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‘Last Draftees’ details experiences of Vietnam War veterans

Updated November 14, 2020 - 4:15 pm

A bipartisan federal commission has recommended that women register for the draft, which hasn’t been instituted in 47 years.

But three Las Vegas veterans say the draft should be abolished altogether.

Their book, titled “Last Draftees,” was released last month and is their opposition to the commission’s report, “Inspired to Serve.”

“This book is a shot across the bow of the commission,” said one of the authors, former Army Spc. Keith Rogers.

The National Commission on Military, National and Public Service operated for nearly three years and dispersed in September. It released its final report in March.

But because of the coronavirus pandemic, the House Armed Services Committee won’t hear the presentation of findings until next year.

The authors hope that’s enough time to share their voice with Congress and the nation about the effects of the draft, as told by the “Last Draftees.”

Their work details the history of the draft in America and the experiences of Vietnam War veterans from vastly different backgrounds.

Rogers, a former Las Vegas Review-Journal reporter who covered military and veterans affairs, was among the last 10,000 draftees. He was an athlete at Michigan State University when he was drafted in 1972. He went from majoring in engineering to learning how to kill.

Army Spc. Willie McTear served with the first racially integrated company of all draftees. He was a young Black student at Southern University until he was drafted in 1966.

Army Spc. Robert Foust, whose nickname was “Sgt. California,” was the fourth man in his family to be drafted. His grandfather, father and uncle had all been drafted before him. He would never have a child of his own; the Agent Orange chemical used in Vietnam left him sterile.

A fourth author, Spc. Larry Keller of Oregon, was drafted and later survived the 1968 Tet Offensive.

“We represent the last draftees,” Rogers said. “There hasn’t been a draft since us.”

“And these things that we experienced affected us, to the point where it’s time for us — since we’re the last of them — to make a statement and end this thing for everybody and make it fair for everybody.”

‘Low-cost insurance policy’

Brig. Gen. Joe Heck, who chaired the commission and represented Southern Nevada in Congress for six years, said commissioners reviewed letters from the authors of “Last Draftees” as part of their research for the report.

But, he said, “we do still need to maintain the Selective Service System as a low-cost insurance policy against any unforeseen existential threats.”

The commission proposes intermediate steps before a draft, such as the president putting out a call for volunteers or people with critical skills volunteering their services in a state of emergency.

Heck said the panel looked at ways to promote a greater culture of service in the country, with the goal being that in a decade, 5 million Americans enter some form of service each year.

In the report, the commission writes, “We believe that the current moment requires a collective effort to build upon America’s spirit of service to cultivate a widespread culture of service.”

For Heck, that means leading a medical division after being called back to duty in the Army Reserve. And women ages 18-26 should be included in that, he said, “because you can’t discount 50 percent of the population.”

“The federal courts have ruled that the military has the right to involuntarily conscript individuals. The Constitution gives Congress the right to raise and support armies and provide and maintain them,” he said.

Heck’s 11-person commission was appointed by the president, Senate, House and members of each branch’s subcommittees.

The “Last Draftees” authors criticized the group for not being diverse enough. But Heck said the commission traveled to 24 states and 44 cities across all nine census regions and heard from people from all walks of life through public hearings and town halls.

“We spoke to the American public about their views on service, what makes people serve, what makes people not want to serve, what are the barriers,” he said.

The book delves into the extensive history of the draft, which has exemptions and deferments that largely benefit the wealthy and disproportionately affects low-income communities and communities of color.

“Only people that were poor went to war,” McTear said.

Heck said the committee recognized that and offered recommendations for Congress to review the current deferments and waivers that are available to potential draftees.

“We do believe, based on the current deferrals, waivers and exemptions, that it will continue to disproportionately affect communities of color,” Heck said.

‘My country called’

With contributing to the conscription conversation, “Last Draftees” offers a detailed look into the life of a soldier. The heat, the bugs, the rain, the mud and the emotions of losing a friend to the war in Vietnam.

The men made about $70 a week, they said, and compare the wages to that of involuntary servitude.

McTear described his platoon leader, who reminded him that there were no Black soldiers or white soldiers. Only soldiers.

Many of those soldiers posed the question, “Why are we here?”

“If they asked me, I would have told them the truth,” Foust said. “We’re here to kill or be killed.”

McTear said he vividly remembers the time that he first experienced Blacks and whites on the same playing field: when they stepped off the plane as soldiers in America.

“The whites were spat on, too, and the Blacks. We were all on equal footing. They didn’t discriminate. We were just soldiers and Vietnam veterans, and they didn’t like us,” he said.

“My country called, and I did it. But why did we love a country that didn’t love us back?”

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Contact Briana Erickson at berickson@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5244. Follow @ByBrianaE on Twitter.

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