At several points in this narrative, I’ve alluded to Jack’s service in the military—such as it was. Perhaps now would be an opportune juncture to tell you exactly what happened.
Jack was eighteen in 1967, which made him prime draft material. Jack wanted no part of either the military or the war in Vietnam. Despite his lackluster academic performance, he perceived that a student deferment offered him the best chance for avoiding all that.
He could have attended the nearby University of Cincinnati; but he convinced my parents to fund his enrollment at the Ohio State University, located two hours away in the state capital of Columbus.
Jack was no more of a scholar in college than he had been in high school. Freed from all sense of restriction and structure, he was worse, in fact. To make a long story short, my brother required only two semesters to flunk out of OSU.
Jack returned to Cincinnati. He bummed around for a while at odd jobs. Without his student deferment, he knew that he was draft meat. He tried desperately to secure a spot in the Ohio National Guard or the U.S. Army Reserves. (During the Vietnam War—unlike the more recent wars in the Middle East—the National Guard and the reserves were not deployed abroad.)
Finally, Jack decided to take classes at the University of Cincinnati, with the hope of acquiring another student deferment. But by then it was already too late.
There had been complaints throughout the country that the very concept of the student deferment was unfair. The result of the student deferment system was to place the burden of fighting the war disproportionately on lower income youths, while exempting the sons of the wealthy.
In 1969, President Richard Nixon signed legislation that made all incoming male college students eligible for the draft lottery. So Jack couldn’t escape the war simply by signing up for classes at UC.
Shortly after that, Jack’s draft number was called.
Jack briefly toyed with the idea of going to Canada. But while my father might have been willing to bankroll Jack’s abortive attempts at scholarship, there was no way he was going to finance an illegal flight to Canada.
Bowing to the inevitable, Jack enlisted in the U.S. Army. In the days before he left for basic training, Jack seemed to turn over a new leaf.
Maybe he would even like the Army, he said. In a rare moment of self-reflection, he went so far as to say that the discipline might do him good.
That attitude, however, didn’t last.
Jack was sent to Vietnam. No big surprise there. But he wasn’t sent out into the jungles, hunting down Vietcong. Jack had—with uncharacteristic wisdom—selected the Quartermaster Corps, which handles the Army’s supply and logistics operations.
The U.S. Army sent Jack to Vietnam to serve as a low-level warehouse clerk in Saigon. He was stationed at Tan Son Nhut Air Base, just outside the capital city of South Vietnam.
The assignment might have afforded Jack an opportunity to serve out his enlistment in relative peace and safety. But this was Jack; and with Jack, things could never be simple or easy.
He became involved in a scheme to export narcotics from Southeast Asia to the United States. By this time, an illegal market for recreational drugs was already booming in the U.S. Jack’s role in the Quartermaster Corps placed him in an ideal position to transport the Southeast Asian contraband to U.S. destinations. (Keep in mind, this was before drug-sniffing dogs, and the draconian airport security of the post-9/11 world.)
Jack wasn’t the only one involved in the scheme. There were two other conspirators from the Army, and at least two from the Air Force. But this assembly of halfwits didn’t equal one full wit, apparently.
Once again, I’ll make a long story short: The scheme was exposed before the cabal ever sent a single shipment of hashish, heroin, or other intoxicating substances to a single American port. All of the men were arrested, placed in the stockade, and told to prepare themselves for court martial procedures.
Then someone in the Army hierarchy learned who Jack was. Or rather—who his father was. That changed everything for Jack.
By the early 1970s, the nightly news was filled with footage of antiwar protests. Public sentiments about the war in Vietnam had reached a low point. Several incidents, moreover, made the situation even worse.
In 1970, we learned that a rogue group of U.S. Army soldiers had massacred over three hundred Vietnamese civilians in the South Vietnamese village of My Lai in 1968. (We also learned that another group of American soldiers, members of a helicopter crew, intervened on behalf of the villagers. The helicopter crew threatened to turn a machine gun on their fellow countrymen, should they continue to murder civilians.)
That same year, a raucous student protest at Kent State University, in northern Ohio, took a tragic turn when National Guardsmen fired on rock-throwing protestors. Four students were killed and multiple others were wounded.
One of the dead, an ROTC scholarship student from Cincinnati, wasn’t even involved in the protest. He was on his way to class when he was killed by a stray bullet.
These were dark days for the American military—for the entire country, for that matter.
But the men who had fought in World War II were still largely revered as heroes. Especially the ones who had participated in the big, historic battles. All of the men in my dad’s division had been decorated for their actions on June 6, 1944.
In the atmosphere of the Vietnam era, the last thing the Army needed was a news report of a decorated D-Day veteran’s son being court-martialed for engaging in a conspiracy to transport illegal drugs to the United States.
Or that, at least, was the conclusion that the Army brass eventually reached. The Army dropped Jack’s court martial and sent him packing with a dishonorable discharge.
This was a mixed outcome for Jack, but it could have been much worse. On the plus side, Jack avoided a lengthy term in the United States Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. The Army, meanwhile, avoided yet another lurid public scandal.
But Jack was not truly a veteran, in the sense that my father was a veteran, in the sense that all the other young men returning from Vietnam were veterans. He had been drummed out of the Army under a cloud of disgrace.
Jack returned to Cincinnati. Where else was he going to go?
There were inevitable questions and suspicions about Jack’s hasty return from the service. But the story of Jack’s debacle never made the papers. We were therefore able to get by with vague explanations. No one outside the family knew the whole story—so far as we knew—but I’m sure that plenty of people suspected something near the truth.
You might now ask me why my parents didn’t simply disown their elder son at this point. Jack had, after all, disgraced them, even if that disgrace never made the news.
I didn’t understand their forbearance at the time, but I understand it better now, since I’ve had children of my own.
My son Mark, and my daughter, Patty, never sold drugs or engaged in other forms of criminal behavior. But they did at times disappoint me, and try my patience in various ways.
Even if they had done worse, though, I don’t believe that I could have truly disowned either of them. That is a difficult step for any parent to take.