Almost a veteran

Saturday, November 12, 2005

I received my "Greetings" letter from Uncle Sam in July of 1968. I had been on the Tulsa Police Department less than a year, after four years at the University of Arkansas with a student deferment.

I think I'm one of the few from that time period who doesn't remember his draft "lottery" number but I have no idea what it was. Evidently it was pretty low.

The Vietnam War had escalated significantly in recent months. At the beginning of January in 1968, only 1,163 American servicemen had lost their lives in battle. Then came the Tet Offensive. In one month's time, that number almost doubled, up to 2,197. Over the next three months, another 5,000 Americans died in battle in South Vietnam.

So, it was within this backdrop that I re-read my draft notice over and over, somehow hoping I had read it wrong or that the words would change but I hadn't and they didn't.

I was to report to the Federal Building in Tulsa at 6 a.m., exactly three weeks to the day after I received the notice. There I was to board a bus which would take us all to the processing center in Oklahoma City for our physical and written exams.

I informed command at the police department as to my status and they recommended I not resign until I had been formally accepted and sworn in to the military, so I boarded the bus that morning still a Tulsa police officer but feeling strongly I wouldn't be one for long.

This was a point in time during the war where troop strength was increasing significantly and, in most cases, draftees were being shipped directly to boot camp from the processing center without even an opportunity to go back home to say their good-byes. So I said mine before I left.

Upon arrival in Oklahoma City, we took the written exams first. The sergeant administering the exam announced that, contrary to the rumors floating around, there was absolutely no way to flunk the exam. Our scores, regardless of how high or low they were, would simply be one criteria used in determining what kind of job we would be assigned to.

After the written test, we all stripped and got in line, going through this battery of doctors who would probe us, test us, and ask the occasional question. One doctor asked me about the rash I had on the back of both knees. I had had the rash since I was a junior in high school. It was red, moist, and round, about the size of a fifty cent piece. It never got bigger or smaller or changed in any way. It often times itched but not continually.

So I told the Doc I didn't know what it was. He asked if I had ever seen a doctor about it and I told him I had, that I had even been to a dermatologist and he didn't know what it was either. I had a letter from the dermatologist saying as much.

He sent me to the next station and I proceeded down the line. A couple of other doctors asked me about the rash as well and I gave them the same answer. I eventually reached the end of the line and the final doctor once again questioned me about my rash and I answered him as I had the others. He wrote something on my papers and sent me to the final station where we would be told where to go next.

The sergeant at the end of the line looked at my papers, looked up at me, looked back down at my papers and then announced that I was disqualified from service in the armed forces and to have a seat in the adjacent room.

In total shock and amazement, I asked him to repeat what he had just said and he did without any emotion or reaction to my request at all. I went into the adjacent room and waited. Of the 43 people who rode down on the bus that morning, only three of us rode it back.

As soon as I got back to Tulsa, I went immediately to my Mom and Dad's to tell them the news. My grandmother was there visiting from Arkansas and she had been fasting and praying for me to not pass ever since I got my notice. She was the most sincerely religious person I've ever known. When I opened up the door, she was sitting in her usual chair and she looked up at me with the most serene look on her face and simply said, "You didn't pass, did you?" I told her I hadn't and she said she knew I wouldn't.

A couple of weeks later I received my new classification in the mail. I was not 4-F, which would have permanently disqualified me but 2-Y I believe, which was only a temporary disqualification. Also in the letter was a notice that I would be recalled for a physical every six months to determine if my condition had changed or not.

One week after receiving my reclassification, the rash that had been behind my knees for almost six years totally went away. There was absolutely no trace of it left at all. And in spite of what the reclassification letter said, I was never again contacted by Uncle Sam to come back and take another physical. I spent the remainder of the Vietnam War on the Tulsa Police Department.

Evidently there was something else I was supposed to do.

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