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An Ally Confronts the Draft
By Jeff Koon
My Situation in the 1960s
I began as a student at Berkeley in Fall 1959, finishing five years later. Every year I filled out the form to renew my student deferral with my draft board. After I finished my bachelor's degree in US History, I went to San Diego State College for one more semester, as a grad student undecided as to specialization—extending my deferral one more year. But I just wasn't ready to continue school. So I returned to live in the beckoning mecca that was Berkeley.
When I entered college, I was moderately conservative politically and thoroughly anti-communist. As my college years accumulated and the civil rights movement expanded, and as I learned more history, I slowly radicalized. Although I was in San Diego when Berkeley's Free Speech Movement (FSM) and sit-in occurred in Fall, 1964—to counter the University's new effort to suppress civil rights protests in the Bay Area—it was clear to me that the protesters were in the right.
Back in Berkeley, I was available to spend many hours at the largest-ever teach-in against the War on Vietnam, May 21-22, 1965. But even before then things were fishy: a Buddhist monk in a Buddhist-majority nation had immolated himself on the streets of Saigon; and an unpopular leader (Diem) was overthrown by South Vietnamese generals, leading to more of the same. In further reading, I found that the USA had supported the French re-colonization of Vietnam after WWII instead of Vietnamese independence. After the French defeat, Eisenhower, knowing that Ho Chi Minh would easily win the election slated to occur per the peace accords, backed Diem who refused to allow those elections. Support for Diem was carried on by Kennedy; and Johnson backed his successors too. Our government's anti-communist zealots disregarded our democratic ideals; its policies sacrificed millions of Vietnamese seeking to liberate their nation from foreign control or hegemony. The War ON Vietnam was wrong and immoral.
Yet by law, my government's institutions had the power to take me into the military and send me to fight against the Vietnamese. Even if my degree might have kept me out of the rice paddies and the doubtful redoubts in the mountains, and maybe even enabled me to avoid directly witnessing the PTSD-inducing deaths of comrades and civilians, I would have had blood on my hands for supporting evil.
Trying to Dissuade the Draft Board
The next deferment form arrived in Fall 1965. Now I had no way out. But I sent my draft board a letter explaining why the war was wrong and why I opposed it, making it quite clear that the army didn't want me. The letter included a copy of the words to Bob Dylan's ''Masters of War.'' They summoned me to a physical in San Diego. I delayed the inevitable by having them transfer my physical to Oakland (near Berkeley).
Meanwhile, I tried to convey my exceptionality by sending the draft board a rolled-up paper scroll, by certified mail (to make sure they got it), on which was written, in large letters in orange pastel, ''Why don't you get the fuck off my back.'' By then, I had become a letter carrier for the post office. Honorable work—free from any taint of the War on Vietnam. But after 6 months and 5 days on the job, I was called into the supervisor's office and told to resign or I would be fired—because I had sent obscenity through the mail. Since I was 5 days into the period when I first had some appeal rights, I spent some money on a lawyer to see if there was any chance to fight it. The definition of ''obscenity'' at the time was that it appealed to the ''prurient interest'' of the reader—which my message did definitely not do—but the lawyer's answer was still ''no.'' Oh yeah—and my forced resignation came with a 20-year ban on working for the federal government—not including the army of course.
The Grand Finale
The order to appear for the physical exam came with a health-related survey to fill out. I didn't have any physical health disqualifiers—not even ''bone spurs.'' But on the item about whether I was addicted to drugs, I didn't check any of their boxes, instead writing ''No, but I smoke marijuana all the time.'' I also modified another question that I have since forgotten. And I checked the ''homosexual tendencies'' box in that little section.
In the morning before the physical, I had my girlfriend print, all in large capitals, two messages on my back and one on my front: GET OUT OF VIETNAM; LEGALIZE MARIJUANA; and ABOLISH THE DRAFT. As most VVAW members know, much of the physical involves waiting around in lines in your undies, going to various ''stations,'' where they do things like check your reflexes. I made no fuss whatsoever. But when I got to station #9, where one sees a real doctor, I said, ''I want to see the head doc'' (hoping I could find someone who could see the problem here). The answer to my request was, ''You need to.''
That was promising. Might they be seeing me as likely to subvert the war effort? Or even as a quiet but dangerous rebel? But then it was on to the doctor himself. He looked at my survey answers and chose to ask about my homosexual tendencies response. I said, quite correctly, ''well, everybody has homosexual tendencies.'' He asked me if there were any specifics. I said, ''Yes, when I was younger.'' ''How old?'' ''About 13'' (while messing around a little with another boy scout in a tent). The doctor got out a stamp and used it on my papers: ''Deviant sexual experience''—not qualified for induction (a 1Y classification).
In sum, my efforts to convey that the army didn't want me cost me a good job, a ban on federal employment for 20 years, a written record of (then largely-condemned) homosexual conduct accessible to god knows who all, and a lot of stress. But I didn't have to go through some variant on what VVAW members did. And I didn't have to flee to Canada (my next alternative?). And I could still easily join in some of the peaceful protests and activities against the war here in the heart of the beast.
Jeff Koon is a retired educational survey researcher, data analyst, and evaluator with an emphasis on human development throughout life. He was also a househusband who did a lot of volunteer school-community service. Recently, he wrote ''Cultural Insanity: The Key to Understanding Our World and Ourselves.'' See his website at jeffreywynterkoon.com.