By Laurent F. Gilbert Sr.
Mayor of Lewiston
I am writing this column on Saturday morning the day after Veterans Day. Yesterday, I spent the day with veterans and some currently serving in the military. At times I was moved to near tears; other times I had goose bumps all over my skin. These fine Americans are those who have given us our freedom and have protected it.
They served when war was necessary and unfortunately at times when war was unnecessary. Yes, I believe there have been such wars. If we are truly honest with ourselves, we all might believe that.
I saw veterans from the “Greatest Generation,” the Korean, Vietnam, Bosnian, Iraq, Afghanistan wars and other conflicts such as Granada. Whether they were drafted, volunteered, served as National Guard or Reserves, all can be justly proud for having served their country.
I was moved by the words of Auburn Mayor Dick Gleason as he addressed the crowd at the Lewiston Armory. A veteran himself, he said he had talked to a young man in the military and that he thanked him for his service. He then asked where the young man had served. Gleason did some research and found that when thanking a person for serving in the military, you should also ask about their service. It is important.
I believe that the best tribute to those serving in the military would be that as a country we would never again have to engage in war. Let us look at all the nations we have warred against and how now we have become allies or are now engaged in trade with them. Finding peaceful solutions is obviously the best course.
The military draft had its origin during the Civil War in both the Union and Confederate armies. The draft continued through World War I, World War II, Korean and Vietnam.
I did a little research on the pros and cons of the military draft. Here is what I found.
According to Neal Litherland, a contributor to eHow.com, a draft would create a force that is representative of all segments of society. He also points to the fact that the current all-volunteer force does not accurately represent American society.
Litherland claims that it would be cheaper to train draftees and that training could be streamlined because of a steady flow of people entering. He believes that the cost would be lower: even though they had to pay soldiers more, they wouldn’t have to pay at the higher cost of those entering for a career. He also points to money being saved by only drafting necessary numbers to keep a standing army.
There certainly are more pros than Litherland addressed in his contribution to eHow.
According to Rebekah Richards in her contribution to eHow, she writes that conscription or compulsory service is believed by many to violate their personal freedom, while others believe that living in a free society requires compulsory service to maintain such a free society.
She says that “opponents of the draft contend that conscription enables rulers to fight wars more often and more carelessly.”
She also points to wasteful avoidance behavior, such as getting married, unwanted schooling, as well as emigrating out of the country, which causes greater problems in the long run.
She also states that soldiers forced to fight may cause them to fight poorly.
As a draftee myself in 1965, here are some of my thoughts on the draft. I am not very impressed with the arguments put forth above.
In Vietnam, we found ourselves in a war that many in the country thought it to be unpopular and was waged under the guise of fighting communism. There was such an anti-communism sentiment in this country that I myself felt that the war was justified. It was fought over the terms of a couple of presidents, and I believe it was fought politically. Regardless, we were there.
When I got my draft notice from President Johnson, I wasn’t keen on serving in the military. It really had no appeal to me. I went through basic training in California and then I went to clerk school at Fort Knox, Kentucky, after which I was sent to serve as a battalion maintenance clerk at Fort Hood, Texas.
I hated Texas. I turned 21 while there and I was single with no car and it was located in a dry county. Just to get to some form of civilian life, I would take a bus to the Cowhouse Motel in the adjacent town just to get a cup of coffee and a piece of pie. Then I’d take the bus back to the base.
After a year there, I couldn’t stand it anymore. I went to see the colonel and I volunteered to go to Vietnam. He said “If you volunteer, you will have to take whatever MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) they assign you to.” I said that was fine. I went home on leave and while on leave I received my orders in the mail. My orders for Vietnam were to be a riverboat driver. I had never driven a boat in my life, and there were many casualties among the men serving on the rivers of Vietnam.
When I left my family and girlfriend at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) on that night in 1966, I wondered if this was the last time I would see them. A couple of days later, just before boarding a plane at Travis Air Force base heading to Vietnam, I was able to call my mother; again, I wondered if it was the last time I would hear her voice. Every veteran who went to a war zone wondered the same thing. It is an awful feeling that no one should ever have to go through. Unfortunately for thousands upon thousands of soldiers, it was the last time they saw their loved ones and heard their voice on the phone.
Upon arriving in Vietnam, we were mortared the first night in Long Bingh. The next morning while processing into the country, they went over my personnel file and saw that I had been a clerk in the states. They told me there was an opening at Army headquarters in Saigon for a finance clerk paying officers ranging from lieutenant colonels to three-star generals.“Are you interested in going for an interview?” they asked. I said, “You bet!” I went for the interview and they told me I had a month to learn the job. If not, I would be sent up north. I knew the job in a week. I lucked out!
I continued to count my lucky stars after I returned home and was working the ramp for Continental Airlines at LAX. I would often unload or load travel coffins on airplanes of soldiers who were killed in Vietnam. Every time, I counted my blessings and thought of the families back home who were receiving their bodies to lay them to rest. I also wondered if I had become a riverboat driver, would I have met the same fate?
I guess the point I want to make is that draftees have always been good Americans. They didn’t dodge the draft; they went willingly or unwillingly to serve their country. They trained and served alongside volunteers, and they died and were wounded alongside volunteers. Their service has been as noble as volunteers. I don’t buy the arguments that draftees aren’t as committed to service of their country.
For me, it was while in the military that I found myself and decided that I wanted to become a police officer instead of a house painter, like my dad, with whom I was working until I was drafted. Upon discharge, I started college for several years, attending night college as a non-traditional student.
I later realized that the Vietnam protests at our nation’s capital were many young people of college age who wanted the long-standing war to end, and it was they who put pressure on our government to end it. I firmly believe that if we had the draft today, we would have been out of Iraq and Afghanistan.
The young folks of “Occupy Wall Street” would be protesting on the Mall in Washington, D.C., as they would not want to participate in endless wars. The pressure on Presidents Bush and Obama and Congress would have expedited the end of those wars.
Now, back to Veterans Day at the Armory and L-A Veterans Park. Many former draftee veterans were there; their service to our country was as noble as those who volunteered because all did their duty as Americans when they were called. I salute each and every one who served our country, regardless of the justification or lack thereof in the wars and peacetime they served in.
May God bless America!
See Mayor Gilbert’s personal blog at www.MayorLarryGilbert.com.