The New Draft
When I went to school in 1965, college students were exempt from Selective Service draft status. Everyone else age 18 or older could be randomly called up for active duty because at that time there was no volunteer army. If you were expelled from college or if you flunked out, the SS (Selective Service) was notified immediately, would then swoop down like its Nazi Party namesake and cart you off to a barrack; then ship you over to Viet Nam. The only other exempt categories were Medical Students and Chicken Farmers because future doctors, eggs and poultry were considered vital to the American economy.
Sometimes I think this must have been prophetic to the future plight of many primary care physicians in the twenty-first century: No better off than being a plucked hen.
However, the later news was not very good, because once graduated from Medical School, the SS could then draft any new physician based first on age, then on marital status, and then on whether or not there were dependents. Since I was single and had no children, I prayed nightly that the Viet Nam war would finally be over before June of 1973.
At that time, it looked as though the war was going to last forever and that I might wind end up like Howard Levy; being assigned as some physician hacksaw quack in a tropical mosquito infested Green Beret camp. Levy, was a Psychiatrist who was told when he was drafted that he was now a Surgeon. He said he did “on the job training.”
But in 1969 a miracle occurred. The rules were changed as an effort to mollify critics who felt that draft eligibility was statistically skewed against the poor, the blacks and the economically disadvantaged. The solution to the problem was brilliant in its simplicity: Create a lottery system based on a person’s eighteenth birth date, then draw 366 calendar dates from a hat and assign the number 1 to 366 in sequence as each date is drawn.
The first number drawn was 258, which attached to September 14th, and which also corresponded to incredibly bad luck. Anyone born on September 14th was at the top of the draft list. And so on.
My brother’s date corresponded to number 17, while mine corresponded to 320.
This was the only lottery I have ever won, which is perfectly fine considering the stakes were life and death as opposed to lump-sum cash.
The bad news was that my brother’s number did come up. It was predictable. The good news was that years before, he had sustained an ankle fracture that healed, leaving his right leg slightly shorter than his left one.
The injury occurred when he and I were fighting and he fell down a small hill. I felt guilty after the fact because I was still so mad at him I made him walk home on it for about half a mile. Knowing that he had the devious Evetts gene, I thought he was faking the injury so that my mother would later blame me for the entire episode. While she never did blame me because it was an accident, what she did take out on me was my callous disregard for my brother’s well being; and as usual, my father could just “not understand” how the whole thing could have happened in the first place.
When my brother’s number came up, we thought he would be drafted and sent off to Viet Nam. My mother and I were beside ourselves with angst, but my father’s reaction was one of patriotic indifference.
- So what? Serving your country is a high honor and a sacred patriotic duty.
My mother and I both verbally assaulted him.
I came at him from the war protestor’s point of view, about the lack of a moral validity to even be in Viet Nam, and my mother attacked him from the point of view of a mother’s love along with a hysterical foreboding premonition that her son might come home in a black body bag.
- Dad. It isn’t the same as World War II.
- And why not?
The circular argument ended when my mother proactively took my brother to the Orthopedic Surgeon who had set his fracture and who produced enough documentation to get my brother a 4-F draft exemption.
My mother and I were elated.
My father believed my brother to be a coward.
What everyone seemed to forget was that if the cause had been a good one, and if the nation’s security had been held at the same risk threatened by Hitler and Tojo, everyone would have signed up to go.
The final irony:
There is no time limit on draft status for a physician. There is also no limit on how many physicians can be drafted at any given time. I never served, so I am still eligible. Luckily, however, the doctor lottery goes by age: Youngest first. Then by marital status and dependents. Then by status of health.
Thankfully, I finally got old. I eventually got married. I have step-children and I also have a bad arthritic back with bulging lumbar discs.
Unfortunately, any of my contemporaries who already had served, can be also be called up again; one of the great attributes of military conduct being that the rules can always be changed to suit the circumstances because war itself changes everything.
Hopefully, the next war will not be one of global annihilation because if so, there will not be anyone left to treat. But then again there will not be anyone left to shoot at me, either. After the war, being completely out of patients would certainly make for a strange condition of forced retirement.
One can only imagine the look on the face of a welfare screener if any modern-day physician applied for unemployment benefits?
- Let me get this straight. You are a doctor and you are unemployed?
- Yes ma’am. We finally cured death.
Except for the fact that some Four-Star General, holing up in the bunker at the Greenbrier with the President and the Congress, would probably then order me to immediately change hats, like they did to Howard Levy, and to expeditiously become a coroner.
- Yes sir. Definitely radiation poisoning, sir and definitely not terrorism, sir. I am very certain of that, sir. Trust me on this one, sir. Just a mass extinction event. There are simply far too many nuclear bomb crater holes out here. Oh, and how are you and the Congress holding up in your bunker? Are you sure you are all right in there, sir? And by the way sir… who won?”