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Medical Deferment Kept Richardson Out of Draft

By Leslie Linthicum
Journal Staff Writer
    On Dec. 1, 1969, the United States held its first draft lottery since World War II. As a member of the House Armed Services Committee pulled blue plastic numbered balls out of a drum, young men across the country held their breath to find out whether they would go to the head of the line for military service in Vietnam.
    The numbers on the balls were tied to birthdays, and the lottery was random. A higher number was better than a lower number if you didn't want to go. The lottery determined the draft future of about 850,000 men.
    John Carco, a pitcher on the Tufts University baseball team and a senior like his friend Bill Richardson, remembers sitting in his fraternity house nervously listening to the drawing on the radio.
    He said he had noticed a shift among classmates and teammates as the war went on and they all got closer to graduation and to losing their college deferments.
    "All I remember in all of our conversations with people we hung around with was it was more hawkish freshman and sophomore year and moving dovish in junior and senior year," Carco said.
    Carco said he could not remember ever having a serious discussion with his friend Richardson about the draft— "only that we were both worried."
    Carco got 250 as a draft number— a relatively high number in the 366-number draft lottery. Richardson, whose birthday was Nov. 15, pulled a 131, which was relatively low.
    Carco remembers the conventional wisdom at the time: "It was like you get a low number, you gotta find some friend in the National Guard or you gotta continue your education."
    But the Selective Service eliminated general graduate school deferments in 1969, leaving medical school and divinity school as the only advanced degree options to avoid the draft.
    Richardson applied and was admitted to graduate school at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in the spring of 1970. That April he graduated from Tufts and lost his college deferment.
    He reported for his physical exam that spring with proof of a congenital nasal defect, a deviated septum, that affected his breathing and qualified him for a 1-Y deferment, which meant he could be called up only in time of a national emergency or a declared war.
    Medical deferments at the time were extremely common. About 40 percent of inductees were being excluded from service for medical reasons by 1969.
    Medical deferments covered relatively insignificant problems such as poor eyesight or flat feet as well as more serious conditions such as chronic knee or back problems.
    In 1969, the expanding number of 1-Y classifications caused concern for the director of the Selective Service, who said men who received them were more likely to be from wealthier families who could afford medical tests that uncovered qualifying medical conditions.
    "It's one of the real inequities left in the system," Selective Service director Curtis Tarr told The New York Times in 1970.
    In 1971, 1-Y was eliminated as a deferment and those with permanent medical disabilities were classified 4-F, ineligible to serve.
    Richardson's deviated septum was classified as a permanent disability and his exposure to service in Vietnam ended.
    By then, the war was winding down, with troop levels half of what they had been in 1970.
    In 1970, 162,000 young men were inducted into military service, and men with draft lottery numbers as high as 195 were called. If Richardson, with a number of 131, had not received a medical deferment, he would have most likely gone to war.