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Chicago skyline 1970

I was almost finished with applications for conscientious objector status when a physician informed me that the question had no personal significance since I would not pass the physical examination anyway, even if I wanted to serve in a non-combatant role. Since I was opposed to the U.S. involvement in the war in Vietnam, I looked for other constructive ways to be involved. In the fall of 1968, as we took up residence in Chicago and I continued graduate studies for ministry, I entered the American Friends Service Committee training for draft counselors.

Having training in law would have been an advantage in dealing with the selective service system and legal precedents in the cases that we studied, in order to give helpful information to people who came with concerns, both draft-eligible men and their families. Having more experience in counseling also would have been useful, but some of that came with the counselees as they presented their questions. Motivations and concerns varied greatly, and responding equitably and sympathetically to people who held different beliefs and values was challenging. Enough trained people participated as counselors that it was not overly demanding for each of us who entered the volunteer AFSC network, and that was important as I tried to balance all of the requirements of study, work, service to others, and being a new husband. It could have been much harder, and I still would not have faced a fraction of the hardships that several of my friends and family, and especially my family-members-to-be, were facing in Vietnam.

Those who came with questions included people who were conscientious objectors, people who were simply draft avoiders, people who wanted to help others in their family or friendship circles who were having trouble dealing with the variety in draft boards and their practices, people who were in the military service but unwilling to fight in Indochina, people who were already in trouble one way or another, and those who were interested in all the options that were available before they committed themselves. We all had a lot at stake, and, although I was glad that an all-volunteer force replaced the selective service system, finding ways to serve our country as good citizens was in front of all of us in ways that have not been matched afterward.

Serving our country as citizens remains a universal duty, but being willing to kill people who differ with us in perspective, who are not threatening us, as persons or as a nation, in any direct or meaningful way, is not justifiable. Often personal judgment must be set aside, but too often conscience has been set aside as well, in responding to the orders that come from a chain of command.

We are now in the gap between the Vietnam War’s foggy beginnings and ignominious ending fifty years ago. I still puzzle about how to honor those who served their country as soldiers and those who served their country as resistors, then and now. The phrases “serving our country” and “defending our freedoms” pass easily off the lips of many people. The reality is much more complicated and difficult.