By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON – John Lehman, at some level, has been fighting the same war for more than 40 years.
Lehman has been tagged a “draft dodger,” a label he’s heard over his 25-plus years in politics.
It all goes back to that day in August 1968 when he chose not to step forward, refusing induction into the military to serve in the jungles of Vietnam.
The former Democratic state senator from Racine is running in a recall-driven rematch of the 2010 race he lost to current 21st Senate District state Sen. Van Wanggaard, a Racine Republican.
It’s arguably the tightest race of four Senate recall elections, in a district that isn't always kind to incumbents. The contest is to be settled on June 5, among Wisconsin’s historic recall elections for governor and lieutenant governor.
Lehman’s protest of the Vietnam War, and his sentence that later followed, came up in 2010 and in his Senate campaign four years earlier.
And in this quest to unseat Wanggaard, as the nation begins to commemorate the 50th anniversary of an unpopular war, the former lawmaker’s past has come up once again, at a recent debate.
In a conversation with Wisconsin Reporter Friday, the Democrat said if he had to do it all over, he’d do it all over again.
“I would have taken the same course — on the basis of my Lutheran faith,” Lehman said.
This is what happened, according to Lehman:
He was 22, in his first year of graduate school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in 1968 when he withdrew from his course of study. The move — by design — exposed the college student to the draft .
“I wanted to make a statement. I applied for status as a Lutheran selective objector,” Lehman said.
Many young men followed in Lehman’s path, declaring themselves selective conscientious objectors, opposed to a particular war but not all wars. Under U.S. law, they were ineligible for relief from military duty.
During the draft, refusing conscription was a recipe for criminal prosecution, with the potential of a lengthy federal prison sentence.
In the heat of war, critics of selective conscientious objectors ridiculed these protesters for having selective courage, insisting they were hiding behind religion to avoid combat.
"It could be argued, although not loudly, that the man who claimed to be a selective conscientious objector was a simple coward who loved life more than country, and security more than honor," wrote Walter S. Griggs Jr. in his 1979 examination of the issue, "The Selective Conscientious Objector: A Vietnam Legacy, for Oxford Journals Journal of Church and Sate. "On the other hand, he could have been truly sincere," experiencing the "deepest religious convictions," Griggs wrote.
Either way, the issue set the stage for an explosive and difficult church-state conflict.
Lutheran churches, conflicted, eventually called for the legalization of selective objection, arguing it “flows naturally from Lutheran’s traditional ethic — that some wars are just, some unjust,” according to a February 2011 retrospective of the issue in Metro Lutheran, an independent monthly newspaper in Minnesota’s Twin Cities. “And quoting Martin Luther, they said the individual believer must follow conscience in determining whether to obey governing authority when order to fight.”
Lehman said that was exactly what he was doing when he applied for selective objector status. His request was rejected.
He was ordered to take a physical in Milwaukee, which he passed, and was drafted and told to report for induction on Aug. 5, 1968.
Standing in the induction line, he declined to step forward to serve, refused induction and went home.
Later, Lehman was indicted in federal court. In 1971, he was found guilty of refusing induction, he appealed. His appeal was denied, and in August 1972, right around his 27th birthday, he reported to a federal marshal and began a 90-day jail sentence in Waukesha County jail.
After that, Lehman did 21 months of hospital work, as a janitor and surgical clerk, as part of his sentence.
In 1975, he received a pardon — from President Gerald Ford. The new president was in a forgiving mood then.
Shadows of war
Forty years later, the charge of draft dodger still dogs him in certain circles, but the issue, even Republicans contend, has mostly faded in and around Racine.
“I think John Lehman has been around long enough that a lot of voters in the 21st District are aware of that,” said Dan Romportl, executive director of the Committee to Elect a Republican Senate, referring to Lehman’s past.
“That issue has been out there. It’s up to the people who know that about him to form an opinion. That’s not something CERS or the Wanggaard campaign is going to focus on or make an issue,” Romportl said.
There are plenty of issues to hash out in this election — ultimately boiling down to Lehman’s more liberal positions and Wanggaard’s conservative track squarely aligned with the policies of Republican Gov. Scott Walker, himself recalled to election.
But some constituents still bring up Lehman’s military record, or lack thereof.
The candidate said it isn’t relevant.
“You’re talking about a youthful decision 40 years ago. I don’t think it has much relevance,” he said. “It might have more relevance if I were running for federal officers, if I had decision-making over military affairs.”
Neither candidate has served in the military, but each man’s father served in World War II.
Wanggaard was on Racine’s police force for nearly 30 years, while Lehman taught history in Racine schools. Both men worked at Park High School at the same time, Wanggaard employed by the Racine Unified School District as a police liaison and a security guard.
In March 2000, Wanggaard’s law enforcement career was cut short when a vehicle driven by a federal fugitive fleeing custody struck the officer’s squad car head-on. He suffered serious injuries.
Each candidate boasts decades of community and political service. Before his 14 years in the Legislature, Lehman served on the Racine City Council, part of that time as president. Wanggaard was a long-time member of the Racine County Board of Supervisors.
While Lehman chose not to serve in the military, he was honored as VFW Legislator of the Year in 2010 for his work on veterans issues.
“I have a long, positive record of service to veterans,” he said. “I know the difference between public policy on a war and civic responsibility to veterans. I’m proud of my service.”