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Nervous: Safer in the Army than at home

Jo Sweet, Community Voices • Jul 30, 2019 at 7:00 AM

It was 1968. America’s military was engaged in ferocious combat in Vietnam. Draft boards across the country were sending their young men to induction stations for physical and mental testing to identify the individuals who met the required standards to be inducted into the Army or Marine Corps. As a young medical officer captain in the Army I was stationed in an induction center as the authority on who did, and did not, qualify physically either to be drafted or join a service of his or her choice.

The processing of examinees was intense. They were bused from their home counties to the induction station where a schedule had to be met in administering physical and academic achievement exams. A review of their civil records, such as criminal convictions, was performed. Some men were being briefly interviewed relative to any change in their conditions following a previous exam before they took the oath of office and boarded a plane or bus to their initial training bases.

The process was intense for me also. Every day I was expected to examine dozens of men, sometimes assisted by civilian physicians. However, at the end of the physical exam mine was the ultimate opinion regarding who was qualified to serve. My performance was monitored by recruiting command physicians. If an inductee arrived at his first base but was discharged from service within 30 days for a medical reason, I was graded from A-D depending on whether I should have been more vigilant in identifying a problem. For examples: If an inductee experienced his first epileptic seizure at the base, I got an A. There is no way that condition could have been detected prior to his having that first seizure. However, if somehow an inductee, desperately wanting to join the service, but then found to be blind in one eye, I received a D, the worst possible grade, for missing an obviously disqualifying defect. I’m confident if I had received very many Cs or Ds another, most likely less desirable, assignment would have been mine.

To assist me in identifying disqualifying conditions a medical history form was completed by the examinees using a check mark to identify any problem that concerned them. There were about 75 conditions they could indicate, many being very common problems, such as back pain, asthma, heart trouble, diabetes, joint injuries or surgery, and so forth. Many men would choose a dozen or so problems for me to investigate. Some did not choose any problem at all. It was my duty to question them about each and every check mark and document my opinion regarding the significance of the marked item. Ultimately I usually found about one third of the examinees unqualified, frequently from conditions such as obesity, hypertension, asthma, etc.

Under these conditions seldom was there any humor in the process. However I encountered an unusual case one day. I perceived the young man I was interviewing was from a rural setting and was strictly a “just the facts Ma’am” type of personality. Answers to my questions were a few words. In problems he wished me to consider, he had indicated only three. However the three problems were conditions rarely chosen on the history form. Here is how my interview with him proceeded, with the problems he indicated, my questions, and his answers:

Gunshot Wound:

I: Have you been shot?

He: Yes

I: Where were you shot?

He: Here. (Indicating a superficial old scar on his forearm)

I: (Out of curiosity) Who shot you?

He: My brother-in-law

I: Come on. Tell me more. Why did your brother-in-law shoot you?

He: He had just married my sister. They were having an argument. He picked up the gun to shoot her, but he missed and hit me.

I had to pause and ponder what I just heard. Newlyweds? A marital argument? You try to shoot your wife. You hit your brother-in-law instead. Bizzare.

Head Injury:

I: OK. The gunshot wound is not serious. What head injury did you have?

He: It was my brother-in-law. I was sitting in the kitchen when he came in and hit me upside my head with a skillet. I had to go have it sewed up.

I: You brother-in-law must be a bad character.

He: Yes. He is.

Nervous:

I: Well that doesn’t seem serious either. What is this last problem? Nervous. Are you nervous?

He: Just around my brother-in law

Incredible. I decided on the spot he would be safer in the Army than at home with his brother-in-law.

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