Luciano S. Martinez: Vietnam and the draft: What was it all about?

The soldiers I knew in Vietnam remain Best Friends Forever.

(AP Photo/Nick Ut, File) In this June 1970 photo, taken by Associated Press photographer Huynh Cong "Nick" Ut, south Vietnamese Marines rush to the point where descending U.S. Army helicopter will pick them up after a sweep east of the Cambodian town of Prey-Veng during the Vietnam War.

“I got a letter from LBJ,

It said, ‘This is your lucky day...’”

-- “Lyndon Johnson Told A Nation,” by Tom Paxton, 1965

March 29, 2023, will be marked as the 50th anniversary of U.S. troops returning home from the Vietnam War. The date is also recognized annually as National Vietnam War Veterans Day.

This article seeks to provide a basic understanding of a key component of this tragic, controversial war: The draft, and those who faced the possibility of being drafted.

When I graduated from Salt Lake City’s East High School in 1964, very few young men in my class gave the draft much thought, even though the draft had been in effect since World War II. Little did we know that in a few months, thanks to the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, many of us would be giving it serious consideration. Just like other young men our age would do for the next nine years.

Yes, the Vietnam War became an important part of our lives because of the draft. An article written by a draftee, Ron Schroeder, in a recent edition of “The VVA Veteran” magazine tells us, “1.8 million men were drafted, 648,500 served in Vietnam.” It goes on to say, “Of the more than 58,000 American deaths in the war, just over 30 percent (17,571) were draftees.”

Many more were wounded, and thousands now suffer from the ill effects of Agent Orange.

It was commonly thought by young men who were draft eligible that, if you were drafted, you would be sent to Vietnam. It was also said that draftees would have to serve in a combat unit. This was not always true.

Others talked about what appeared to be controversial decisions associated with the draft. However, it could also be that it was just the luck of the draw. The word “karma” was very popular during the war.

Deferments were a major way that potential draftees could avoid military service. The most popular of these were college deferments. Some say that this is why enrollment in postsecondary programs spiked during the war. Others add that this was the most unfair part of the draft system, because those who could not afford to go to college stood a greater chance of being drafted.

Some young men who did not want to be dratted fled the U.S. to foreign countries. Canada, being close, and English-speaking, was a popular destination. Others were jailed.

Many of them burned their draft cards, and marched in the streets in protest. They often shouted, “Hell no! We won’t go!”

Hundreds of thousands of those who evaded the draft were later pardoned by President Jimmy Carter in 1977.

It has been said that many members of today’s military, all of whom are volunteers, might not want to serve with a draftee, primarily because they do not see someone who is forced to serve becoming the dedicated type of warrior the military needs.

This was definitely not the case in Vietnam. Most draftees served in the Army. They were integrated with volunteers from day one. I have kept in touch with four members of my Army unit in Vietnam for 55 years. Three were drafted, and two of us volunteered. We were assigned to serve in Long Binh, Vietnam, during 1967-1968. This was two years before Ron Schroeder served there.

The only differences between us was that, in those days, draftees had a US designation before their serial numbers, and volunteers had an RA designation before theirs. Also, in the Army, draftees served for two years, and volunteers served for three. That’s it.

To this day, my Vietnam buddies are the finest soldiers I have ever met. We remain Best Friends Forever (BFF).

Currently, the drums of war are silent, but they may not remain so for long. If there is another catastrophic war, it may be necessary to rely on the draft again. We can only hope that those who are called to arms do as well as those who served during the Vietnam War.

A 1970s bumper sticker said it best, “All gave some, and some gave all.”

Luciano S. Martinez

Luciano S. Martinez, Murray, is a retired Utah educator, a member of the Vietnam Veterans of America, the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion.