By Ken Lass
On my daily walks along the Trussville greenway and Civitan Park, I pass by the construction site for the new memorial to the city’s fallen veterans. As another Veterans Day approaches, I am reminded of how many of those who have served have touched my life.
Beginning with my Dad, who was drafted into the Army during World War Two. Dad was a natural-born leader. He went from raw private to being a sergeant and leader of a tank destroyer unit in Europe. The stories he used to tell me about survival and courage on the battlefield kept me wide-eyed and awestruck. I remember his favorite TV show in the early 1960s was called COMBAT! (the exclamation point was stylized as a bayonet). It was about the adventures of an infantry unit during the second world war. Dad would watch it intently, quickly pointing out to me anything that wasn’t being portrayed accurately. In our basement, I still keep Dad’s army chest, containing many of his war souvenirs and equipment. He passed away back in 1990. He was very proud of his military service, and I am so proud of him.
Both of my older brothers enlisted in the U.S. Navy. I had an uncle named Richard, Dad’s brother, whom I never met. He was a military pilot, killed in a plane crash during the war before I was born. Dad told me many stories about him, and I have a few photos. He was tall and broad-shouldered with wavy hair, looked like a 1940’s movie star, very popular with the ladies. Apparently, he had a brief career as a pro football player, according to a few newspaper clips my grandmother had saved. My parents honored his memory by giving me his name as my middle name. Perhaps I will meet him in heaven one day.
In December of 1969, the Vietnam War was raging. The number of American casualties had reached such heights that the government decided to institute a draft lottery, the first one since 1942. It was aimed at American young men who would turn nineteen years of age in 1970. I was in that group. I was a freshman in college at the time, living in an all-male dormitory. Most all of us were turning nineteen within the upcoming year.
The format of the lottery called for each day of the year to be called out in chronological order beginning with January 1, accompanied by the drawing of a number from 1 to 366. The number assigned to your birthday was your draft number. The army would begin drafting those who had number one and continue up the chart until they had met their needs.
The draft lottery drawing was carried live on the radio, and I have this vivid memory of all the guys in the dorm gathering in the common area to listen. Those with low numbers were certain to be drafted, and, at the time, we considered that to be a death sentence. I already knew of two friends who had been killed in the fighting over there, and I was scared to death.
I didn’t have to wait long to find out my draft number. My birthday is on January 6. I held my breath as the date was called. The number assigned to it was 224. As it would turn out, in 1970, the Army would draft numbers up to 190. If my birthday had been one day earlier, my number would have been 101.
I’ll never forget the ashen look on the faces of my dorm mates who received low draft numbers. I was never able to keep up with how many of them were actually drafted, nor how many of them came back. I have so much admiration, respect, and gratitude for those who fought in that war. They displayed the kind of bravery and heroism that, quite frankly, I’m not sure I would have found in myself. The disrespect they received when they returned home was, and is a national disgrace.
For several years I had the honor and privilege of emceeing the seventh-grade Veterans Day program at Hewitt Trussville middle school. Each seventh grader was encouraged to bring a veteran to the event. They were called up to the stage one at a time to present a certificate of appreciation to their veteran guest. In these times, when patriotism and national pride are getting harder to find, the program was an incredibly effective way to connect our kids to the heritage of courage these military servers displayed.
Every time I walk past that memorial in Civitan Park, I think about the veterans who have touched my life. My Dad, my brothers, my uncle Richard, those guys in the dorm. I think about all those seventh graders and wonder if, one day, they will be called upon to defend us. If you are a military veteran, thank you for your service. You are the reason that grand old flag continues to fly.
May it always be so.
(Ken Lass is a retired Birmingham TV news and sports anchor and Trussville resident.)