When my father was 22 years old, he was drafted into the United States military. The year was 1968, the Vietnam War was in full swing, and he was a recent college graduate with a wife and newborn baby.
My dad did not want to go to Vietnam for many reasons, which were obvious at the time but may be less apparent to people my age.
Vietnam was one of the longest and most unpopular wars in American history. The death toll reached over 58,000 U.S. military casualties by the conflict’s end. Servicemen were reportedly committing senseless acts of violence against civilians. Anti-war protests were rampant, and anti-war sentiment was not limited to fringe left-wing communities.
But this was the era of the draft, so how a soldier felt about participating in the war didn’t really matter.
“I didn’t have a choice,” my dad told me this week when I asked about his military experience. “I was just another draftee. It was something I had to do. Something a lot of us had to do.”
On Veterans Day, we honor soldiers who pledged to give their lives in the service of their country. But living in this age of military worship, I think my generation can’t fathom the experience of being a veteran who didn’t want anything to do with the fight and received nothing but disdain from the public. These are the veterans for whom the notions of patriotism and service are a very complicated.
But they are veterans nonetheless, and their stories deserve to be told.
My dad generally doesn’t like to talk about his time in the military, though I’ve managed to glean a fair amount of details from the occasional long conversation, sometimes prompted by a few Pimm’s cups. His reflections are extremely matter of fact. There’s no fanfare, no sense of nostalgia, no evocations of glory.
“I think I made the best of it,” he says.
His service took him to Fort Polk in Louisiana, Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, Fort Belvoir in Virginia, Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indiana, Fort Hamilton in New York and Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam. After basic training and advanced individual training, he qualified for Officer Candidate School, where he learned to “square” his meals and engineer roads and bridges.
He ultimately accepted a post as a personnel officer and rose the to the rank of a first lieutenant. The job involved lots and lots of paperwork, a responsibility that would prepare him well for his future career as an attorney.
“I had no desire to be involved in the military at its core level: People with guns shooting each other,” he told me.
As an army HR guy, my dad had to meet with soldiers reporting they were gay and seeking a general discharge. They shared letters from alleged lovers with intimate descriptions of their romantic encounters. “I was the butch, and he was the fluff,” read one letter which has always stayed in his mind.
Some claims were probably bogus, others were probably true. It was hard to tell, and it ultimately wasn’t up to him to make the call.
My dad was also responsible for signing endless honorable discharge papers ― the DD Form 214. While serving at Fort Polk, he signed hundreds if not thousands of those forms over the course of six months, officially granting soldiers the opportunity to go home to their families.
“It’s actually kind of a nice thing to think about,” he said. “That this paper which brought so much happiness to people had my signature on it.”
But there were sobering parts, too. While working stateside, he had to issue death notices. He would accompany the chaplain to the homes of deceased soldiers’ families ― to deliver the devastating news, help them obtain their meager life insurance benefits and offer to facilitate a military funeral. Most families he met didn’t want military funerals, especially not If the soldier had been drafted.
When I ask my dad if his veteran status makes him proud, he has a complicated answer. He said he’s never been able to say he was “proud” of his military service. But he doesn’t feel shame either. I think he just never really had the option to feel anything about it.
“I’m a Vietnam-era veteran. I was there because my country ordered me to be there, and I didn’t have any real choices,” he says. “That’s it.”
It’s hard for young people today to understand the way soldiers were treated at home at that time. In direct contrast to the words of honor and praise from strangers, acts of kindness and emotional homecoming videos that are part of the military experience today, soldiers during the Vietnam War were treated with disdain.
There were never any parades, never any “welcome home” parties, never any words of gratitude. The country had turned against the war, and by extension, against the people who had served in the military ― even those who didn’t want to be there.
“Back then, being in the military was tantamount to being considered a murderer,” my dad explained. “People treated you like you were some kind of killer. You were not respected. Nobody liked you. This was frustrating because you weren’t in the military voluntarily, but on top of that, you were considered a bad person for being there.”
When his draft day arrived, my dad’s wife suggested they move to Canada, but he said he didn’t want to have to explain that decision to his children. Something about that has always felt both honorable and heartbreaking to me.
But if you call my dad a hero, he’ll probably chuckle a bit. Because no one ever made him feel like one. And he’s not even sure he would have wanted them to.
My father never speaks ill of the United States military. He says his time serving instilled in him a strong work ethic and sense of discipline. He respects and admires people who choose to dedicate their entire careers to the notion of serving their country.
And though he does not look fondly on his time in the military, he is more proud to be an American than anyone I know. But it’s a quiet, simple pride. His knowledge and love for U.S. history and the principles of freedom upon which our nation was founded are unmatched by anyone I know.
As we honor Veterans Day, we shouldn’t forget the other veterans ― the ones who didn’t have the choice, who were made to feel nothing and still feel nothing.
“No one ever told me ‘thank you for your service’ while I was in the military,” my dad said. “And I don’t blame them. Why would they say, ‘Thank you for your service in one of worst wars ever thought of.’ If someone had said it to me then, I think I would have fainted,” he joked.
“Still,” he added. “In spite of everything, I guess it might have been nice to hear.”