught English for 18 years and lives in the Denver area.  He grew up in New Canaan, CT.

In the autumn of 1969, I was a junior at Trinity College and struggling some with my faith.  I had been planning on going into the ministry.  I was also experiencing some difficulties with college itself and whether I should remain in school.  I had grown opposed to the war by the fall of 1969 but I was not involved in any protests.

The night of the lottery drawing I was with a crowd of fellow students listening to the results on the radio.  I received number 82, but I don’t remember being too troubled at the time.  I assumed I would be in college another year and a half and that if I went on to enter the ministry I might be exempt for that reason.  Somewhere in the back of my mind was the knowledge that the doctors who had studied my back problem in my junior year in high school told me I would very likely be classified 4-F due to having spondylolisthesis (the most common X-ray identified cause of low back pain in adolescent athletes is a stress fracture in one of the vertebrae that make up the spinal column).  I think I had some sense of being invulnerable, not really subject to the lottery or the whims of the draft – a kind of brash, “This number isn’t good, but I’m not really going to find myself in the military.”  I recall others around me reacting with a certain degree of fatalism, some black humor about having only two more years left to live.  Others with low numbers were feeling really depressed.

I left college during the summer of 1970 and headed for a Christian community in the Swiss Alps called L’Abri. I still felt quite confident that the information from my doctors about my back would keep me out of the armed services.  I ended up leaving college after that semester in Switzerland for a whole host of reasons, so I did get called for my physical.  I had my x-rays with me and I was given the 4-F classification.  Looking back on those times, I am more convinced than ever that it was the assurance of the exemption that enabled me to do what I needed to do at the time, which was to leave college for 2 ½ years to make sense of my faith and my life.

My brother-in-law was drafted right after marrying my sister. While he did not go to war—he served state-side for two years in a chaplain’s office—it affected their lives.  One old friend had volunteered in 1968 and served with the special forces, but by the winter of 1969-70 I knew no one well who wanted to go.  Most people I knew at that time explored various means of being found unfit to serve, and they succeeded.  Some put great effort in finding support from doctors or psychologists.  The lottery put great stress on several people I knew well.  For most, neither leaving the country for Canada, nor taking part in the fight as a soldier seemed an option, so the focus was to find ways not to join the war effort while staying in the country.

I felt incredibly fortunate that I had my out.  I felt badly for my friends, but one who gained his CO (conscientious objector) status did good work in a hospital and enjoyed those two years.  Most of the others I knew managed—after difficult struggles—to gain exemptions.  So as a group, my friends and I were fortunate.  I did not know what it would have been like to serve and fight in that war; reading about it later in the 70’s, or seeing movies like “Platoon” and “The Deerhunter” gave me a glimpse of what horrors those who served often confronted.  I knew most of us had escaped without having to do physical battle in the jungles of Vietnam, so I felt we were darn lucky, overall.

If the country is in a just war I can see a draft lottery as a fair approach. However, it was clear that many of us with contacts or resources were able to avoid going to Vietnam, so the goal of trying to get young men of all classes and races involved in the war never succeeded.  In other words, many of us were able to either work the system or could supply the needed notes from doctors, psychiatrists, and ministers that enabled us to “go free,” while those without these advantages were more vulnerable to the draft. That is not fair.

If there were another similar draft, issues of race and class would be involved once again.  Money and education and contacts and other advantages will always help some avoid service, but we should have learned how unfair it became after the Vietnam lottery was put in place.  W should be able to put in place something with fewer loopholes and opportunities for the privileged to “work the system” to their advantage.

I suppose to get at another level of self-examination, it would be worth asking if I am proud of what I did and what my friends did?  Did I do, did we do, what my conscience, today, our conscience, would say was right?  Do we, do I, have any shame over what we did to avoid serving?

For myself, I’d say—no, I am not ashamed. I followed the law.  I had a condition with my back that the military had agreed made one exempt—but I also feel I was part of something that wasn’t fair.  Memory tells me I was told that 5% of the population had the same back condition. So, many of the young men who served, and surely many who died (5% of 50,000 is 2,500), may have had the same back condition, but had had no back problem and x-rays to reveal the condition, and so they went.  I was hardly physically unfit.  I continued to be involved in many sports throughout my 20’s and 30’s.  While I am not ashamed of what I did, I know I was party to something that was highly unfair.

That so many of us by 1969-70 had come to feel the war itself was more than unfair—was morally wrong—made us less concerned about that unfairness.   Still, it is an awareness that I carry with me.  Maybe part of the reason I volunteered to work most of three months on the McGovern campaign a couple of years later was to “pay back,” in some way, for my incredible good fortune that I did not have to serve. I owed the country something, I felt, and this seemed a constructive way, that spring and fall of 1972, to express my belief that the war was wrong, and to try to elect a president who would end our involvement.