33 Years Later, Draft Becomes Topic for Democratic Presidential
By RICK LYMAN and CHRISTOPHER DREW
New York Times
Published: November 22, 2003
In the winter of 1970, a 21-year-old student from Yale walked into his armed services physical in New York carrying X-rays and a letter from his orthopedist, eager to know whether a back condition might keep him out of the military draft.
This was not an uncommon scene in 1970, when medical deferments were a frequently used avenue for those reluctant to take part in the unpopular war in Vietnam. And this story would have little interest save that Howard Dean was the name of the young man. Now, 33 years later, he finds himself a leading Democrat in the quest for the party's nomination to be president of the United States.
Dr. Dean got the medical deferment, but in a recent interview he said he probably could have served had he not mentioned the condition.
"I guess that's probably true," he said. "I mean, I was in no hurry to get into the military."
But now that he is running for president, in a race when many Democrats believe they need a candidate with strong national security credentials to challenge President Bush, the choices Dr. Dean, a former Vermont governor, made 33 years ago are providing ammunition for critics.
Senator John Kerry and Gen. Wesley K. Clark, two of his strongest challengers for the Democratic nomination, have recently started running advertisements highlighting their military experience. And all the Democratic candidates except Carol Moseley Braun had to face the possibility of being drafted during the Vietnam War.
In the 10 months after his graduation from Yale, time he might otherwise have spent in uniform, Dr. Dean lived the life of a ski bum in Aspen, Colo. His back condition did not affect his skiing the way the rigors of military service would have, he said, nor did it prevent him from taking odd jobs like pouring concrete in the warm months and washing dishes when it got cold.
Even the candidate's mother, Andree Maitland Dean, said in a recent interview about his skiing after receiving a medical deferment, "Yeah, that looks bad."
But, she said, that is the nature of his condition. It is aggravated by certain kinds of physical activity but not all kinds, she said. The condition is called spondylolysis, a low-back pain that sometimes radiates into the legs, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons' online information site.
Dr. Dean said it was the military's decision to grant him the deferment, but he also said he was eager to get it. Had he wanted to serve, he probably could have.
Ever since the first politicians who came of draft age during the Vietnam War rose to the national stage, the question has been a recurring one: Did you serve in Southeast Asia, or did you take a different path?
Dan Quayle, the Republican vice-presidential candidate in 1988, was criticized by opponents who said he had used family connections to land a spot in the Indiana National Guard, which he denied doing. In 2000, George W. Bush drew similar attacks and issued a similar denial for landing his spot in the Texas Air National Guard. And Bill Clinton's machinations to avoid military service led to accusations that he was a draft-dodging product of the 1960's, a label he was never entirely able to shake.
In each case, the answer did not prevent the candidates from winning. But Mr. Quayle was running with the senior George Bush, a former World War II pilot with combat experience, and by the time Mr. Clinton and George W. Bush sought the presidency, the cold war had ended and defense had receded as an issue. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the war in Iraq have changed that, and national security will probably rival the economy as a major issue in next year's campaign.
Dr. Dean may well draw the early heat on the issue because he has pushed near the front of the Democratic pack. Beyond that, two of his opponents General Clark, a West Point graduate who served in Vietnam and rose to command NATO forces, and Mr. Kerry, who served two tours in Vietnam and came away with a Bronze Star, a Silver Star and three Purple Hearts regularly remind voters of their military credentials.
The other candidates are less likely to make it an issue because they did not serve in Vietnam either.
Like Dr. Dean, Representative Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio was declared ineligible for a medical reason, a heart murmur. He said he was disappointed not to be able to serve, though he later turned against the war.
"I come from a working-class family," Mr. Kucinich said. "Military service is more or less taken as a given." Ms. Braun, a former senator from Illinois, was, of course, ineligible for the draft because she is a woman.
Young men with low draft lottery numbers had only a handful of choices to avoid military service. One was to flee the country, to Canada or elsewhere, as a relative handful did. Others chose National Guard service, if they could get it.
For many who did not wish to serve, a medical deferment was the easiest route of escape.
In a 1970 article in The New York Times, Curtis W. Tarr, the director of Selective Service, said the rising number of medical deferments from 24.2 percent of those examined in 1966 to 40.7 percent in July 1969 was causing alarm in Washington.
"It's one of the real inequities left in the system," Mr. Tarr said, because young men from wealthier families could afford to pay for tests that might uncover some deferrable medical condition.
Dr. Dean was born on Nov. 17, 1948, and his eligibility for the draft was determined by a lottery held on Dec. 1, 1969. His birth date was 143, and in 1969 people with numbers as high as 195 were drafted from this group, which was composed of men born between Jan. 1, 1944 and Dec. 31, 1950, according to the Selective Service. In 1970 the highest number taken was 125, and in 1971 it was 95. Three subsequent lotteries were held to cover those born in later years.
The back condition that apparently led to Dr. Dean's deferment had been discovered years before his armed services physical.
"When he was in high school, Howard developed these back pains and we decided we had to find out what it was," his mother said.
Dr. Dean went to an orthopedist, who diagnosed spondylolysis.
Many have the condition without feeling any symptoms, the Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons site says. Others develop a sense of muscle strain in the lower back, usually after periods of extreme physical exertion. Treatment usually involves little more than taking a break from the physical activity that caused the condition, after which it fades away, although it can recur. In some cases, surgery is warranted.
"I developed back pain when I was running track" in high school, Dr. Dean said. "It wasn't there all the time, but it was there some of the time."
In early 1970, more than a year before Dr. Dean's student deferment was due to lapse, he decided to see where he stood.
If approved for service, he said, he thought he might try Officer Candidate School, as a Yale friend had done. He said he had never considered the National Guard.
So, he came to his physical armed with X-rays and a letter from his orthopedist.
"It was like a scene from the movie `Alice's Restaurant,' " Dr. Dean said. "There was every kind of person you can imagine. Guys who weighed 375, guys who were 6-feet-5 with hair down to their knees and needle tracks up and down their arms."
Dr. Dean said he saw a young man sharing his urine specimen with a fellow draftee. "I mean, that is what it was like," Dr. Dean said. "Welcome to the U.S. Army, boys."
The future governor followed everyone through the various stages of the physical, eventually handing his packet to a military orthopedist.
A few weeks later, a letter arrived informing him that his draft classification had been changed from 2-S, the student deferment, to 1-Y. Under that classification, he was qualified for military service only in case of extreme national emergency, meaning that he effectively moved to the very back of the line.
As for those months skiing, Dr. Dean said such activity did not exacerbate his back condition, as running did. And, yes, he said, the pain does sometimes come back, especially now that he is getting older.
"Sometimes you'll see, when I get out of the plane or the car, that I walk and there's a bit of a limp for the first few yards," he said. "If I sit in one position for too long, it bothers me now."