America’s history with conscription is a contentious one at best. Most of the men drafted to fight from the Civil War to the Vietnam War probably sucked it up and served as required. But after years of citizens rioting over the draft, burning draft cards, and running away to Canada to dodge the draft, the U.S. moved its military to an all-volunteer service in 1973.
But there was at least one man who found that Army life suited him well, and he wore the uniform of the United States Army for the next 39 years.
The man who would one day become Command Sgt. Major Jeffery Mellinger was the son of a Marine working as a drywall hanger in his hometown of Eugene, Oregon when he received his draft papers. Thinking they were written by President Nixon personally, he excitedly reported for duty at Fort Ord in California. He was just 19 years old.
What he found was less than the picture of military discipline that he expected. There was a lack of respect for the military as an institution, both inside and outside of the service. He found himself in West Germany working as a clerk. Around him, he saw rampant drug use, racism, and indifference. He could not wait to get out.
“If somebody told me I’d be in the army for 40 years on that day I would’ve just laughed at them, you know,” Mellinger told ABC News, chuckling.
But the commander of his first unit told him what military service meant – and that lesson stuck with him. The would-be onetime file clerk draftee soon became an Army Ranger, Jumpmaster, Special Forces instructor, jungle warfare expert, freefall expert, drill sergeant, and of course, Command Sergeant Major.
Re-enlisting, he once said, was the best decision of his life. He has since made more than 3,700 jumps with 33 total hours in freefall. Although he was drafted during the Vietnam War, he never saw combat there. He deployed to Iraq, spending more than 33 total months in country. His convoys hit some 27 roadside improvised explosive devices, and on two occasions completely destroyed his vehicle. He was uninjured by any of them.
“We lost count of how many times Mellinger’s convoy was hit,” said his boss in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus. “He’s a national asset.”
Mellinger was just one of two million men drafted by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War era and says the Army is better off with an all-volunteer force.
“You get people who want to do this work,” he told Time Magazine. “If you had a draft at any other business in the world, you’d get people who maybe weren’t suited to be accountants or drivers or mathematicians. We’re doing just fine, thank you, with the all-volunteer force.”