The first draft lottery, in December 1969, had a profound impact on my life. I still keep a reminder from that night: among my college memorabilia is a page from Newsweek magazine with the lottery results.
I was out with friends early in the evening and didn’t return to the dorm to follow the lottery results until after it had begun. We listened on the radio with an excitement usually reserved for basketball games. Birthdays close to No. 100 were being drawn. With the announcement of each birthday that wasn’t ours, my friends and I cheered our personal victories. Then, during a pause in the proceedings, the top ten birthdays were repeated, and it was during this recap that I learned September 6th, my birthday, had been drawn sixth. 6 for 6, as I would tell everyone later. Word of my misfortune spread quickly through Lancaster House. I think I had the lowest lottery number in the house that night.
At the time I was a first semester junior. I carried the lottery number with me like a death sentence until my graduation 18 months later. As a senior, while my classmates attended on-campus interviews for propective job offers, I sat out the process. Interviewers had been instructed not to waste time with low-lottery victims. I felt lost in my circle of friends as they talked about starting their professional careers.
I was still a civilian in the months after graduating from Duke but I was getting "greetings" letters from Selective Service. I considered my options. It was almost impossible to gain placement in the Coast Guard, National Guard, or reserve units, and I would never be able to prove I was a conscientious objector. Canada was a one-way trip, the Navy and Air Force were four-year enlistments, and the Marines were too battle-hungry for me. It was clear that the Vietnam war was winding down but fresh troops were still being sent there. Facing re-election the next year, Nixon needed to deliver on his peace promise made in 1968, so I felt it was unlikely I would see combat in the Army, which I joined in December 1971, almost two years to the day after the lottery. I trained in Kentucky and Virginia and then was assigned to a cartographic unit in Hawaii–not bad considering the many alternatives.
I lived off-post a block from Waikiki Beach in an apartment I shared with two friends. While I was in Hawaii I met my future wife. And I continue to be surprised that the young men with whom I served are still my closest friends. We hold reunions every 5 years. The fact that military service was forced upon us, rather than our choice, was a common experience that bonded us and we made the best of it. We knew we were lucky to have avoided Vietnam. With everything that happened to me after lottery night, I consider myself fortunate.