Caught in the Draft
By Jim Castagnera
Attorney at Large
Congressman Charlie Rangel has proposed reinstating the draft. The last time Representative Rangel raised the issue, at the onset of the present Iraqi War in 2003, the bill went down in flames on a vote of 402-2. Its chances are no better now.
Talk of reinstating the Selective Service system brought back memories, nonetheless. In the 1960s draft classifications were an alphabet soup that could spell life or death. Being 1-A meant that a likely lad, such as myself, was 100% available to serve Uncle Sammy. Almost every other letter in the regulatory alphabet provided some sort of shield against harm’s way.
The designation 1-A-O meant “conscientious objector.” This tag couldn’t keep you out uniform, but it did keep you out of combat. Not a very desirable designation in my book: the other guy got to shoot at you, while you declined to shoot back. I guess that’s what turning the other cheek is all about, isn’t it?
At the opposite end of the federal alphabet was 4-F, meaning “not qualified for any military service.” Now that seemed more like it to me. Unfortunately — or so it seemed in 1969 — I was healthy as a horse, a war horse at that. In April of that year I was still two months away from walking across the stage to collect my college diploma and the dean’s hearty handshake. No matter… the Carbon County (PA) draft board wasted no time informing me that my precious 2-S (student) deferment was about to evaporate.
Calling the board, I spoke to a little old lady, who cheerfully told me that I was on the list for July but could push induction back to August, if I cared to lodge an unsuccessful appeal. Armed with that graduation gift, I hauled myself up to a job fair at the University of Scranton, there to shop the military services for the best deal.
That deal came from Charlie Golf… the U.S. Coast Guard. For a mere four years of my life, the USCG gave me nine glorious weeks of basic training in sunny Cape May, New Jersey, followed by another 16 weeks of resort-style living at Officer Candidate School in Yorktown, Virginia. What was boot camp in Cape May like? Suffice to say it took my wife ten years to persuade me to even visit the town again, never mind vacationing there. OCS was a bit better. The drill instructors there called my comrades and me “gentlemen,” instead of “pukes,” as they put us through our paces. (During one of my nine weeks of basic training, a Congressional fact-finding team came to Cape May to investigate the death of a recruit who drowned in the base pool during drown-proofing exercises. Our DI advised us, “I’ve been told I cannot refer to you men as ‘pukes’ while the investigators are here. So this week, you are all ‘vomits.’”)
In between boot camp and OCS, Charlie Golf parked me on Governors Island in New York harbor. Assigned to Personnel Division, my job was discharging guys whose time was up. To maintain my sanity, I discharged myself once a week. My greatest fear was that old Captain Logan, who looked in profile like the American eagle, would discover my stash of discharge certificates and transfer me to one of the cutters bound weekly for Southeast Asia.
Some shipmates from Cape May had no such concerns about preserving their sanity. To the contrary, they did their best to express insanity. One comrade took to fishing in a large puddle after every rainstorm that swept Governors Island. After a few such fishing expeditions he was sent across the harbor to the VA hospital on Staten Island. From there he was eventually sent home. His new classification was “Section 8.”
One year after I enlisted, most of the alphabet soup was thrown into the garbage can of history, replaced by a numbers game. The draft lottery was the Power Ball of life and death for young men, who gathered around the hearth (read TV set) to see their fates determined by the numbers. Birthdays were randomly matched with numbers 1 through 365. Those fellas whose nativities matched one and two-digit designations knew they needed to enlist, abscond, or wait for the call that would almost certainly come. Those in the mid-range had to hold their breath for a year, until the next Superpower Ball was bounced. Those above 300 could sip champagne and get on with their lives.
Now forever classified a Vietnam-era Disabled Vet, I sometimes think some form of compulsory national service might rekindle our lost sense of citizenship. But while Representative Rangel has the right name to take this on, I fear the idea is 4-F from the get-go.