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50 Years Later: A look back at the Vietnam Draft Lottery

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ROCKFORD (WREX) — December 1st marked 50 years since the Vietnam War Draft Lottery. A process that would pull millions of young men out of the United States, and place them directly onto the front lines.

Dick Nielsen, a Rockford resident, served six tours for the Navy in Vietnam.

"I very seldom try to think about that war because it brings back some serious," Nielsen pauses before adding, "A lot of bad things happened."

Nielsen says he wanted to carry the Navy tradition on in his family. By chance, he enlisted about two weeks before his draft card came.

"I still have my draft card by the way, proof I didn't burn the darn thing. "

James Newbury, on the other hand, says he knew he'd be drafted. So instead, he enlisted in hopes of a shorter tour.

"I volunteered for the service, that way I didn't have to do three years," says Newbury. "I only did two years."

This was was a new frontier for loved ones at home to navigate. For the first time, they had a front row seat.

"For our parents, they could watch on TV and hear the body count from every excursion," says Nielsen.

But as Nielsen and Newbury left their homes to face the unknowns of war, a second battle broke out. This one happening back here in the states. Draft card burning, protests, and unrest mounting across the country as people aggressively opposed the US's involvement.

"I was really mad at this country," says Newbury. "I really was. For what the students were doing and the other stuff. I was mad at them."

As anxiety mounted in the United States, thousands of miles away, soliders like Newbury spent days on end embeded in the jungle. They never knew what danger lurked around the corner.

"Our whole platoon was sprayed with Agent Orange," says Newbury. "That's what I'm fighting now with my eyes, because I'm going legally blind because I was sprayed in the eyes. "

Decades later, both men say they battle Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Pain from what they endured overseas coupled with what happened to them when they returned home.

"When I got out of the service, I get home, hit O'Hare, got off the plane was walking out and I got spit on," says Newbury. "If anyone would have caught him, I would've been in prison. 'Cause I would have killed him. I did my time in the service and was proud I did my time. I didn't run off to Canada or something like that."

Even though he was no longer on the battle field, Nielsen says home no longer felt safe.

"We pretty much traveled in groups if were off ship and around San Diego or other parts of the country," says Nielsen.

Rejected by the country they loved, fought for, and dreamt of returning to throughout years of dangerous combat.

"I remember my last trip from Vietnam getting off the ship. My picture was on the front page of a San Diego newspaper. Coming off the ship, getting down on my knees, and kissing the ground," says Nielsen with tears in his eyes.

Nothing can be done to correct history for these veterans. But together, we can all help to make their future one that's filled with healing.

"A 'Welcome Home'...that means a lot to us," says Newbury.

"A lot of people now come up to us and thank us for our service, " adds Newbury. "That never used to happen. We're so proud and thankful people are doing that now. And it does help us,it does."

"The thanks we never got," adds Nielsen. "Last year I had a little five or six year old come up and thanked me for my freedom."

Recalling this memory brings tears to Nielsen's eyes. Both men add they've enjoyed their experiences at their VFW post, especially a PTSD group that meets once a week. They encourage any veteran who may be struggling to get involved with both their VFW and VA.

Mary Sugden

Mary Sugden is the Investigative Reporter at WREX. She joined the team in December 2014 as the evening producer. In 2015 she made the move to evening reporter before joining the 13 Investigates team in May of 2018.

She grew up in Woodstock, Illinois and graduated from Woodstock High School in 2009. Mary graduated with a degree in Journalism and Marketing from Loyola University Chicago in 2013.

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