The day after my 18th birthday, my father took me to a place called the Customs House in Baltimore. It was September 29, 1971, and I was there to register with the Selective Service.
A lady with silver grey curly hair and a darkly colored print dress, whose badge said she was Mrs. Lieb, asked me in businesslike tones why my birth certificate spelled my first name Phillip with two ls but I filled out the SS application as Philip with one l.
I didn’t know that my birth certificate had that error. Neither did my father. Mrs. Lieb raised a perfectly arched eyebrow. I guess she was worried that I was trying in my own way to evade the draft.
It wasn’t long before I lost the first lottery of my life. When September 28, 1953, was pulled from the bingo drum full of numbers, it was number 70.
Soon I received a letter from the Selective Service, starting with the word “Greetings.”
|Phil Jacobs and Lisa Cohen at their senior prom. They now have been married for 37 years.|
They assigned me to go to Baltimore’s Fort Holabird for my physical and mental ability tests.
This was my freshman year of college, and near the end of the Viet Nam war. The SS system already had stopped issuing college deferments. I was 1A unless proven differently. I was a news fanatic back then. My passion was the U.S. Civil War, probably because my dad would take our family to Civil War places ““ Gettysburg, Richmond, Shiloh, Appomattox – for vacation.
I was a skinny kid, not going to intimidate anyone on the athletic field. In high school I had a good friend who was captain of the football, wrestling, and lacrosse teams. For some reason, my gym teacher put us together as wrestling partners. Burt, my friend, just said “Phil, just fall down, I’ll pin you, and we’re done.” And that’s what we did.
Never had one as a teen, ever. I had Burt and other friends who took care of the physical stuff in our community. Sure there were times when I helped them pass the English test or write their term papers, but that’s what we did for each other.
Guns? I didn’t know anyone who owned a gun that didn’t squirt water. War was history to me, nothing more. But the Viet Nam War was the first war brought into our living rooms in rainy green “living color.” Plus it was an unpopular war. Vietnam vets did not receive the welcome home that we give our soldiers returning from Afghanistan today. Certainly they weren’t looked at as heroes, as WWII vets were. No, we read about incidents such as the Mai Lai Massacre. We were fed casualty numbers, that just made us numb after a while. The number of dead Viet Cong was always greater than dead U.S. servicemen. I can remember, during a University of Maryland basketball game, when a crowd of 14,500 shouted boos at the military pre-game color guard. That’s the way it was.
No one I knew was rushing to the local recruiter, lying about his age and going to Viet Nam to fight against Communism. This was different. Our grandparents, many refugees from Europe, had felt that it was their obligation to pay back this society, which gave freedom and allowed them to live openly as Jews.
Bottom line: It wasn’t good to have September 28, 1953, as your birthday, and the number 70 as your lottery number.
My sister, Enid, an active pacifist who marched for peace on Washington, wanted me to talk to American Friends Service Committee or the Quakers. And I did. They suggested that I attempt to change my 1A status to CO – conscientious objector. I was taught how to answer questions, most of which asked what would I do if knew Hitler were torturing my mother. Would I still advocate for non-violence then?
The Friends counselor and I role played; he took the part of the tough SS employee. After a while, I confessed to my sister and parents that I couldn’t do this.
Here’s where it gets difficult.
Difficult, because I am so grateful for the men and women who have volunteered to put themselves in harm’s way to preserve the canopy of freedom that protects my way of life.
Since September 11, 2001, when I saw video of first responders, uncertain if they would return alive, rush into the white hot fire that would destroy two iconic New York buildings, but worse the lives of mothers, fathers, sons and daughters, sisters and brothers, from all walks of life.
When people volunteer to meet returning vets at airports, it produces a knot in my stomach. When I see these wonderful shots of uniformed, medal-bedecked moms and dads surprising their children at their elementary schools upon their return from Afghanistan, it brings out my tears.
My own son-in-law, a former soldier in the IDF and now a rabbi, cannot watch a movie about war. He’s seen more than he ever wanted to see. My cousin, a captain of a Marine rifle company, bounded into war with energy and belief, and came back to the States after an eight-month deployment with post-traumatic stress disorder.
What did I do?
I was a freshman at the University of Maryland. I knew something. I knew that if you were extremely overweight or underweight, it would decrease your chance of going to Viet Nam.
So I would sit at breakfast, drink black coffee, skip lunch, and then eat a piece of meat for protein. That was it. I was tired, day in and day out. My mother, a typical over protective Jewish mom who wanted to say “eat,” was always near tears when she saw me.
In 17 days, my weight had dropped from 139 to 125. That’s the weight an Army doctor noted on my chart when I stood on the scale. I was nearly 6’4″. He asked me if I were always so thin, and I produced a note from my family doctor attesting to my weight.
He had me get dressed and told me to report to a room where I watched TV game shows with two morbidly obese “winners” of this lottery.
I took the Army induction written test. The officer administering the test told a room filled with mostly black semi-frightened young men that if they failed the math, English, or vocational tests, they’d be more likely to see the front lines in ‘Nam.
At 18, I wasn’t much of a sociologist. It does not take a rocket scientist to look around and see that the people going through this mass physical lived in a different world than I did. There was but a small handful of white people there. I even knew a Jewish young man from BBYO. We tried to stick together.
By the end of the day I received another draft card, with the figures “4F” on it, meaning my weight had earned me a medical deferment.
I do not know if any other of the other guys in the room ended up in Viet Nam. The war would end in two years. I knew that many of these young men were most likely fighting to survive in the outside world. They were battle weary. I was a journalism major trying to lose weight.
Over the years, I finished college and married my high school sweetheart; we have two wonderful daughters. In the spirit of my father’s interest, I would take my family to Gettysburg, Antietam, and other Civil War battlefields. My father-in-law, Sam Cohen, was a medic in France during World War II, and I finally pried some stories out of him. He kept what he saw and what he had to do secret. He never told his wife what happened when he landed in Normandy six days after the invasion. I finally got him to talk about it.
I read about Seal Team Six, and the successful mission to eliminate Osama Bin Laden. I talk to young men and women I’ve known since they were little kids, and they tell me what they can about serving in the IDF or in the U.S. military service.
One dear friend of mine, part of a howitzer unit, returned home with a souvenir he had been given by an Iraqi woman, a parchment page from a Torah that she felt she had to give him.
I teach my high school students in religious school about Hannah Senesh, the young soldier who sacrificed herself instead of turning over secret radio codes to the Gestapo.
On Tisha B’av, for many years it’s been my tradition to travel to a battlefield or to a military cemetery, such as the National Cemetery in Arlington, to pay my respects to the people who gave the last full measure for this country.
On Veteran’s Day, I will honor those who made the choice to serve. I feel this day with extreme guilt and sometimes sadness that I didn’t give back in a military sense.
There are plenty of Viet Nam veterans still alive, who deserve every bit the amount of praise and honor for their service. At the time, though, when veterans returned home from the places like Viet Nam, Laos and Cambodia, there weren’t parades, there weren’t public town square meetings with patriotic music and medals.
It was a time I still haven’t figured out. I think I would have served in a “just” war such as WWI or WWII or even in Iraq and Afghanistan.
There was a draft for Viet Nam, not one for Iraq and Afghanistan.
I would never recommend to anyone the path I took to stay out of the military service, though. I wear my regret as my own form of wound, almost in disgrace.
And I wish that I could go back there and volunteer in a military hospital or a military base. It’s not too late. I hope to give back when I retire.
I think every day in our nation is “Veterans’ Day,” not just November 11.
Yet on that day, I’ll thank my late father for serving in the WWII Army Reserves, my late father-in-law for serving in the Army. I’ll thank my son-in-law, the IDF artillery soldier, and my second cousin, home from deployment in Afghanistan. But I’ll always wish I’d know what they know. Because to a man, it was hard for them to tell me, and I asked time after time. Still, when son-in-law and my second get together, they speak a language I never will understand.
It makes me proud, though.
So on November 11, I’ll think of how my father-in-law did his part as a medic to liberate a hospital outside of Paris. I’ll think of my dad, who described the Browning automatic rifle he learned to fire. I will honor my son-in-law and cousin, who for now don’t want to talk about it.
I wish I knew how that felt.