50 years ago, today, a man I didn’t know ordered me to take a step forward.
Four months later I was sentenced to five years in prison after a 30-minute trial in Oklahoma City’s Federal Court I was twenty years old.
I knew when I stood my ground what the result would be. And yet, I didn’t move. Why?
Because I believed then, and believe now, that the war in Vietnam was wrong, that the United States should never have prosecuted it, that hundreds of thousands of young men should not have been drafted into fighting it, that 58,000 American lives shouldn’t have been wasted, that 2 million Vietnamese should not have been killed.
I gave up my student deferment voluntarily. I thought it was wrong for me to be privileged, while so many of my peers had no means to avoid the draft. I had a half-dozen ways to avoid the draft. I chose to confront it instead. I could have held on to my draft card. I could have applied for conscientious objector status. I could have faked a medical exemption. I could have told my draft board that I was gay. (I am gay. But I thought that was irrelevant and I refused to use it as an excuse.) I could have escaped to Canada, but I opted not to join more than 50,000 young American men who fled the US to escape the draft.
I chose to stay here and make my stand and speak out against the war. I chose to do what I could to stop the war.
I could have opted to refuse induction in Syracuse, less than 50 miles from where I was attending school, and where a judge had recently handed down a sentence of probation to a draft resister. But I chose to return to Oklahoma, even knowing I would likely face a five-year sentence, because in my home state practically no one was opposing the war and someone needed to.
In 1977, those 50,000 self-exiled men were pardoned by President Jimmy Carter. The two-thousand-plus of us who chose to remain in the US and were subsequently imprisoned – we were not pardoned. I have spent my entire adult life as a felon.
I have no regrets. I’ll never know if my act of resistance had any impact on shortening the war. But it doesn’t matter. I resisted an unjust war. That was - and is - a good thing.
Today, in 2018 we find our country in trouble again – quite possibly in worse trouble than in 1968. And not enough is being done about it.
Eventually the US got out of Vietnam. Eventually the draft - which targeted marginalized populations in America while exempting the privileged - was ended. Eventually the leadership of our country that dragged us into the Vietnam War became recognized as the villains they were. Johnson, Nixon, McNamara, Kissinger, Bundy, Westmoreland, Hershey.
May America survive its current heinous administration and its crippled legislative paralysis. May it find the means to thrive for another fifty years and beyond.