My dad was not a smart man, but he was occasionally bright. He was far from a good student, and he knew his chances of earning a deferment from the Vietnam era draft was slim. Not having many skills to stay out otherwise, he opted to voluntarily enlist in the Navy. He served his time proudly in communications, and then departed, but he (and his family) were proud of his time served.
More controversial were those who served without much choice. Those who were drafted and forced to fight in a war that was not fought well thanks to politicians hamstringing the military, and military officers who were not prepared to operate under those constraints, and the constraints of fighting an enemy that was not as obvious as it had been in previous wars. The draft, how it was implemented, who it excluded, who it included, etc are a controversy even today.
Command Sgt. Maj. Jeff Mellinger, US Army, is retiring, and he is the last person to be a part of the Vietnam era draft to serve in the military. Certainly there are some officers who voluntarily entered the military who continue to serve, but Jeff Mellinger is the last man to enter the military under the terms of the draft.
He started as a desk clerk in Germany, then moved on to jump school and the Rangers … had over 3,700 jumps. He served in Vietnam, served in peacetime in the 1980s, and served through two wars in the Gulf. In his last tour in Iraq, he was the senior enlisted soldier in any of the participating military forces.
He talks about serving in an era when women still were not a part of the regular army (until the late 70s, the Womens Army Corps), while today they serve in ever increasing front line positions. He also talks about knowing several dozen people buried in Arlington (and I figure several dozen more buried in other places).
I have often found the combat soldier an interesting person. The simplistic question is “why enter into a profession where your primary goal is to kill?”, but I don’t see it this way. I think soldiers like this man see their job as one that literally provides for the defense of the nation. There can certainly be a number of political debates as to who believes what or not, but I suspect that this very honorable mentality has been one shared by a great many soldiers throughout history. Certainly some may have joined to feed some psychotic bloodlust or just to get away from wherever it is they were, but I think a great many of the career soldiers see the job as one where they are providing an indispensable service to the nation. There is something to be said about that.
This guy found a path that gave him solace, and for that I am happy for him. In one part of the article he speaks of draftees being maligned … I certainly know that crap happened in the 1970s when soldiers were returning home, but I would like to think that those who served non-voluntarily have been given more and more respect as time has gone on. My father’s uncle was drafted and fought in Korea (fortunately missing out on the worst of the fighting), but I would never consider his contributions “lesser” than someone who volunteered.
Tomorrow is July 4. Dad would have been 64.