- President Donald Trump received military draft deferments five times – once for bad feet and four times for college.
- Thanks in part to the deferments, he did not serve in Vietnam.
- The president has received criticism for dodging the draft, including from members of Congress. Democratic Sen. Tammy Duckworth, a Purple Heart recipient, once called him “Cadet Bone Spurs.”
- Like Trump, many other young men from wealthy families found ways to avoid the draft.
A young Donald Trump was seemingly in good health when he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1968, as the United States was mired in one of the bloodiest years of the Vietnam War.
The 22-year-old – who was 6 feet 2 inches tall and an athlete – had already avoided the military draft four times in order to complete his college education.
But that spring, as he was set to graduate, he received a diagnosis that landed him a fifth draft deferment that would once again keep him out of Vietnam: bone spurs.
President Trump sat out the war and instead went on to join his father in business. The New York Times reported that the president, as a young man, said his “heel spurs,” which are protrusions caused by calcium buildup on the heel bone, made him unfit for service.
Heel spurs can be cured by stretching, orthotics, or surgery. The president said he never got surgery for the condition.
“Over a period of time, it healed up,” he said, according to the Times.
The diagnosis came two years after Trump had been declared available for service and passed a physical exam.
On Wednesday, The Times reported that a Queens podiatrist who rented office space from Fred Trump, the president’s father, might have given the president his diagnosis as a courtesy to his father.
Trump, however, wasn’t the only young man who managed to avoid being sent to Vietnam because he belonged to an influential family who could afford him a college education – or a favorable medical diagnosis.
Draft deferment wasn’t uncommon during the Vietnam era – but it frequently benefited a specific group of young men, particularly those who had the means to afford a college education or enough family influence to obtain a deferment.
David Cortright, a scholar and peace activist, found that more than half of the 27 million American men eligible to be drafted during the Vietnam era were deferred, exempted, or disqualified.
Young men could typically avoid the draft by being in college, getting married, having children, or being diagnosed with a medical condition that made them unable to serve.
According to a report by the American Economic Review, the college-enrollment rate among young American men rose – and then fell – abruptly between 1965 and 1975. According to the report, many have said these patterns resulted from draft deferments.
This led to the majority of those who served in Vietnam to come from low-income families, a point made in 2017 by the late Arizona Sen. John McCain, a Vietnam prisoner of war.
“One aspect of the conflict, by the way, that I will never ever countenance is that we drafted the lowest income level of America,” McCain said in an interview. “And the highest income level found a doctor that would say that they had a bone spur. That is wrong. That is wrong. If we’re going to ask every American to serve, every American should serve.”
Elliot Ackerman, an Iraq and Afghanistan veteran, wrote in a Time magazine article that “student deferments and various loopholes most often exclusively leveraged by the well-off, or influential, the brunt of that conflict fell to America’s poorest, most marginalized citizens, creating a toxic social rift.”
Notable politicians, such as Joe Biden and Dick Cheney, also received multiple draft deferments. Biden received draft deferments because of his college education. Once he was out of college, he received a deferment for an asthma condition.
Like Trump, Cheney received five draft deferments – four for college and one for being a father. According to The Washington Post, Cheney was classified as a 1-A by the Selective Service in 1965. This made him “available immediately for military service.” Cheney got married soon after the classification.
Months later, Lyndon B. Johnson said draft calls would be doubled, meaning married men without children, previously exempted from the draft, could now be drafted, but married men with children were exempt. Soon after, Cheney was classified 3-A by the Selective Service because his wife was now pregnant with their first child.
Other young men didn’t avoid the draft but had strings pulled to be assigned to noncombat zones, such as Germany and Korea, or other areas of the military.
Former President George W. Bush joined the Air National Guard, in Texas, which kept him stateside during the Vietnam War. Critics have long contended that Bush received his cushy role in the guard because commanding officers sought to curry the favor of Bush’s father, the late President George H.W. Bush, who was an influential Texas congressman at the time.