My Story with The
Draft - A004
18 in the fall of 1968 while enrolled as a freshman at Wheaton
College, an evangelical school located in the western suburbs
of Chicago. At that time there was an active military draft
and all males were required to register with the Selective
Service System within 30 days of their 18th birthday.
Enroute to Wheaton, IL from my home in eastern Pennsylvania,
my parents and I stopped in Fort Wayne, IN to visit some
relatives. We attended the Mennonite Church they were members
of since we arrived on the weekend. In the Sunday School
class I attended, there was a discussion about a Christian
response to the war and I discovered my cousin, Jon Brandenburger,
was declaring himself to be a “CO”. I had heard
of Conscientious Objectors and knew that many Mennonites
refused to fight and chose to do alternative service instead.
Because most of my relatives had left the Mennonite tradition,
it was not an issue I had faced before.
While there were still a few
members of Calvary Church, my home congregation, who were
committed to the Mennonite understanding of a commitment
to nonviolence, most members seemed to feel that was another
legalistic area they could leave behind in seeking a new
identity as evangelical Christians rather than Anabaptists.
I had been “sheltered” from the realities of
the Vietnam War and the draft by attending a private college-prep
high school where everyone graduating was headed to college.
In most public high schools, graduation often meant “the
draft” for many classmates.
Just two days after this Sunday school discussion, I was
handed an M-1 rifle and a uniform as part of my enrollment
as a Wheaton freshman! Wheaton College had mandated two
years of compulsory military training for all male students
through its ROTC program. [ROTC stands for Reserved Officer
Training Corps and, at Wheaton, was connected with the U.S.
Army. If one completed all four years offered, one would
be commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Army upon
Twice a week we were scheduled
to rise before breakfast and to drill in our uniforms with
our weapons. (The firing pins had been removed and were
stored in a locked area in the ROTC offices.) My first pangs
of dis-ease or conscience arose as I found myself encouraged
to chant with the student troops phrases to cadences which
were very demeaning to women and most people in general.
I was not even slightly aware of the burgeoning feminist
movement on the horizon. I just felt that “Wheaton’s
kind of student” wouldn’t casually demean others
because of our faith commitment. It seemed that the uniform
had a way of making one’s faith commitment a secondary
issue when competing with the Army’s mentality. Along
with drill, we had several classes each week in military
history and strategy taught by Army Officers who were granted
teaching status at the college. We also went to the firing
range several times to practice our weapon skills.
I had gone hunting with my dad and brothers numerous times
before I went off to high school at Stony Brook. We hunted
squirrels, rabbits, ducks, pheasants, and deer. Whenever
we practiced shooting our shotguns or rifles, my dad [a
veteran of WWII as an Army infantryman who saw action in
France and Germany] would tell us, “Never, ever, point
your gun at another human being. Never, ever, point your
gun at something you don’t wish to kill.” He
was very emphatic that we practice safety whenever we were
carrying a gun, to unload it while in vehicles, how to safely
cross a fence, and so on. Whenever we sighted in a gun before
deer season, we fired at circular targets and we realized
that those targets were representative of the area of the
deer we were to aim at-usually the area where the heart
and other vital organs were located.
It didn’t take long on those Wheaton firing ranges
to subconsciously realize that something was very wrong.
These circular target were no longer representative of deer
but were now used to represent the “Viet Cong”!
This “hunting” practice was no longer fun. In
the classroom, we discussed military strategy and history
but never the morality of whatever war we studied. The assumption
seemed to be that we accepted the notion of the “Just
War Theory” but never dealt with the details of how
these conflicts measured up to those standards. I started
to wonder how to reconcile Jesus’ command to “love
our enemies” with what we were being taught by our
professed Christian army officers. But I kept these questions
to myself since I didn’t hear anyone else asking them
I turned 18 on October 16th. This was a significant event
for a male in 1968 because it meant I had to register with
the Selective Service System for “the Draft”.
This was a mechanism set up by the government to select
which male citizens it would compel to serve in the nations
Armed Forces. It was a strategy to channel some men into
certain job areas by offering exemptions and deferments.
It also served as a channeling device to encourage young
males to continue in higher education, allowing them to
postpone the date by which they would have to report for
a physical exam to see if they were fit to be compelled
to join the Armed Forces. By 1968, many people were noticing
how the draft had a way of selecting what seemed to be a
disproportional number of youth from the inner cities and/or
people of color to go to serve. Many white males found ways
to avoid the draft or enlisted to get a choice of military
branch or assignment. Because of the high casualty rate
in Vietnam, many tried to find ways to avoid being assigned
to the Army infantry.
Students enrolled in accredited
colleges were granted deferments from the draft as long
as they maintained a passing grade-point average. Some young
men went to great lengths to avoid being drafted: stories
abounded about kids who shot or cut off a toe, feigned mental
illness or homosexual tendencies, fled the country or went
into hiding, or sought to become ministers or teachers.
Fortunately for me, the Resident Assistant (RA) for my residence
hall dorm wing was Dan Sharp, a quiet senior who also grew
up in a Mennonite background. He asked me if I wanted to
talk with him about the decision I faced with the draft.
We read the Bible together and prayed and I felt that because
of my Christian convictions and my understanding of Jesus’
teaching and example, I could not serve in the military.
So, my next choice was “what kind of CO would I be”?
At that time, when one registered for the draft, you could
choose three options: Classification 1-A meant that you
were available for military service. Classification 1-AO
meant that you were available for military service as a
non-combatant. Classification 1-O designated you as a Conscientious
Objector. In order to be classified thusly, one had to fill
out a lengthy form answering questions about your religious
training and beliefs. One had to assert that you were opposed
to all wars – if you were selective about some wars
being “just” and others as “unjust”,
Selective Service regulations stated that you did not qualify
as a Conscientious Objector. You also had to decide whether
your conscience allowed you to serve in the military as
a non-combatant like a medic, a cook, or truck driver.
Despite the life-saving qualities that a medic would have,
after more investigation it was made clear to me that the
primary function of the medic in the military was to “fix
up the wounded” in order that they could continue
to fight. Serving as a truck driver or cook just freed up
others to fight so I felt that I couldn’t serve in
that capacity either. I did feel that I “owed”
“service” to my country; and, as a Conscientious
Objector, if drafted, I would be required to perform “Alternative
Service”. Many COs who were drafted were assigned
to work in mental hospitals, conservation or national park
service, or even as subjects of medical experiments. Just
like with the draft, one could “enlist” before
being drafted which might allow more choice in one’s
assignment. The local Draft Board was given the authority
to determine ones appropriate classification and approve
the “service” assignment.
At the time of my draft registration, if you were a full-time
student, you could choose to “register” at either
your home draft board or the draft board where your college
was located. Other students told me that the Wheaton, Illinois
Draft Board prided itself in never having granted an application
for Conscientious Objection. [Draft Boards were comprised
of local “volunteers” who were often military
veterans and usually staffed by strong supporters of the
present U.S. foreign policy.] My home draft board was located
in Norristown, PA and had many young men from Quaker, Brethren,
or Mennonite backgrounds who chose to register as Conscientious
Objectors so my application would not be unusual. Since
I had been baptized at age 12 at “Calvary Mennonite
Church” [before the church dropped Mennonite from
its identity four years later], I was almost certain my
CO application would be granted. I wrote out my application
for a 1-O classification and mailed it to my home draft
However, because I was already enrolled in ROTC, the college
had automatically applied for a student deferment for me.
The classification of 2-S would allow me to avoid being
drafted as long as I was enrolled full-time in college and
maintained a passing grade. Other deferment s were granted
for those studying to be ministers, sometimes for inner-city
school teachers, and for certain other occupations. Exemptions
from the draft were given to ordained ministers and some
other occupations. If one failed the physical exam or were
declared “unfit” for other reasons (“moral”
reasons like admitted homosexuality or a criminal record,
or “psychological” reasons like schizophrenia)
you received a classification of 4-F. The draft board kept
a “pool” of those classified as 1-A, 1-AO, and
1-O and would summon a group for their induction physicals
when more troops were needed.
I maintained my 2-S deferment until December 1969, when,
for political reasons and because of growing opposition
to the War in Vietnam, President Nixon announced there would
be a national “lottery” and each birth date
would be assigned a number and those with lower numbers
would be drafted first and fewer deferments and exemptions
would be offered. I clearly remember sitting in the college
dorm watching the TV screen as the numbers were drawn and
assigned to each of the 366 birthdates in a year.
I was very relieved to note
that the number assigned to October 16th was 254 –
I could be assured that I could finish my college degree
and even consider graduate school without the fear of “Uncle
Sam” calling. Commentators on the TV were saying that
anyone with a number lower than 100 would definitely be
called, those between 100 and 200 were possible draftees,
and those of us with numbers greater than 200 were likely
to be “safe” or less likely to be conscripted.
After a year of grad school in Social Work, I chose to do
my own “voluntary service” for my country and
signed up with Mennonite Central Committee to work in rural
Mississippi for a summer followed by a year in the Mennonite
Peace Section Office on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC for
a year. After that, I continued my voluntary service for
another 16 years, working primarily to build affordable
housing in southwest Georgia with an organization that became
the birthplace of Habitat for Humanity.
At the time of my draft registration, I was not active politically.
I grew up in a home that had voted Republican and only knew
a handful of people who identified themselves as Democrats.
My choice to be a Conscientious Objector was not a political
decision against the Vietnam War. I remember “winning”
an in-class debate in 9th grade on why the U.S. should be
in Vietnam – well before President Johnson’s
escalation in ’67 and ’68. For me, being a CO
was a personal and moral choice, not a political act. It
wasn’t until a year later, after spending a summer
working in the inner-city of Philadelphia, that I started
to publically demonstrate against the war. Even then, although
I had heard stories of “protestors” burning
draft files or their own draft cards, I didn’t know
anyone personally who was that “radical”. It
wasn’t until after President Nixon expanded the war
by invading Cambodia that I began to re-evaluate my own
After one of Nixon’s TV speeches defending the war
in 1971, I went in to the bathroom and burned my draft card.
I scooped up the ashes and placed them in an envelope and
addressed it to my local draft board without my return address.
As I said, at this time I personally did not know any “resisters”
and had no support group to rely on if I made my resistance
to the draft system public. After several months, I was
courageous enough to write on an unopened letter I received
from Selective Service: “Return to sender –obscene
material” and from that point on, my resistance to
the draft was public. However, by then many of the jails
and prisons were full of resisters and many areas of the
country were choosing not to prosecute men who were publically
refusing to carry their draft cards or who had burned them.
The government’s hands were full in attempting to
track down military deserters or those who publically refused
induction rather than to track down other non-cooperators.
I chose to supplement my resistance by being trained as
a Draft Counselor and learn the rules and regulations of
the draft laws to better aid those caught up in that pernicious
system. I was only able to counsel a few men before the
political pressure to end the war metamorphosed into Nixon’s
“Vietnamization” Program which substituted U.S.
troops for more money to pay South Vietnamese to fight on
our (their) behalf. My anti-war sediment continued to expand
and grow as well as my commitment to nonviolence and ultimately
led to my first arrest for civil disobedience in the last
major demonstration against the war in March 1975, a month
before Saigon “fell” and the war was over. By
the end of the war, I was advocating a position of refusal
to register if one had the conviction, support, and fortitude
to pay the consequences of such a decision – the likelihood
of a 2-4 year prison sentence.
I have mixed feelings about the draft. On one hand, I think
it is essential that every citizen make up their mind about
participating in a war rather than leaving the fighting
primarily to those who can’t find other “jobs”
in the economy or can’t afford college costs and enlist
in the military to get money for education. If everyone
had to personally commit, it would be harder for our politicians
to “choose” to go to war. On the other hand,
I believe that there are many better ways to “serve
one’s country” than to be trained to kill others.
By having a draft, it sends a signal to our political leaders
that war is always an option. I feel that “option”
must be taken off the table if our world is not only to
survive but also thrive.