Last Draftee, Who Tried To Hide, Now Believes In Service

Twenty years ago, the dreaded hand of Uncle Sam's draft board reached out for the last time.

Its victim was Dwight Elliott Stone, then a 24-year-old plumber's apprentice living in Sacramento, Calif. His summons to serve his country was a nasty shock - as it was for millions of U.S. men whose letter carriers had delivered that chillingly polite "Greetings!" and the invitation to report to duty.

Although Stone didn't know it at the time, his burden was even worse, for he was the last man called. The end of the draft in 1973 relieved thousands of unwilling duty. For Stone, it came one day too late.

The previous year, with anti-war bombs exploding at the Pentagon and the White House under siege from the Watergate scandal, President Nixon had ordered an end to the universally hated military draft.

Henceforth, Uncle Sam would take only volunteers. (However, Uncle is hedging his bets: The Selective Service System is still registering young American males.)

But in the spring and summer of 1973 the draft selection was in gear. And Stone, registered and classified 1-A, was prime meat.

Maybe over prime: He had received his first notice in 1969. In the tradition of young men collared for service in the Civil War, in World Wars I and II, in Korea and the peacetime Fifties, and during the turbulent Sixties, he had dug in his heels.

He even hid

He wriggled, he feinted, he plotted wild escapes. He tried and failed to concoct a student deferment. Ordered to report for his physical, he hid. The federal government responded with an indictment for failure to report. Finally, facing a courthouse offer to play or pay, he gave in.

Stone, the last draftee, was inducted into the United States Army on June 30, 1973. He was a fitting symbol of the tens of thousands of - preponderantly, it seemed, the disadvantaged youths who had no alternative - who were called to serve.

He modestly shrugs off his claim to fame as the last of a generation torn apart by the Vietnam War, a generation that glorified draft-card burning and flight to Canada and Sweden.

Stone did, he said, only what any red-blooded American kid would do.

"See, the draft wasn't really popular in my neighborhood," he said in a phone interview.

"It was the late '60s, early '70s, remember? And for black dudes especially, this wasn't the thing - guys in the front lines in Vietnam were getting bumped off," said Stone, now a part-time laborer and tutor who works with disadvantaged black youths in Sacramento.

`Ain't no Rockefeller'

"A lot of guys couldn't afford to go to Canada or to pay their way out" through a college deferment, Stone said. "I ain't no Rockefeller, and I wasn't going to Canada."

Finally, Stone decided "the hell with it. It's only two years." He phoned Helen Hapgood at draft board local 123 in Sacramento and turned himself in.

Once inducted, Stone found that Army life suited him fine.

He breezed through basic training at Fort Polk, La., won a promotion and a sharpshooter's badge, went through advanced training at Fort Jackson, S.C., and radio school at Fort Monmouth, N.J. He served as a radio repairman at Fort Ritchie, Md., which handled communications for the Pentagon's nuclear war command bunker in the Maryland mountains.

In November 1974, the Army disgorged Stone back into civilian life, after only 17 months of duty. The Army's records don't show why he was discharged early, although it was a time when the Army felt lenient toward its dwindling number of draftees.

"My attitude was: `Hey, man, you got me. Let's do it and get it over with.' When they drafted me, I had a good job and a little family, and I kind of missed two critical years of my kids," he said.

But he also had fun

On the other hand, he added, he had fun in the Army, got to travel, learned a skill. And when he got out, the Army paid for two years of college and the Veterans Administration helped arrange a mortgage for a new house.

Stone's oldest son is in college, having just completed a four-year stint in the Marine Corps. Military service is something of which Stone, despite his efforts to avoid being drafted, approves.

"Serving your country is not a bad idea, as long as you include everybody," he said.