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Jim Vacarella Describes Avoiding the Draft During the Vietnam War

For young men like Jim Vacarella, the draft stood as the prime symbol of the war in Vietnam. Millions of young men tried to evade the draft: some fled to Canada; many feigned physical or mental illness, others used family connections to gain safe positions in the National Guard. For some, resisting the draft became an important way of protesting the war, and a few thousand men took public stands as draft resistors, burning their draft cards and challenging the government to imprison them. Jim Vacarella was one of those who burned his draft card, although he was lucky enough to avoid prison.

Listen to Audio:

VACARELLA: May 10th, two FBI agents showed up at my house and said I was identified throwing rocks, participating in a rally. And they said that I could have a lawyer if I wanted and if I didn’t want then I could do this interview. My father said I should have a lawyer. I said, “I have nothing to hide.” And all they wanted, they were just local FBI, from Niagara Falls, New York, they were from Buffalo, they just wanted, they were told to come and see me and find out if I knew any names. And I gave them all these nicknames. I never gave anybody’s name. And five days later, the 15th of May, I got my first draft notice. And it says, “Greetings from the President of the United States. You are hereby inducted, hereby ordered to report for induction.” O.K. That induction notice I took to my local draft board. My father grew up with the guy. He, as we all know they used to do, fixed it for two months. Two months later, I received my second draft notice. I burned that. I burned my card. I turned them into marijuana joints, huge marijuana joints with a bunch of other protestors. Believe me, I got in so much trouble for this. It was incredible.

I received my second draft notice, in, school started I think it was the 28th of September, if I’m not mistaken in those days. And I was enrolled again. And I received that second draft notice. We burned it like I said. We, lots of us burned it! We went to Washington, we marched on Washington. I marched any place I could. I attended every rally I could. I thought it was open warfare. And we really did.

The third one came in December to me to report in January. And I left for California. And I was on the lam for the next three years. And I wasn’t on the lam where I was hiding but I just didn’t have, I didn’t rent an apartment under my name, I didn’t have a phone under my name. So I just was sort of incognito, I thought I was anyway. And the FBI came to my house a second time, but I wasn’t there, I was gone. And they saw my father, my father recognized them and he said, “Come in, what can we do for you?” [FBI]: “Well, your son has left, he’s received three draft notices. Hasn’t reported either, not even one of the three. The first one had said that it was taken care of by the draft board, but that’s number three, number three. Now this is a federal offense.” And he said, “Well, I’m not real sure where he is.” And they said, “Well, we know where he is, we know exactly where he is.” So the next time I called my father, he says, “They know where you are!”

So then I started to move. I was on the move again. And I came back and joined a rock-n-roll band in 1971, '72, and we were going to record with Apple Records and didn’t hear a thing and we were really on the move. This band and I were on the move. And in the fall of 1973 Nixon was resigning, it was, all Watergate was broken loose. So it was plain that he was going to be impeached or he was going to resign.

And, in the paper, in the Buffalo Evening News, was my name, federal indictment. 125,000 men around the country were indicted for refusing to be drafted in the United States Army. And my name was in there. And so I went through a lot of hell for that. And I finally said, “Its got to be a lawyer. I got to do this right now. This really has to be the right way.” Went with a lawyer, went down. Nixon resigned. Ford came in. He gave us a partial amnesty. Partial amnesty included two years. You had two years of one of your three choices: the Army, CO work (conscientious objector), jail. Make your pick, you’re at the federal court in Buffalo, make your pick. You stand up with your lawyer. Which one do you want? We stood up and we said, “We’ll take the Army.” Boom! Five days later, I got my fourth draft notice, my fourth order, draft order. And the day before I went in, just to see, I’m not going in the Army now, of course, after the Kent State shootings. There’s no possible way I’m going to do this now. And I went in there and they said you know, “What are you doing here?” [Jim]: “Well, nothing.” And this guy said, I won’t mention his name, but boy he saved me, and he said, “Come back tomorrow, you come and see me.” So I did. He failed me on all, every single test. He said, “We want no one in the Army who doesn’t want to be here anymore. That’s over with. The draft is over. Since the lottery the draft was over. And we don’t want anybody who doesn’t want to be in.”

Source: Interview by Sandra Perlman Halem, April 3, 2000
Courtesy of May 4 Collection Kent State University