America's generals love to brag about their all-volunteer Army. That's because they tend to overlook Jeffrey Mellinger. He donned his Army uniform for the first time on April 18, 1972, about the time the Nixon Administration was seeking "peace with honor" in Vietnam and The Godfather was opening on the silver screen. Nearly 37 years later, he's still wearing Army green. Mellinger is, by all accounts, the last active-duty draftee serving in the U.S. Army.
"I'm a relic," Mellinger concedes with a self-deprecating laugh. But the last of the nearly 2 million men ordered to serve in the Vietnam-era military before conscription ended in 1973 still impresses 19-year-old soldiers. "Most of them are surprised I'm still breathing, because in their minds I'm older than dirt," the fit 55-year-old says. "But they're even more surprised when they find out this dinosaur can still move around pretty darn quick." (View images of 100 years of the Army Reserve)
Mellinger was working as a 19-year-old drywall hanger in Eugene, Oregon, when he came home to find a draft notice waiting for him. "I went down to the draft board and asked them if this was really serious," he recalls, "or if it was like an invitation." But it was an order, the first of many Mellinger would obey. He started his military career as a clerk in what was then called West Germany, and was looking forward hanging up his uniform after two years of service. "I was dead-set on getting out," he says. "We had a lot of racial problems, drug problems, leadership problems." But his company commander talked him into re-enlisting. The lure: the chance to join the Rangers, the elite warrior corps that Mellinger came to love (his 3,700 parachute jumps add up to more than 33 hours in freefall). Re-enlisting "was the best decision of my career," Mellinger says.
The Army sent him all over the world, including tours in Japan and Iraq. General David Petraeus, who served as Mellinger's boss during the draftee's final three months in Iraq in 2007, calls him "a national asset" who kept the top generals' aware of the peaks and valleys in battlefield morale. "We lost count of how many times his personal convoy was hit," Petraeus says. "Yet he never stopped driving the roads, walking patrols, and going on missions with our troopers." (Mellinger's 33-month Iraq tour was punctuated by 27 roadside bombings, including two that destroyed his vehicle, although he managed to escape injury.) Mellinger now serves as the Command Sergeant Major, the senior enlisted man in the Virginia headquarters of the Army Materiel Command, trying to shrink what he calls the "flash-to-bang time" between recognizing what soldiers need and getting it to them.
The son of a Marine, Mellinger had been turned down by both the Marines and the Army when he sought to enlist. "I was not a perfect child," he says. He finds it strange that the compulsory military that launched his career no longer exists, but says the Army is better for it. "You get people who want to do this work," he says of today's nearly-all volunteer force. "If you had a draft at any other business in the world, you'd get people who maybe weren't suited to be accountants or drivers or mathematicians."
He doesn't have much patience for those, like Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., who want to bring back the draft to ensure that war's burdens are equally shared. "We're doing just fine, thank you, with the all-volunteer force," Mellinger says. "Until the time comes that we're in danger of losing our capabilities to do our missions, then we ought to stick with what we have there is no need for the draft."
Like many veterans of the Vietnam-era Army, he bridles at suggestions that the draftee force was riddled with misfits and druggies. "We didn't run off to Canada," he says, taking a swipe at those who avoided the draft by heading north. "While it makes great rhetoric to stand up and say 'We don't want a draft Army because the draft Army was bad,' the facts don't support it," Mellinger says. "Just because they didn't run down and sign up doesn't make them less deserving of respect for their contributions." There's a sensitivity evident in being viewed as less of a soldier for having been drafted. "I'm proud to be a soldier, and I'm proud to be a draftee," he says. "I took the same oath that every other enlistee who came in the Army there wasn't a different one for draftees."
His proudest moments are watching those he trained climb the military hierarchy themselves. "I can think of several soldiers who went on to become command sergeants major who were privates when I was either their squad leader or their drill sergeant," Mellinger says. But such memories also trigger his lone regret. "I wish I were as smart as I thought I was when I was moving into those duty positions."
Mellinger has told his wife, Kim, that this is his final Army posting, meaning he's likely to retire sometime next year. The couple has no children, although Mellinger has three grown kids from a prior marriage. The last draftee then plans to move to Alaska, where he spent much of his career, and spend his days reading history and running with his two Dobermans. "When I tell my wife it's my last assignment, she just rolls her eyes," he concedes. "This is my sixth 'last assignment'."