Sometime back, during the Vietnam-war-torn year of 1969, a young California man named Dwight Stone went to his mailbox and opened a letter (much like this one) from the United States Selective Service. The letter began:
You are hereby ordered for induction into the Armed Forces of the United States…”
Similar letters were received by more than 1.7 million other young men during the Vietnam War era of 1965 – 1973. Needless to say, such letters were met with varying reactions, ranging from quiet submission to fleeing the country for life in Canada, or Sweden. If you were a U.S. citizen, and a young man between the ages of 18 and 25 you had a draft card (unless you burned it as a few did in protest to the war), you were well acquainted with your local draft board, and you had plans to either volunteer for service, or to postpone service by obtaining a draft deferment. In any case, the thought of being swept off to fight in what was fast becoming a very unpopular conflict was a real possibility.
Mr. Stone, being little different than many young men his age, was less than enthusiastic about military service. As a man of little means, Mr. Stone lacked the funds to leave the country. In the words of Mr. Stone himself:
“I [sic] ain’t no Rockefeller.”
In the African-American, inner city community in which Mr. Stone lived, the war, by his own account, was not popular. As a poor man of little influence, he felt that his odds of ending up on the front lines, and returning to the States in a body bag was great indeed. Much greater than those whose families could afford to send their sons to college, thus gaining them an educational deferment, or to buy them a ticket out of the country.
So he did what he could. For three years, he attempted to avoid induction at all costs, including a failed attempt at a student exemption. When that didn’t work, Mr. Stone went into hiding. Finally, with the U.S. Government nipping at his heels, an exhausted and frustrated Mr. Stone called his local draft board and turned himself in.
On June 30, 1973, Mr. Stone was inducted into the U.S. Army, thus earning him the distinction of being the last man drafted into the U.S. Military. This Sunday, we ‘celebrate’ the fortieth anniversary of Mr. Stone’s induction. Perhaps all for the best, no young man has been ordered to report since. One has to wonder if it were not for the unpopular Vietnam War, if we would not be calling young men (and perhaps young women) up today for service.
While young men have been drafted since the Civil War, the draft that spanned the Vietnam War period had actually been in place since 1940. Throughout the peacetime years of the late 1950s, men continued to be called for service, including perhaps America’s most famous draftee, Elvis Presley. Elvis reported for duty on March 24, 1958, after receiving his “Greetings” letter sometime around Christmas of 1957, while celebrating the holidays at Graceland. Of course there were few bullets flying in those days. The Cold War was in full swing though, and with the threat of global nuclear annihilation looming over us all, The King packed off to basic training. After basic, he shipped out to Friedberg, Germany where he served honorably in the 3rd Armor Corps’ 32n’d Tank Battalion, Company D.
By the time Elvis mustered out of service on March 2, 1960, to return to the recording career that had been kept alive by Col. Tom Parker, he had achieved the rank of sergeant, met a young girl named Priscilla Beaulieu, who he would eventually marry, and become a role model for countless young men who would come to view military service as a patriotic obligation.
In the years since, much has been made of Elvis’ off-base life style, where he lived with family, and entertained in comparative luxury compared to his fellow soldiers. While this is true, I still find it difficult to imagine any of today’s recording artists (think Justin Bieber), reporting for duty and shipping out for Iraq, or Afghanistan (no disrespect to ‘The Biebs’ intended). Times have changed far too much, and while we rightly rush to thank our servicemen and servicewomen for their service, a draft that would conscript a young person of Justin Bieber’s celebrity would be almost unthinkable.
So I am thinking about the draft today. Actually, I have thought about it on other days too, especially during the early days of the Iraq war. For a time, as it became increasingly evident that the rationale for this conflict was being framed using some very shaky facts, I wondered if the public would be more questioning of our involvement, if the draft were still in place. I remembered a saying I once heard that describes my feeling succinctly: “Let’s fight. Here, I’ll hold your coat”.
Oh yes, getting back to Mr. Stone. It seems he actually came to enjoy military life. He did his basic training at Ft. Polk in Louisiana, and after further training went on to become an electronics repairman at Ft. Richie, Maryland. Mr. Stone served honorably, and was discharged after serving 17 months. Today Dwight Stone works with disadvantaged youth in Sacramento, California. In a 1993 interview with the Seattle Times, Mr. Stone said:
“Serving your country is not a bad idea, as long as you include everybody,”
I have nothing more to add to that statement.