Tales from the 60s (Part 3) – The Group W bench (Alice’s Restaurant in memory and in practice)

It was the summer of ’72.
Vietnam was raging and the draft was foremost on everyone’s mind. After I passed my pre-induction physical at the Seattle Armory I followed the example set by Arlo Guthrie, the protagonist in the movie Alice’s Restaurant. I went and sat down on the Group W bench, reserved for those who considered themselves in some way unfit for military service. After a few minutes, I was directed into a small windowless office, where a bored Army psychiatrist (a major, judging by the oak leaves on his collar) sat behind a desk, spotless except for the thin folder open before him. He asked to hear my story; my story is as follows:

In the fall of 1969, some closet subversive at Duke Medical School was given the opportunity to invite a guest speaker to talk to the second-year students about their upcoming decision regarding participation in the “Berry Plan,” the military’s deferment/recruitment program for graduating medical students. We had a month to decide whether to sign up. Signing up meant agreeing to two or three years of service as a military physician, which could be deferred until the completion of whatever residency training one wished to do. At that time one would enter the service with the rank of captain or higher, and serve as a specialist.

Most specialists were assigned to large base hospitals, often in Europe. Refusal to participate in the Berry Plan would mean automatic re-classification as 1-A after graduation from medical school, and immediate induction into the service as a general medical officer. GMO’s were assigned to minesweepers, or to field hospitals in Vietnam. None of this was new news to the major—almost all students signed up for the Berry Plan. It appeared to be a real no-brainer.

However, our guest speaker in the fall of ’69 turned out to be a young dermatologist who had just been released from two years in the military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, with a dishonorable discharge from the military. He told us his story about the difference between a military physician and a civilian one. Although opposed to the war in Vietnam, he signed up for the Berry Plan, reasoning, “What could the Army possibly ask me to do that would violate my ethical principles as a dermatologist?” He soon found out.

His first assignment was to train Green Beret medics in the finer points of plastic repair of hand and finger injuries resulting from anti-personnel mine explosions. The medics were to offer repair of these injuries to Vietnamese civilians in exchange for information about the identity and location of Viet Cong fighters. No information, no repair. Our speaker strenuously objected to the plan to withhold care from civilians who were unwilling or unable to provide the information demanded. He pointed out to his superiors that it was a clear violation of the Hippocratic oath to first do no harm to train the medics for this purpose. At that point he learned the disconnect between the medical code of ethics and the military code of conduct. In the military, refusal of a direct order for whatever reason is grounds for court-martial. Which is what happened, followed by two years’ imprisonment at Fort Leavenworth.

“And so,” I concluded to the major, “I think it is very likely that, even as a pediatrician, I may be ordered to do something that violates my ethical principles. I would then refuse that order, and go down the same unfortunate path as the dermatologist. This will be a waste of the military’s time and resources, and a waste of two years of my life. So I suggest that I would be a very poor fit for the military, and we should halt the induction process right here.”

The major made a few notes in the folder and dismissed me. I went home and explained the situation to my new wife of one month. I then packed a duffle — Seattle is only 90 miles from Canada, a fact that was not lost on me when I accepted the internship at the Children’s Orthopedic Hospital. A week passed, then another. I was working in the pediatric oncology clinic by day and on-call at the Children’s ER at night. I was waiting for that official phone call or letter to report for duty—which I felt was almost certain to come. But it did not come.

I completed my residency in Seattle and began practice in Eugene, Oregon, still waiting. I was afraid to inquire about my status, since the doctor draft was active until one turned 40, and I did not want to suddenly re-appear on their radar. My first wife divorced me and I had the opportunity to make a new start in the relationship department, but part of me still waited for that phone call.

Finally, having begun a new practice in Seattle at the age of 40, I wrote to the Department of Defense inquiring about my status, intensely curious about what that major had written in my file. I got a letter back informing me that when President Gerald Ford had pardoned all the draft dodgers, all of those paper records had been sent to a federal repository in Missouri. The repository caught fire, and all the records were destroyed. At the age of 73, I still wonder about that major — whether he bought my story, or whether my folder somehow just slipped behind the file cabinet.

I’ll never know for sure. But I’m grateful to that major, long dead now. Perhaps we had something in common.

– Ted McMahon