Subsequent generations will no doubt have difficulty understanding the anxiety we felt that night, when 366 numbers were drawn that, in many cases, would determine our fates, including even whether we could expect to see our 25th birthday. Like the early Mercury astronaut flights and the JFK assassination, it was a seminal event for our generation. I don’t remember anyone who wasn’t glued to the television that fateful evening to learn whether they, or their boyfriends, would have to fight–and perhaps perish–in an unpopular and seemingly endless war half a world away. I knew two people whose birthday was the first number drawn: my father, who served in the Navy in World War II, and a Carolina basketball star at the time. The former was too old for continued military service and the 6-foot-11basketball player was too tall. As the early numbers were drawn–and we were told that the first 125, and the lower the number the more probable, were likely to be drafted when our student deferments expired–most were followed by an unforgettable mixture of primal screams and ringing telephones, with family or friends offering condolences. And, of course, there were occasional cheers that, once again, your birthday had not been selected. My birthday was finally drawn 161st, which was somewhat of a relief. (A year later when the second drawing was held, which did not affect those who were part of the first, my birthday was the same No. 161–the only one that had the same number both years).
Thankfully, by the time I graduated, I was able to enlist in the Naval Aviation Officers’ Candidate School with the confidence that my chances of going to Vietnam were extraordinarily remote, and that the nation had learned a valuable lesson: never send our youth to war unless absolutely necessary. I was right about the former, but unfortunately for the more than 4,000 U.S. troops who’ve died and the tens of thousands of others whose lives have been altered forever by disabling injuries they’ve suffered in Iraq, wrong about the latter.