I suppose none of us can ever forget that day in 1969 when the first Selective Service lottery came down. I sat in the lounge in my dorm at UNC-CH with many other hairy folks and watched the draft numbers roll off the TV screen. A couple of fellows with low GPAs and low draft numbers got up, packed their bags, went home, and eventually into the service. The rest of us stayed in school, some with safe numbers and others, like me, with 2-S deferments.
My draft number was low—100, but since I was headed for medicine, it was easy to stay deferred. I wanted nothing to do with Vietnam, but I always felt like my number had come up, and the military was desperate for doctors. After a year of medical school in Baltimore I was nearly broke, so in 1972 I took the bull by the horns and accepted a commission as an Ensign in the Navy Medical Corps Reserves. Vietnam was winding down, and the Navy offered much needed tuition money and a stipend. I was in the minority; in a class of 110, three signed on for the Navy, one for Air Force, and one Army. Everyone figured that ending the draft would mean backing off on doctors too.
I had orders for six weeks of active duty each summer, but Uncle Sam was accommodating and let me choose from among some of his more “educational” alternatives. Finally, in 1977, I was called up full-time, and volunteered to serve as a Diving and Submarine Medical Officer. After six months of training, including diving school at the Washington Navy Yard and Admiral Rickover’s nuclear power course in West Milton, NY, I became Medical Officer for Submarine Squadron Two in Groton, CT, which included half a dozen famous fast-attack nuclear submarines of the Cold War. I earned my Dolphins and then spent two years at the Navy Experimental Diving Unit in Panama City, FL involved in research on deep cold water operations and closed-circuit oxygen and mixed gas diving apparatus for the EOD and SEAL teams. I received the U.S. Navy Commendation Medal for work in deep saturation diving and our unit received a Meritorious Unit Commendation.
If you are curious and can find a copy of the book Blind Man’s Bluff, it will tell you more about the Navy Undersea community at that time. I do recall that the uniform was still unpopular, which seemed rather odd to me as someone who was simply temporarily serving our country and trying to help others that were doing the same thing. Most Americans of course had no idea how many Soviet ballistic missile submarines were still actively plying our coasts, and we had to shadow each one. I was even once told that “if doctors didn’t join, the military couldn’t fight wars.” Of course, if the military didn’t have doctors wouldn’t they still have to fight wars, but with many more dead?
When I left the Navy, I completed my training in Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine and embarked on a civilian academic career, which for the past 25 years has included a part-time appointment in VA Medicine. I have seen too, in this capacity, that the full health care burden of Vietnam has still not been met, and can see that the final human cost of Mr. Bush’s Iraq war is going to be far higher than he realizes, or if by some miracle he does realize it, higher than he would want anyone to know.
So in a very tangible sense, the 1969 selective service lottery, even though I didn’t get drafted or go to Vietnam, had a deep impact on my life and my career. In the end, the USN turned out to be an amazing experience, and I’ve always revered the professionalism and dedication of the officers and men of the silent service. It also taught me that navigation through the military depends not only on the prevailing political winds but on close attention to detail, superior training, a proactive mind-set, and less on old-fashioned good luck, although that helps too. I sure hope the experience made me a better man in the long run.