2003-01-18 / Columnists

From the Editor’s Desk

By Howard Schwach

By Howard Schwach

I was in my junior year at C.W. Post College when I got THE letter.

"Greetings," it said. "You are to report to the local draft board offices in the Far Rockaway Post Office for a determination on your status to enter the Armed Forces of the United States."

I stared at it for a while. This was pre-Vietnam, 1961. I thought that I had a student deferment, as all college students did at that time. College students were not being drafted, and the card that I had carried in my wallet since I was 18 had little meaning.

I got up my nerve and called the draft board. A nice woman clerk told me that I had a student deferment when I was at NYU, where the school filed the papers automatically. Post did not.

"You no longer have a student deferment," she told me cheerfully. "You’ll probably be going into the Army early next month."

I had a year to go at Post and I did not plan on a military career. I quickly found out that one of my Wavecrest Gardens friends was in the same predicament and that one of his friends from the Bronx was in similar straits.

We checked around and found that there was a Naval Reserve program at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, then an active Naval Airfield.

That program allowed you a year before going on two years of active duty with the fleet. In order to stay in the program, I had to do a drill weekend each month and attend a two-week boot camp at Floyd Bennett during the summer.

We joined, did boot camp, did the year in the reserves and then went on active duty. I went with the fleet and wound up on an aircraft carrier. My friend from Rockaway decided that he would stay for a third year with the promise of staying at Floyd Bennett Field for his active duty. The kid from the Bronx went into Officer Candidate School to become an officer.

Many of those who kept their student deferments finished school and then got caught up in the Vietnam draft or became teachers, which kept them out of the draft altogether.

The point of this story is that the draft caught most of us who had to live through it. Had it not been for the draft, I would have probably never entered the Navy.

As it turned out, my two years on active duty were some of the most important of my life. My service on that carrier was what some call a "seminal event" in my life.

The Navy took a nebbish Jewish boy who had effectively never been away from home, never had much responsibility outside of school, never had mixed with "other" people and it taught him what life is all about, lessons that came in handy later in life.

I would like to see the draft reinstated.

Actually, I would like to see two years of universal service for every young person in America, whether it be in the military, in the police force, the medical service, peace corps, whatever.

I think that everybody owes something to the country that keeps him or her free. Universal service is one way to pay that important bill.

The draft was ended in 1973. Since that time, we have lived with a volunteer armed forces, even though only the Marine Corps seems to get all the volunteers it needs.

There is no doubt that the military is better motivated with a volunteer force and better trained.

The lack of the draft, however, allows a small, mostly-minority segment of the population to pay the bill for all the rest of us, and that is not fair, particularly in a democracy, where everybody is supposed to participate.

When the draft was last the law, only young men had to register and serve. That probably would be different this time around.

The women’s movement and the growth of women in combat roles has led us to understand that women can do as well as men in our modern armed forces. They should have to pay the price of liberty along with their male counterparts. I am sure they would want it no other way.

There has been lots of comment on restoring the draft since Charlie Rangel suggested it.

While Rangel said that he was just asking for equity, everybody knew that he was using the draft as a straw man to shoot down the president’s Iraq Attack talk.

"As a combat veteran of the Korean conflict," he said, "I believe that if we are going to send our children to war, the governing principle must be that of shared sacrifice."

Most of the elected officials in Congress are against reintroducing the draft.

A Newsday editorial against the proposal said, "The bill has the same chance of passing Congress as one to put up a bust of Osama bin Laden in the Capital rotunda."

Les Payne, the managing editor for the paper, said in his column, "It’s a bad idea whose time has not yet returned." Payne served in Vietnam.

Not everybody served in Vietnam, draft or no draft. About half of those who were eligible for the draft found a way to get a deferment. Of the fifty percent who served in the military, only about ten percent actually spent time "in country."

I was one of the lucky ones. I went on active duty by reporting to the Brooklyn Receiving Station at the Navy Yard in February of 1963.

I was ordered to the USS Franklin D. Roosevelt (CVA-42) after three weeks of putting lockers together.

Myself and six others who had served at Floyd Bennett were sent to the Mayport Naval Station in Jacksonville, Florida to await the ship’s return from a Med cruise. It was quite a time, even for a college graduate.

It was not until April that the Gulf of Tonkin incident brought us half-heartedly into the war. Even though the ship was then in the Brooklyn Navy Yard for a refit, I became a Vietnam Veteran.

Justice School in Newport, Rhode Island and an 11-month cruise to the Mediterranean followed.

I had rather serendipitously become a Court Reporter, and that was good duty, not dangerous, not on the flight deck, where one could die in several very ugly ways. We lost more than a dozen men on that cruise. War, even if you are not really involved in the fighting, is hell.

By the time I left the ship, in late January of 1965 (they let me out a little early to pursue a master’s degree) the Vietnam War was going hot and heavy.

I don’t think that the draft will be re-instituted, nor do I think that women would be taken even if it were.

I think it would be a good thing, however, both for the nation and those who were forced to serve.

In a democracy, there are bills to be paid and that is a very important debt.


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