Trump’s avoidance of military service during the Vietnam era is drawing new scrutiny after the Muslim American parents of a soldier who was killed in Iraq publicly questioned whether Trump had ever sacrificed for his country.

Share story

In 1968, at the age of 22, Donald Trump seemed the picture of health.

He stood 6 feet 2 inches with an athletic build; had played football, tennis and squash; and was taking up golf. His medical history was unblemished, aside from a routine appendectomy when he was 10.

But after he graduated from college in spring 1968, making him eligible to be drafted and sent to Vietnam, he received a diagnosis that would change his path: bone spurs in his heels.

The diagnosis resulted in a coveted 1-Y medical deferment that fall, exempting him from service in Vietnam when the United States was undertaking huge troop deployments to Southeast Asia, inducting about 300,000 men into the military that year.

The deferment was one of five Trump received during the war in Vietnam. The others were for education.

His experience is drawing new scrutiny after the Muslim American parents of a soldier who was killed in Iraq publicly questioned whether Trump had ever sacrificed for his country. In a speech at the Democratic National Convention last week, the soldier’s father, Khizr Khan, directly addressed Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, saying, “You have sacrificed nothing and no one.”

In an interview with The New York Times this past month, Trump said the bone spurs had been “temporary” — a “minor” malady that had not had a meaningful impact on him. He said he had visited a doctor who provided him a letter for the local draft board, which granted him the medical exemption. He could not remember the doctor’s name.

Asked to provide The Times with a copy of the letter, which he had obtained as his fourth student deferment was set to expire, Trump said he would have to look for it. A spokeswoman later did not respond to repeated requests for copies of it.

The Selective Service records that remain in the National Archives — many have been discarded — do not specify what medical condition exempted Trump from military service.

Trump has described the condition as heel spurs, which are protrusions caused by calcium built up on the heel bone, treated through stretching, orthotics or sometimes surgery.

Trump said that he could not recall exactly when he was no longer bothered by the spurs, but that he had not had an operation for the problem.

“Over a period of time, it healed up,” he said.

The medical deferment meant Trump, who had just completed the real-estate program at the Wharton School of Finance and Commerce at the University of Pennsylvania, could follow his father into the development business.

For many years, Trump, 70, has also asserted that it was “ultimately” the luck of a high draft lottery number — rather than the medical deferment — that kept him out of the war.

But his Selective Service records, obtained from the National Archives, suggest otherwise. Trump had been medically exempted for more than a year when the draft lottery began in December 1969, well before he received what he has described as his “phenomenal” draft number.

Because of his medical exemption, his lottery number would have been irrelevant, said Richard Flahavan, a spokesman for the Selective Service System, who has worked for the agency for three decades.

“He was already classified and determined not to be subject to the draft under the conditions in place at the time,” Flahavan said.

In a 2011 TV interview, Trump described watching the draft lottery as a college student and learning then that he would not be drafted. “I’ll never forget; that was an amazing period of time in my life,” he said in the interview, on Fox 5 New York. “I was going to the Wharton School of Finance, and I was watching as they did the draft numbers, and I got a very, very high number.”

But Trump had actually graduated from Wharton 18 months before the lottery — the first in the United States in 27 years — was held.

Voters have shown themselves willing to look past such controversies, electing George W. Bush, who served stateside in the Air National Guard during the Vietnam era, and Bill Clinton, who wrote to an Army ROTC officer in 1969 thanking him for “saving me from the draft.”

Trump likened his history to that of Vice President Joe Biden and other prominent politicians, who also received several deferments. Trump said he had strongly opposed the United States involvement in Vietnam.

“I thought it was ridiculous,” he said. “I thought it was another deal where politicians got us into a war where we shouldn’t have been in. And I felt that very strongly from Day One.”

Trump has acknowledged feeling somewhat “guilty” for not serving in Vietnam and has stressed that if he had been called, he would have gone.

After his 18th birthday, in June 1964, Trump registered with the Selective Service System, as all men his age did. It was the summer after his graduation from the New York Military Academy, and Trump recalled filling out his papers with his father, Fred Trump, in Queens.

The next month, Trump received the first of four education deferments as he worked his way through his undergraduate studies, first at Fordham and then as a transfer student in the real-estate program at the Wharton School. He received subsequent student deferments for his sophomore, junior and senior years.

At Fordham, Trump commuted from his parents’ home in Queens and played squash, football and tennis at the intramural level.

During the Wharton years, he said, he had less time for sports but stayed physically active, playing pickup golf at public courses near campus, including Cobbs Creek.

As Trump’s graduation neared, the fighting in Vietnam was intensifying. The Tet offensive in January 1968 had left thousands of U.S. troops dead or wounded, with battles continuing into the spring.

With his schooling behind him, there would have been little to prevent someone in Trump’s situation from being drafted, if not for the diagnosis of his bone spurs.

Trump had a 1-Y classification, which was considered a temporary exemption. But in practice, only a national emergency or an official declaration of war, which the United States avoided during Vietnam, would have resulted in his being considered for service.

Neither occurred, and Trump remained 1-Y until 1972, when his status changed to 4-F, permanently disqualifying him.

“For all practical purposes, once you got the 1-Y, you were free and clear of vulnerability for the draft, even in the case of the lottery,” Flahavan said.