JOYCE — A Vietnam veteran who has been fighting for recognition for Vietnam draftees for more than five years is finding his pleas falling on deaf ears.
Tony Cook, 67, has contacted the military, politicians, activists and veterans organizations to create a ribbon — or a device to wear on an existing ribbon — for about 540,000 service members who didn’t volunteer for service and often didn’t want to join the military but showed up to serve their country.
In 1965, Cook dropped out of college when he received a Selective Service notice to report for induction and reported for duty on Nov. 5, 1965.
Like 540,000 others — about half of whom were drafted during nine years of American involvement in the war — he served in Vietnam alongside volunteers who offered draftees no respect and returned home where the drafted veterans were given little credit for their combat duty, Cook said.
“In the Army, draftees’ service numbers began with U.S., not R.A. [regular army], so draftees were treated differently from Day One,” he said.
Cook said that at the same time, many were dodging the draft.
“Tens of thousands of draft-eligible young men found ways to avoid the draft — some legal, some blatantly illegal,” he said.
Some fled to Canada or Europe, disappeared into the counterculture underground, outright refused to serve or faked medical or mental issues.
Others found legal ways of avoiding service by staying in college for student deferments, won conscientious-objector status or enlisted in the Navy, Coast Guard or National Guard before they could be drafted.
Those branches of service sent relatively few servicemen to the Vietnam combat zone.
The draft ended in 1973 when the Richard M. Nixon administration created an all-volunteer military.
In 1977, President Jimmy Carter issued a blanket pardon for all draft-dodgers from the Vietnam era who had not committed a violent crime.
“It was never done before,” Cook said.
Some whom Cook approached for support have suggested that such an award be given to all draftees, not just those who served in Vietnam, but Cook disagreed.
“Vietnam War draftees are a unique group within the veteran community because of President Jimmy Carter’s blanket pardon that honored the illegal draft dodgers without a thank-you to the men who took their place,” he said.
Cook said he feels that Carter made a mistake by ignoring the Vietnam War draftees when he issued the pardon and that that needs to be rectified while thousands of them are still alive.
He crafted the concept of a conscription ribbon that would combine the color scheme of two ribbons awarded to Vietnam veterans, a large C for “conscripted” in red — symbolizing the blood spilled in Vietnam — and a broken olive branch.
The Department of Heraldry, a Pentagon office that designs and approves military symbols and awards, would have the final say on the award, most of which are typically much simpler in design.
The design of the final award doesn’t matter as long as there is some recognition, Cook said.
Cook has written to every U.S. senator and congressman he thought might help, plus former Presidents Carter, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, as well as President Barack Obama.
He also contacted state governors, who can authorize commemorative license plates or other state honors.
Of the presidents, only Carter responded, with a hand-written note:
“To Anthony, My understanding is that those who served in the Vietnam War earned a service medal.”
Sen. John McCain of Arizona — a former Vietnam POW — and Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska forwarded his inquiry to the Department of Defense for review and received a negative response in 2010, Cook said.
He also wrote to several national military veterans service organizations and received a similar lack of response, including a letter from one Vietnam veterans organization rebuffing his efforts.
Only the American Legion responded with full encouragement and support, and instructions on how to proceed to get it passed.
The near-universal lack of support from veterans organizations has been disheartening, he said.
One letter, from the St. Louis Office of the County Executive, states it “would be apprehensive about dividing veterans among themselves.”
Cook said he found that statement odd, given that numerous veteran organizations are divided based on branch of service and other criteria.
Reporter Arwyn Rice can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5070, or at [email protected]