Last Vietnam Era Draftee Finally Retires

Command Sgt. Maj. Jeffrey Mellinger has been in the Army for 39 years.

ByABC News
July 3, 2011, 8:20 PM

July 3, 2011— -- It was 1972, a time of protest when war was stigmatized and some of those who fought in it were spat on.

A young drywall installer in Oregon, just 19 years old, had just gotten a letter from the White House, and believed that President Nixon had sat down and written to him. It was a letter informing him that he would be drafted.

Now that teenager is Command Sgt. Maj. Jeffrey Mellinger, and he's been in the Army for 39 years. He is the only active duty army soldier that was drafted and is still serving. At 58, he is now about to retire.

"If somebody told me I'd be in the army for 40 years on that day I would've just laughed at them, you know," Mellinger said, chuckling.

He said that many other young men of the day did not have a lot of respect for the military. He was ready to serve, but found a military system plagued by drug abuse, racism, and indifference. His first commander, however, taught him what military service means, he said.

"It was a very difficult time," Mellinger said. "It seemed down on the bottom of the food chain that we were fighting for survival and it was through the efforts of a great many dedicated leaders that just said that we aren't taking this anymore."

Proudly donning a T-shirt with the American flag emblazoned on the front, Mellinger is now the archetype of an American patriot.

He became an Army ranger and has participated in more than 3,700 parachute jumps, survived more than two dozen roadside bomb attacks and has been the top listed man in Iraq for two and a half years.

Despite his many accomplishments, Mellinger does not care for all of the attention focused on him, preferring to remember all of the other people who served the country.

"I'm a lot more comfortable talking about our soldiers than I am about me ... very proud of the people I've been associated with. They're the ones who made me who I am, not the other way around, and whatever I passed on was driven into me by somebody else," Mellinger said. "We all ride on the backs and shoulder of people ahead of us."

He thinks of his fellow soldiers a lot, especially now with Independence Day approaching. He plans to take a familiar trip this Fourth of July to Arlington Cemetery. The trip serves a reminder of the age-old adage that freedom is not free.

"The bill has been paid by those that are buried there and so many other places," Mellinger said. "The Fourth is a reminder of the cost of being able to do what we do in this country ... some of my friends are there."

Even though Mellinger is retiring, he said his heart will always remain with the Army.

"I found a home. I found a place that I love. People that I love," he said. "It's not just the army, it's the services."