Stephen Guy (unedited – not in CALLED TO SERVE)
Steve taught middle school and high school Social Studies in Hewlett-Woodmere, New York and Amherst, MA for 42 years before retiring. He also teaches graduate level courses at Westfield State University in Westfield, MA. He is married and lives in Northampton, MA with his wife Cindy. They have four adult children.
My father had been an officer in World War II and believed that all of his sons should join the military. He believed that to be a vibrant male, you had to perform military service, so he encouraged his sons to do just that. My older brother joined ROTC and became an officer, and nine months after he graduated he was in Vietnam. My father was pleased, his son, one of his sons, had fulfilled his dream.
In 1967 I was in college at St John’s University. I had registered for the draft while I was in high school. When I was 19, I received a draft notice for a physical, and I was still in college. My brother and I drove up to my draft board in upstate New York to say I was still in college and asked why was I being called to have my physical? Apparently they had made a mistake and had to check my credentials for being in college, but once that was over, a big scare in my life was over.
That same year I got a horrible case of kidney stones. They really almost killed me. I had them for about a week and finally had to have them removed, but I remember thinking, “This will keep me out of the war.” Before then I had been perfectly healthy, but kidney stones, that’s special. I won’t have to go to the war.
Before I got my lottery number I had taken a year off from college and had gotten this great job with a company as a chauffeur, file clerk, all kinds of things. One afternoon a fellow worker with whom I had become good friends and I decided to go down to the recruitment center. We had decided to join the Marines. When I look back on things, it was clearly this idea of pleasing my father. We both felt like we were going to get drafted, so if we had to fight and probably die, we should definitely be the best trained we could be. We drove down to the recruitment center during our lunch hour, but when we got there, it was closed. We decided to sit and wait, and waited for about 15 minutes, but the guys didn’t come back from lunch. That was as close as I got to the military.
At that point, before my number was chosen, I thought I was going to be drafted, and it’s not like I really understood what was going on in Vietnam. Also, we were thinking that we’re good buddies, and we wanted to stick together, not realizing that we wouldn’t have stuck together in the war. We definitely helped each other to do this and worked together on overcoming the fear. We had talked about it for quite some time. It wasn’t a spur of the moment thing. We also knew that, statistically, you were more likely to end up in Vietnam if you were drafted than if you were enlisted.
Soon after the kidney stone incident the Selective Service conducted the first lottery. Like everyone else, my friends and I stayed glued to the television watching the two drums rolling that fateful night. I didn’t really pay a lot of attention to anyone else’s birthday at that time, just myself, my brother, Dave, and a friend. As I watched, I began to realize that there was really a draft. Prior to that I had realized that soldiers were being drafted, up to those with numbers from 100 to 150, I believe, but now it was real. My number turned out to be 326. That was a huge sigh of relief.
I still had the worry about ‘what if they took everybody?’ but it was still this immense sense of relief knowing that clearly I wasn’t going to be drafted. I still felt that I was a likely candidate even though my number was so high and even though they weren’t going through those high numbers. There was just that fear that I was eventually going to be drafted, and I knew a lot of people were heading into teaching to avoid the draft. I was heading into teaching, too, just not for that reason.
I had mixed feelings about what was happening around me for a number of reasons, one of which was that my father was such a military man. He had served in Italy and had connections to people there. My father had run away from home and joined the Army, lied about his age and worked his way up through the ranks. Another source of the confusion for me was that when my brother was sent to Vietnam my concern was I wanted him protected. I wanted my brother alive and as prepared as he could be. I wanted him to have as much protection as he could get. A third factor was that I attended a conservative Catholic university, Saint John’s. The whole notion of the “domino theory” was drummed into my head, the idea that if Vietnam fell, so would the whole of Southeast Asia. I had admired Kennedy and his plan to send those first 16 advisors into Vietnam, but I definitely wasn’t so fond of Johnson. Still I supported the attempts to stop communism because that’s how I had been brought up.
Then there was my mother. As Dave got more and more involved in the war, she was very supportive of our government, but when he was injured, she became the number one anti-war person I knew! It turned out that Dave went to Japan to have an operation after he was injured. The doctors in Japan made a mistake and he lost the use of one leg. He then spent a year in Walter Reed Army Hospital and after he came back my mother was rabidly anti-war. I think the family changed then, especially since by then my father had passed away. Dave eventually got back the use of his leg, but he was unable to continue his work as a physical therapist. Instead he became an administrator for numerous health organizations.
Meanwhile my younger brother, Bill, who was 4 years younger than me, was still in high school. He was a real free spirit, and about as anti-war as you can be. He had an alternative lifestyle and my father rankled him to no end. He dressed in flamboyant clothes, played the guitar, and wasn’t a great student, but he was a deep thinker. We’d have very heavy philosophical arguments. During his high school years, Dave and I were gone. We went to a private high school. Bill was left with my father, so he probably got the brunt of my father’s anger and disappointment.
When he graduated high school my father gave him an ultimatum. Either you join the military or you go to school. You can’t just sit around and hang out. You have to do something. Bill was really immature and didn’t want to get a job or go to school, but he really didn’t want to go to the Army. The year he graduated high school the draft was still happening. Since he had received the number 50 he would have been eligible immediately if he didn’t go to on to college. He decided to enlist in the Navy thinking that he would never be sent to Vietnam. I don’t know if he had been given those assurances or took those ideas on himself, but he did end up going to Vietnam. He was on those patrol boats, the same Swift Boats that John Kerry worked on.
After Bill enlisted my father had a bit more respect for him, even though my father was an Army man and my brother a Navy man. He did his duty in Vietnam, but when he returned to the States he was often AWOL. He actually spent half a year living in San Francisco, playing music in the park and living at the Saint Francis Hotel. Our mother would always tell him to turn himself in, so he would and he’d be imprisoned and then given a break and he’d go AWOL again. He met his future wife while he was AWOL!
While Bill was in Vietnam on the patrol boats, if you remember the movie “Apocalypse Now,” it was shoot first and ask questions later. He was not like this in any shape or form. He’d tell us stories about driving by sampans, taking hand grenades and tossing them into the sampans. They didn’t ask any questions before tossing the grenades because they feared everybody. They didn’t know who to trust. He once talked about a woman and her baby approaching them, and she blew herself and the baby up along with some of the soldiers. After that point they trusted no one.
We don’t know what kind of damage this does to people. In Bill’s case he essentially disconnected himself from our family. He had a job at one point. He was manager of a department in a steel firm in New Mexico, but he really needed lots of psychological help that he didn’t get. It was this fear, that you never trust anyone and you never know whether you’ll be alive the next moment. He was never happy with what he did. I have a picture with him ironing his uniform and he looks relatively happy, but he changed pretty dramatically when he came back. He had been hardened.
As for me, I certainly felt some relief as a result of my lottery number situation, but I never really felt completely safe. Of course, part of that was that the war was still escalating, because I was around from the first draft. On the other hand, I also remember a movie made after World War II called “The Sullivan Brothers” about a family with 4 or 5 brothers all of whom served in the armed services and either all or almost all ended up dying. This film got me thinking, “Now wait a second. I have two brothers in Vietnam. Maybe I won’t be sent to fight there since I’m the last one left.”
I had never thought about going to Canada. If I had gotten a different, lower number, I think I would have tried to join the Marines. I guess I got lucky again. They weren’t there the first time I almost enlisted and I wasn’t there the second time.
The whole idea of a lottery is that it’s all based on chance, all based on luck, and I had good luck compared to other people, but the point is we were all put through this. The fact that males were put through this and not females bothered me. It also bothered me that the war was never crystal clear, not like World War II where there was an obvious immoral enemy. There was this immoral “idea” of communism, but again as a young person, 18, 19 years of age we didn’t really know enough about what it was. It just seemed kind of nebulous as to who the enemy was. It felt like you were a pawn in someone else’s game.
I think a draft is a totally terrible thing to do. There must be a better way to bring people into a war, though hopefully it will never need to happen again. Such a draft seems so unfair, so arbitrary. They try to tell you it’s the fairest way you can do it, but it’s just a class divide. There are so many loopholes. Look who’s going to Iraq now? Just take a look at photo ops. What kind of jobs did these people have before they went? A career in the military? That’s not what you hear in well-to-do families, and especially with jobs as they are right now, the military offers a big possibility for many poor families.
Back then there were all these people who were getting deferments. I have talked to people throughout the years who say, “Oh, yeah, I got my doctor to write me a note.” In fact, when I was teaching in New York in a predominantly wealthy community, just about everyone there had their doctors write notes. It was like a poor man’s war. It was the poor who were fighting the war. The wealthy had doctor’s notes. They didn’t have to serve. I was lucky certainly, but it just seemed so unfair that there were so many loopholes for certain people. I think there was a lot of resentment and anger, a lot of anger. We felt it. My family was completely affected and troubled by the war.
We had a family reunion about four years ago. We tried to contact Bill for several months beforehand. Dave managed to contact the FBI and the IRS tried all kinds of ways, but we couldn’t find him. Two years ago, one of our sisters talked to one of his sons. As for any direct contact it had been seven or eight years. Then a few years back my wife and I were going to Santa Fe and we went through Albuquerque where he was supposed to be living. I was running that morning and realized I had stumbled onto his street, so I just started running down it thinking, “This is his street.” I couldn’t find his house, but after that one of my nieces was able to contact one of his sons and the connection was made at that point and the floodgates were opened up. It was like old times. We started connecting and we would talk to each other for hours on the phone, always philosophical things, life, existence, how many angels on the head of a pin, never about Vietnam. Then, with no warning, he disappeared again, and that’s the last time I spoke to him. I recently sent him a copy of Called to Serve, but he has not yet responded to the book.
No one in the family to this day has had a conversation with Bill about his war experience or a direct experience with seeing him suffer from trauma. He tried not to ever reveal anything about Vietnam. That he would have chosen not to have contact with the people who love him, that’s one of the symptoms of trauma; that you can’t bear to be loved – you don’t feel you’re worth being loved because of what you did.
Then again, I know he was into drugs while he was in the war. Everyone was, just so they could cope. If he’s still doing them, that might be part of the reason. On top of all of that, he has a brother who went to Vietnam, got his purple heart and his disability and is a family hero. He’s not. In fact, Dave stayed in the military for his whole 10 years and married another captain. They now have 3 sons and he refuses to allow them into the military. He has become strictly anti-war, especially against the idea of the Iraq War. 40 years ago he had joined ROTC for many reasons and did his duty, what he needed to do. I always wonder how enlistees, like he was, view draftees like Bill was. The enlisted men vs. the drafted soldiers; the troops that chose to be there vs. those that didn’t want to be there, which leads to the idea that we don’t want to bring back the draft because the people forced to be there won’t want to serve, and there will be officers giving them orders they don’t want to follow. My two brothers certainly sum that up.