FORT BELVOIR, Va. (AP) - He didn't join the Army willingly, but as Command Sgt. Maj. Jeff Mellinger prepares to retire, he's grateful he found his calling.
Mellinger was drafted to fight the Vietnam War, and the Army believes he's the last draftee to retire, after 39 years. Most did their two years and left. But Mellinger had found home.
"I think I'm pretty good at it, but I like it. That's the bottom line. I love being a soldier and I love being around soldiers," he said.
When the draft notice arrived in the mail in 1972 at his home in Eugene, Ore., tens of thousands of troops had been killed. Anti-war protests were rampant. Draft notices were being set on fire and returning soldiers were treated as part of the problem. The military wasn't a popular job.
The return address on the letter was the White House. Just 19, he was impressed that President Richard Nixon would write to him. "I opened it up and it said, `Greetings from the president of the United States.' I said, `Wow, how's he know me?"' Mellinger said, laughing. "It was a form letter that said my friends and neighbors had selected me to represent them in the Armed Forces and I was hereby ordered to report for induction."
Mellinger told the draft board there was a mistake. "I ... told them I don't need to go into the Army, I've got a job," said Mellinger, who hung drywall for a living. "They just kind of laughed."
Once the path was set, he said, he didn't consider trying to find a way out.
Mellinger, 58, is happy with the setup of today's all-volunteer force, but he does think the contributions of draftees have been forgotten.
"Draftees are pretty maligned over time," he said, "but the fact is they are part of every branch of service up to 1973, and when you look at what those military branches accomplished over time, I'll let the record speak for itself."