Writing about the Vietnam draft lottery

Because today would be my Vietnam War draftee character Ricky Carson’s 67th birthday, I decided to discuss the subject of the draft lottery in the U.S. Until I got to Part IV of Little Ragdoll, I had a lot of embarrassing misconceptions about this aspect of the Vietnam War and U.S history.

The draft lottery only started in December 1969. Prior, guys were drafted by local boards. Notices were sent to guys aged 18–26, though deferments were granted for reasons including being a full-time university student, having certain kinds of jobs, having a lot of dependents, not being in good physical shape, and being a clergyman.

Local drafting ended due in part to accusations of favoring certain members of a community for deferment, exemption, and never being drafted at all, like the son of local bigwigs or a popular college football player.

On 1 December 1969, a national, blind draft was instituted for guys born from 1 January 1944–31 December 1950. There were 366 blue plastic capsules, each with a birthdate. The first number drawn was 14 September, so it was assigned the number one. Capsules continued to be drawn till each birthdate had gotten a number.

The draft lottery continued till 12 March 1975, though the final year draftees were sent to Vietnam was 1972. The final draft call was 7 December 1972. Authority to induct expired 30 June 1973.

After the first year of the lottery, numbers were only drawn for one year of birth. Guys born in 1951 were called in 1971, and guys born in 1952 were called in 1972; i.e., during the year they turned twenty.

Guys with the same birthdate were chosen in order of their last, first, and middle names’ drawing; e.g., James Peter Breiner had 25 for B, 1 for J, and 10 for P.

In my youthful ignorance, I thought guys of all ages were randomly drafted. Two of my characters born in 1930, in my Atlantic City books, escape to Canada when they’re drafted in 1967, though I now know that needs major revamping. It’s an important plot point that they be there for as long as they are, but there needs to be another reason they leave and stay so long.

From the time I thought up the story of Little Ragdoll at age thirteen in 1993, till the time I got to Part IV in very early 2011, Ricky was always Adicia’s age, born in 1954. For the longest time, the vast majority of my couples were in the same graduating year. In my youthful naïveté, I thought even a year of difference was scandalous!

Then I realized I had to make Ricky two years older than Adicia for the big plot twist with the draft to work and be historically accurate. Ricky, born 15 July 1952, has lottery number 88, and loses his student deferment when he withdraws from Columbia to enter a convenience marriage with Adicia and run away to Hudson Falls.

Ricky’s draft notice was mailed in early 1972, when he still lived in Syracuse, but he doesn’t receive it till July, after it’s first been forwarded to New York City and then brought over by his outraged parents after they return from a week-long Hamptons holiday and discover what happened in their absence.

To avoid risking any further trouble for ignoring the notice so long, Ricky goes right to the local draft board and is inducted into the Air Force. By the summer of ’72, there weren’t that many troops left in Vietnam, let alone from the Army. In December ’72, Ricky is involved in the horrific Operation Linebacker II, one of the last major campaigns of the war.

Adicia’s brother Allen, born on D-Day, gets number 110, and enrolls in the Borough of Manhattan Community College to study business. He and his wife Lenore have just welcomed their second child, and Allen is the sole support of their family and his sisters’ substitute father. He needs that draft deferment for many reasons.

One thought on “Writing about the Vietnam draft lottery

  1. I had an exemption for college so that was some help, but having a lottery number of somewhere around 280 added to my security of being an unlikely draft candidate. I’m guessing I would have been disqualified somewhere along the way because of a heart issue that I didn’t discover until I was nearly 50. Basic training would have likely done me in early on.

    Lee

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