Who served and why

Posted: Sunday, April 16, 2000

Who served in Vietnam is still a controversial issue.

A common perception is that the poor and disadvantaged were the ones who went because they weren't able to manipulate their way out of the draft.

In fact, most of those who served were solidly middle class, and many were volunteers, particularly in combat units, according to a number of studies, such as ``Who Served in the Military, 1940-1973'' by Neil Fligstein.

Most of the people interviewed for this article could be considered volunteers in the sense that they joined or volunteered for units or jobs that gave them a high probability of combat in Vietnam.

The average Vietnam veteran was born in 1949, which meant that most of the soldiers' fathers were World War II veterans, according to Ronald Spector in his book ``After Tet.''

Vietnam vet Tom Stover remembers his parents' attitude was that if you live in this country, you serve. It was an obligation.

Jerry Gray, a helicopter pilot, said his father and stepfather were both World War II veterans and they influenced his decision to become a helicopter pilot.

Mike Fleischhauer, whose mother was a member of the Marine Corps during World War II, joined the Marines to fight communism.

``At that time, I felt it was my duty to my country and God to go to Vietnam,'' said Fleischhauer, JDHS class of 1965.

When Brad Gruening learned that some close friends were going into the Army, he decided to drop out of school and volunteered for the draft.

A few weeks later, after he finally worked up his nerve to tell his father, a bomber pilot during the war, his father smiled and said, ``Brad, I got a call from the draft board five minutes after you left the office.''

For those too young to remember the draft, young men who graduated from high school with decent grades and access to money or scholarships qualified for a draft deferment to attend college full-time. The education deferments could be extended or become permanent if the person was married and had children. There were also deferments for health and hardship.

There were 4,000 draft boards in the United States and their members, appointed by state governors and the president, made decisions on who qualified for deferments. The boards were susceptible to political pressure and, as the Vietnam War became increasing unpopular, health deferments - often recommended by family doctors - became an increasingly popular way out of the draft.

Deferments for religious reasons were harder to come by. Jon Leigh-Kendall arrived in the central highlands of Vietnam in early 1968 with his close friend Don Sperl. Both were 1965 JDHS graduates and for religious reasons both refused to kill.

The Army classified them as conscientious objectors and trained them as combat medics. There was no harassment from other soldiers because of their conscientious-objector status, Leigh-Kendall said.

``As a medic, everyone wants to be your friend. I don't think anyone even noticed we didn't carry weapons,'' he said.

Medics had possibly the highest casualty rate of any military occupation. Sperl was killed in action in May 1968.

Other JDHS graduates who died in action include Charles Gamble Jr. and Kirk Barkley. Several others are also known to have died, but a complete list of Juneau soldiers killed in Vietnam is not available.

If the draft made military service a fate accompli, young men still had options. The Air Force and Navy didn't draft people because enough men voluntarily joined these services, many thinking that if they went to Vietnam they wouldn't be on the front lines.

The down side was that the minimum obligation in these services was four years. Draftees served only two years, but it meant Army service with a good chance of being a ``grunt,'' the nickname given to infantrymen.

Another choice was to join the Army for three years and select a job. The number of military occupations open to a person was determined by an entrance examination.

The National Guard and reserves were also options, and by the late 1960s these branches of the military had became shelters from the war because, with few exceptions, they were never called to active duty.

Because of the controversy over the draft, the education deferment was dropped in 1970 and a lottery system instituted. Those drawing a low number were drafted; those with a high number escaped.

Fleischhauer's brother Pete, class of 1966, received a low draft number.

``I told him to join for three years and you won't be a grunt,'' Mike said.

Pete opted for the draft and served in the infantry, in which he was wounded twice. He died in 1993 of cancer, which most likely was caused by Agent Orange, a defoliant sprayed on the jungle during the war.

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