Friday afternoon, while walking the length of The Moving Wall at Eastlawn Memorial Park, it did not seem like 40 years had passed since the war was the focal point of my life. The memories were still vivid. I graduated from college in 1967 and like thousands of other young men receiving a university diploma in that era I knew with it would come the end of our student deferments from the draft. Unlike undergraduate work, many post-graduate programs did not automatically qualify one for exemption from the draft. The decision-making process for male graduates was complicated further with factoring in the war and military service.
The all-volunteer military of today is different from the Vietnam era when the war was fought with large numbers of draftees. To be sure, many serving in the National Guard units in Iraq never expected to be called up to fight in a foreign war outside the U.S. when they joined.
However, they knew the possibility existed, even though there was not much precedent for what we are seeing today. Faced with a two-year military commitment, young men during the Vietnam era tried to make the best accommodation they could. It was not so much a choice as it was finding the best option. I found the flap over George W. Bush’s service in the Texas Guard interesting. There is an entire generation of American males who understand why he took the route he did and at the time wished they could have done the same thing. This was not our father’s war. It was difficult to connect the dots between a civil war between people from the north and the south in a country halfway around the world with the security and freedom of Americans. To say the war was unpopular would be a gross understatement.
With the loss of a student deferment one had to decide whether to wait on their local draft board to see if the Selective Service process would call upon them. The draft brought two years in the Army. Enlistment in another branch of the military offered one more choice and often was a better option, even with a longer time commitment. In my case I tried to get accepted in a pilot and navigator program with the Air Force, which was a six-year program.
Some of my friends volunteered for the draft to reduce the anxiety involved with the waiting and the uncertainty of not knowing. One of them, who wanted to get married and hoping for a better opportunity, volunteered for Officer Candidate School that added six months to his tour in the Army. I did not qualify for the pilot program because of my poor hearing. The post-graduate program in which I did get accepted did not bring with it another student deferment. I was re-classified 1-A and spent the next 30 months expecting to get a telegram any day calling me to serve in the Army.
A dozen years ago my wife and I were part of a group from our town that went to an annual meeting of the National Chamber of Commerce in Washington D.C. We were married in 1968 and the two-and-one-half years of waiting, we did together. While in the nation’s capital we agreed we had to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. I was struck by the quiet reverence of the visitors. As we distanced ourselves from the joggers and people flying kites on the mall lawn, and we approached the memorial, the laughter of the tourists stopped and the crowd became solemn and we found it deeply moving. Friday, I deliberately avoided the planned festivities at Eastlawn. I suspected The Moving Wall would summon a similar reaction and I wanted to experience it in private. A large school group arrived at the about the same time I did Friday. I was impressed with the young students — decorum was maintained. Part of the original criteria set out for Maya Ying Lin when she set out to design the memorial was it needed to be reflective and contemplative in character. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial meets the criteria and so does The Moving Wall.
Robert Brincefield is publisher of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Sunday. He may be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.