7:38pm

Fri July 15, 2011
Around the Nation

Vietnam-Era Draftees, Still On Duty In U.S. Army

When Command Sgt. Maj. Jeff Mellinger announced he was retiring from active duty, the U.S. Army thought it had lost its last Vietnam-era draftee.

It turns out that there were more — they were just hard to find, because the soldiers' service records began before the Army started using its current computer system.

In addition to Mellinger, at least two other soldiers, Chief Warrant Officer 5 Ralph Rigby and Chief Warrant Officer 4 Franklin Ernst, also were drafted during that era. And like him, they have continuously served on active duty since then.

Rigby, 58, who was drafted in 1972 from Auburn, N.Y., is currently stationed in Kuwait. He said he has not spent more than 10 consecutive months in the United States since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, because of being deployed on war tours.

He called the draft the "only lottery I came close to winning" and says he has no plans to retire yet.

"I was just taking it a couple years at a time, and next thing I know, 39 years is up. I don't know where it all went," Rigby said in a phone interview from Kuwait. "I've enjoyed what I've been doing. I enjoy working with the soldiers."

The Associated Press reported on July 3 about the upcoming retirement of Mellinger, who the Army believed was the last Vietnam-era draftee still on active duty. Other soldiers or their family members contacted the AP to say there are others, and the Army subsequently verified Ernst's and Rigby's service.

The source for the AP's story was the Army's Human Resources Command, at Fort Knox, Ky. Mark Edwards, the chief of media relations for the command, said the mistake was made because the draftees' records predate the Army's current computer system, and there's no simple way to search for draftees.

Edwards said it is possible that there are other draftees still serving on active duty who have not been recognized as such.

Ernst, 61, said he served multiple tours in Iraq and is currently assigned to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., where he's had some surgeries. He said he was drafted in 1970 from the Panama Canal Zone, where his father was stationed.

Ernst had planned to retire two years ago, he said, but he was talked into staying in the military a little longer. Now, he's set to retire in January.

Asked why he stayed in the military, Ernst said, "This is what I tell these young soldiers now today, because they ask me the same question. All the services are great, they really are. You just have to apply yourself and it's what you make of it."

Neither Ernst nor Rigby served with the Army in Vietnam.

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