How a Vietnam draftee found peace volunteering at The Wall

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Michael at a fire support base near the town of Can Giuoc, South Vietnam in November 1969.

Michael Mc Mahon was drafted to serve in the military in December 1968 and served in Vietnam with the 9th Infantry Division from June 1969 to June 1970. Michael has been a Vietnam Veterans Memorial Volunteer since 2003 and assists some of the nearly five million visitors to The Wall every year. He currently lives in West Windsor, New Jersey.

Between 1964 and 1973, nearly two million men were drafted to serve in Vietnam.

Michael Mc Mahon was one of them. He registered for the draft in Brooklyn, New York when he was 18 years old. By the time he graduated high school in June of 1964, the U.S. had already begun ramping up its involvement in Vietnam.

St. Francis College, Brooklyn, NY - Class of 1968
Yearbook picture of Michael Mc Mahon from St. Francis College in Brooklyn, New York, June 1968.

That fall, Michael enrolled at St. Francis College in Brooklyn, New York and was given a 2-S Student Deferment. There were several ways in which an individual could receive a deferment of service including: being a college student; being a student at a divinity school, or being a clergy leader; having dependent children; being the sole supporter of a parent, and various forms of medical exemptions.

While Michael was temporarily deferred from the draft, Vietnam became a backdrop to his everyday life. By the time 1968 arrived, the year was embroiled by civil unrest and anti-war protests. U.S. involvement in Vietnam escalated and images of the Tet Offensive found their way into nightly television sets. Pivotal moments, like the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, transformed the country.

The day Michael graduated from St. Francis College on Saturday, June 8, 1968, Robert Kennedy’s funeral was taking place at St. Patrick’s Cathedral a few miles away. This was followed by a tumultuous summer with riots and protests at the Democratic National Convention.

“These events dominated the news cycle and were the backdrop leading up to graduation,” Michael said. “Vietnam had my attention.”

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Michael and his wife, Dolores, after his college graduation on June 8, 1968.

By the time he graduated in June of 1968, Michael secured a full-time job. And without a deferment, it took only six months before the country asked him to serve. The draft notice fell into Michael’s hands on December 26, 1968.

“I thought of it as an unwanted Christmas card from my Uncle Sam,” he recalled.

Staring down at his draft notice, Michael was aware of the single New York City subway token in the upper right-hand corner. Draft boards in NYC would provide subway tokens to pay the fare if you were called to report for an appointment. One token was to get to the appointment, and one was for the trip home. Michael said he knew one token meant he was being drafted.

With an undergraduate degree under his belt and a draft notice, Michael knew what he had to do. He readied himself to say goodbye to his friends and family. He was 21 years old and set for boot camp and the real possibility of fighting in Vietnam.

“My generation grew up knowing [that] if you were healthy, you needed to satisfy your military obligation,” he said. “It was that simple and expected.”

Michael had the option to join the military instead of enduring the risks of the draft, but he wanted the two-year military commitment of the draft. An enlistment could mean four to six years of active duty.

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Michael on leave from Basic Training, February 22, 1969.

“I was not looking for a career in the military,” he admitted. “And four years feels like an eternity when you are 21.”

In early 1969, Michael arrived at the draft reception station in Brooklyn. 17 men were being inducted at Fort Hamilton and lots of questions floated among the new recruits. “Which branch of the military will we be assigned?” and “Where are they going to send us for Basic Combat Training?” Anxiety blended with fear of the unknown, but the recruits raised their right hands and took an oath to protect their country.

Michael’s next destination would be Fort Jackson, South Carolina, for Army Basic Combat Training (BCT) and Advanced Infantry Training (AIT). He trained as an Infantry soldier and was sent to Vietnam. Upon arrival in country, he was assigned to the 9th Infantry Division. There he served at base camps in Dong Tam, Can Giuoc and Ben Luc and spent a month on the USS Benewah, a ship that patrolled the Mekong River Delta region. Michael served one tour and returned home in 1970.

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Michael aboard the USS Benewah.  In October 1969, his unit was assigned to the USS Benewah which patrolled the Mekong River.  They conducted ground combat operations off the ship.

More than a decade after his tour of duty, he was able to visit The Wall in Washington, D.C. and pay tribute to those who lost their lives.

“On that trip I did exactly what Maya Lin anticipated,” he said. “I cried.”

In January 2003, Michael was volunteering at the New Jersey Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial when a friend, Michael Coale, talked about how much he enjoyed volunteering at The Wall in Washington, D.C.

“It was something I never considered, but…it was like I found my calling,” he said.

After a few visits, Michael was hooked. Each trip to Washington, D.C. became more rewarding. With the guidance of other volunteers, he gained a deeper knowledge of the Memorial, and found himself connecting with visitors in a more meaningful way. Today, he continues to educate about The Wall, assists with ceremonies, and preserves the legacies of those who lost their lives.

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Michael lays roses at The Wall on Father’s Day in 2018.

“I am honoring each of the 58,276 men and women whose names are engraved on the Memorial,” he told VVMF. “Especially my friends Gary Gryzen (Panel 15W, Line 53), David McIntyre (Panel 15W, Line 54) and Gary Phillips (Panel 15W, Line 54) who died on December 13, 1969.”

Michael has been able to find peace at The Wall and he is grateful that “Maya Lin’s design created a place of quiet reflection.”  He makes it a point to mention that it is not the Vietnam War Memorial, but the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. It honors all those who served and sacrificed. In one final affirmation, he proudly states, “It is my Memorial!”