A back condition wins Dean a Vietnam-era draft deferment
In February of 1970, with the Vietnam War raging, 21-year-old Howard Dean carried a set of X-rays and a letter from a Manhattan orthopedist named Hudson Wilson to Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn, where US military doctors determined that he was not fit for military service because of a back condition called spondylolisthesis.
Dean was classified 1Y, according to military records, meaning he was exempt from service for the duration of the war and free to head to Colorado after his Yale graduation, where he skied at Aspen and poured concrete. Spondylolisthesis is a condition caused by an unfused vertebra. When diagnosed nearly four years earlier, he was cleared to participate in all sports except long-distance running.
"I didn't try to get out of the draft," Dean has said. "I had a physical."
Among the candidates vying for the presidency, Senator John F. Kerry and retired General Wesley K. Clark served in the Vietnam War. The others served in the National Guard, were too young for the draft, or were recipients of deferments. President Bush served in the National Guard.
Military service is nonetheless a potential political minefield. Dean is mindful of that.
"The United States government said this is your classification," he said on NBC's "Meet the Press." "I'm not responsible for that. I didn't have anything to do with the decision. That was their choice."
The basis for his classification is difficult to document. The Selective Service System, following standard procedure, destroyed all records in Dean's file save his classification listings. Dean said he did not keep copies of the X-rays or Wilson's letter. Nor did he keep a copy, he said, of the letter he believes he wrote requesting a deferral from military service. His physician, Wilson, is dead.
Dean drew a relatively low lottery number -- 143 out of 300 -- meaning he could have been called up after college, according to Lewis Brodsky, a Selective Service spokesman.
At Yale, Dean did not support the war but was not vocal. He took part in one protest, by his count. He said he was not overly worried about being drafted and said the reason he wrote a letter seeking a military medical exam was to clarify his standing.
"No, I wasn't obsessed. My attitude is -- if there is a problem, you ought to face it and deal with it," Dean said.
He later added, "I guess maybe I wasn't that concerned. I was just concerned enough. I think what I really wanted to know was whether I should go to officer candidate school, or something like that."
In high school, Dean considered having an operation to relieve the back condition but decided against it because it required a long convalescence. In college, he played intramural football. In Vermont, Dean hiked half of the 265-mile Long Trail and canoed the entire Connecticut River. Today, Dean says, the back injury still causes occasional pain.
But if Dean has largely lived without notice of his condition, it has trailed him nonetheless. When he chose to seek the presidency, Dean made sure official records of his health problem contained no surprises.
"We didn't want my draft file becoming public without knowing what was in it," he said.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.