The Third Goal: Bringing It All Back Home by Karl Drobnic (Ethiopia)


“There’s no success like failure and failure’s no success at all.” Bob Dylan

I ignored the summons the draft board sent to my remote Ethiopian village midway through my second year of Peace Corps service, and dropped its greetings down the shintabet (the long-drop) hole, sending it to fester with the rest of the used toilet tissue.

And I did not inform the Peace Corps staff in Addis Ababa that I had been drafted.

The police curfew that kept Goba locked down while Haile Selassie’s troops fought pitched battles with rebel shifta in the nearby mountains had finally lifted, the unending rainy season that hijacked two consecutive dry seasons had finally abated, and after eighteen months of mud and fear, I could finally hike and ride in the gorgeous Bale Province countryside. But end of service was near.

In 1968, the Viet Cong’s Tet Offensive had driven America to ever shriller heights of dissent, and while many in my Peace Corps group, having completed their service, boarded planes and flew back to the developed nations, I obscured my whereabouts, riding buses, trains and fishing boats to backwater border crossings where paperwork, if it even existed, would never make it past a moldering ledger in a ramshackle office at some remote outpost in The Sudan, Nubia, or a dozen other countries. I even meandered through countries on the Soviet side of the Iron Curtain, eventually walking out of then-communist Bulgaria to Thessalonika to leave no trail at all.

As Nixon and Humphrey battled neck and neck for the presidency, as the Days of Rage erupted, and as police batons clubbed the spirit of a generation into the streets of Chicago, I trekked, traveling overland deep into Central Asia.

Chill winds were daily blowing more stiffly off the hills surrounding Kabul, turning nights cold.

One blustery morning I shouldered my backpack, bargained for a passel of black-market rupees in the grain market, and slipped down through the Khyber Pass into Pakistan. Off the high plateaus, it was warm again, and my discount rupees made living cheap easy. I wandered across the top of Pakistan, arriving at Lahore a week before America’s election day.

Somewhere I saw  flyers: “Celebrate US Election Day.” “Live Rock & Roll.” “Free Party.” “Election Results.” A tiny map showed the way to the American Consulate in Lahore. The flyer had me at “election results.” Humphrey, I thought, was my best hope of ever returning to the US.

The election party was in a square that fronted the consulate. A temporary stage, empty, was erected near its gates. I hung back in a side street, watching, waiting for a crowd to gather. In time, a teenage American band — embassy kids — mounted the stage and began their warm up. Young Pakistani men wandered in and stood around. The band found its confidence and revved into a Chuck Berry medley. The square was filling, and I ventured into the crowd. When the medley finished, a suited man came out of the consulate carrying a large poster lettered “Nixon” and “Humphrey.” Numbers below the names showed Nixon leading.

The band played another set. We got another update. Nixon’s lead grew. The crowd of Pakistanis began to buzz. So it went: music, an update, an election ever tilting towards Nixon. And then Tricky Dicky won.

The crowd erupted. The band struck up more music, and the Pakistanis began to dance. In their happiness, they mobbed me. “America our friend now. Give us jets. We kick Vietnam for you. Then we bomb India.” It was one of the happiest parties I’ve ever attended; happy, for them. They shook my hand. “Kick Vietnam!” They put their arms on my shoulders. “Bomb India!” They embraced me. “Give us jets, American!”

As their congratulations poured over me, genuine and from the heart, I felt the success of my draft defiance turn to failure. Only to myself had I succeeded. The military had yawned and drafted someone compliant in my stead.

No authorities were actively looking for me; rather, my name was on an alert, passively waiting for me to need help at an embassy, or to cross a border back into the US. There was nothing sensible I could say to the whooping Pakistanis. I was just a symbol, objectified, of their new, perceived friend in the White House. As my successes crumbled to failure in Lahore, my mind dwelled on Dylan’s lyric, “. . . and failure is no success at all.”

Several buses, trains, boats and weeks later, I was drifting towards Bangkok. Hitchhiking near Ito, a Malaysian army sergeant invited me to overnight in a jungle camp from which his troops were mopping up the straggling remnants of the lengthy Marxist insurgency there. “Communists!” he said, shaking his head. He pointed his rifle at a tree. “Dead Red!” He laughed. Some of his squadron laughed, also.


There was no hoopla when I turned myself in at a US military base in Bangkok. “Come back in two weeks,” a clerk said. “We need to cut some special forms to change your draft status from delinquent.” My name had been on a list, and then it wasn’t. I had been on the run, and then I wasn’t. I was on a transport plane to Ft. Ord, California, bringing what I’d learned in the Peace Corps back home, ready to fill the vaunted “Third Goal” of service. How I would, I did not know. That I would, I did.


I’ve been asked, over the years, how I handled Vietnam. My usual answer has been, “I just said no.” The words are too far beyond the realm of conversational comfort. Discourse thuds to an immediate halt as vistas of cognitive dissonance billow open. What would you reply to me? “How was prison, dude?” “How long’d you get, buddy?” “Were you in Leavenworth, then? That’s hardcore prison, right?”

So I allow the silence to ferment for several uncomfortable seconds and  the I continued. “I refused orders to Vietnam.” There is more silence, and I let it sink in. “Then I sued them all, the whole kit and caboodle. Nixon, Laird (Secretary of Defense), Mitchell (Attorney General), all of them.” A lawsuit . . .
it brings the conversation back to comprehensible territory.

“You can’t sue the government.”

“But I did. Me, myself and I. No lawyers.” Just me, living simply as a private in the heart of an entrenched, alien culture, proffering change to the military establishment, meeting obstacles, pecking away. “And I won,” I say. I could at this point invoke the hopes of Kennedy and Shriver — that we bring what we learned in our distant villages back to America — but few outside the Peace Corps cadre are aware of the Third Goal. So the conversation dies again.

Underlying the silence, I have long suspected, is fear of prison. Our government turns on those who, for ethical reasons, violate its rules. How far can you be pushed and bullied before you point to the sand and say, “I will not cross this line. Do what you will. I will step no further.” If people do not know this line, they do not know the strength that is conferred by standing nakedly there, the line plainly drawn, facing a powerful, belligerent adversary.

I could revive the conversation if, like the narrator of Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim, I were to invite those interested to a veranda settee on a languid summer evening, call for cigars and brandy, and let the crepuscule envelop those many months of events that led to my impossible triumph. But what listeners are prepared to subject themselves to that? Perhaps only Peace Corps Volunteers serving in their lonely, isolated posts, hungry for answers to whether or not the privation is at all worth it.

And I would tell them that it is.

Beginning my narration, I would introduce them to my commanding officer, no older than I, who bellowed, “Son, since you use your pass, you abuse your pass,” and confined me to barracks for two weeks. A different culture, indeed.

But there was a preceding clue. Arriving in the US, I had ridden a Greyhound from Travis AFB into San Francisco, where the bus picked up several more inductees for the ride south to Ft. Ord. We were marched to a barracks, told to choose a bunk, and wait. In late afternoon, a sergeant came in, barking at us to dump our bags out on the beds and stand nearby. I had collected several paperback booklets along the way, folk tales from different lands with exotic illustrations, colorful foreign perspectives of ghosts, fairies, princes, demons, heroes and heroines. One told a North Korean tale of the Battle of the Chosen Reservoir, a horrific defeat for the US military. On the cover, a youthful Chinese soldier rallied his comrades.

“What the hell’s that?” the sergeant said, not really asking as he picked up the booklet. He leafed through some pages, then saw the North Korean imprint on the back. His face hardened, his eyes became slits. “Yours, boy?” He grabbed my orders, found my name, took the booklet and left.

Napping on my second-floor bunk the next afternoon, I awoke to shouting. “Out! Out! Everybody out!” There were sounds downstairs of skedaddling inductees, and then boots came clattering up the stairs. Six military police, led by an officer, emerged onto the second floor, shouting. “Out, out, everybody out . . . except Drobnic!” The sergeant was with them, pointing at me. My floormates skedaddled, and the MP’s surrounded my bunk. The sergeant had my North Korean folk tale in his hand. “He’s the one. It’s his,” the sergeant said.

The officer took the booklet. “This yours?” he asked.

“Yes.” I reached out for the booklet. He handed it back to the sergeant, then wheeled and punched me, hard, in the stomach. I fell to the floor, gasping to breathe.

“Communist,” he spit out, staring down at me. He turned to the sergeant. “Thanks for telling me about this jerk, Jack.”

“I hate commies,” Sgt. Jack answered. “Just hate ’em.” They walked out together, the rest of the entourage following.

I pulled myself back up onto the bunk, sitting bent over, still breathing hard. Where had I landed? Could I take two years of this place? What the hell just happened? Questions I’d asked before in a different foreign land.

I never saw my orders to Vietnam. A company clerk called out the window to me one morning as I passed by on the sidewalk. “You’re getting orders,” he said as I walked over to him. “Headquarters Command, Saigon. Cushiest job you could get.” He was back from a tour there, on his way to being a lifer. “My buddy in Personnel said to give you guys a heads up. They’re cutting your orders later today.”

I tracked down the clerk’s buddy in Personnel, verified that they were, indeed, readying my orders to Vietnam, and strolled back to my company. My commanding officer was big, fit and trim, his uniform always crisp and starched, his boots shiny and spotless. We privates called him “John Wayne.” Two tours in Vietnam had boosted him to captain, and he was taking a career step, on his way to Army-sponsored university training at a college in the Midwest.

I was standing at attention in front of his desk. He was staring at my shirtsleeve, which was stripe-less, though my rank that day was the highest it was ever to be. One enters military service as a private E-1, and upon completion of Basic, receives an automatic promotion to private E-2. But I hadn’t sewn the two yellow stripes onto my sleeve.

“At ease, Private. What do you need?”

“I’m getting orders tomorrow, sir, to Vietnam. I can’t accept.”

He stared, at me or through me, I don’t know. “Why not?’

“I just spent two years in a war zone in Ethiopia,” I said. “War doesn’t solve problems. So I can’t accept the Army’s orders.”

“That’s it?”

“Yes, sir, that’s it.”

He stared at the ceiling, stared out a window to my right, stared at the phone on his desk. “Not in my goddam command,” he muttered. “Not on my copy book.” He turned his head towards the office door, to my left. “Sergeant,” he yelled. “Get JAG on the phone. Now!” We stared at each other, listening for the sergeant to complete the call to the judge adjutant general’s office of staff lawyers.

“I’m sending a young private down,” the John Wayne shot into the phone. “Fix him up as a conscientious objector. Get it done. Today!” He called his sergeant to come in. “Get him over to JAG and get it done now.” He stared straight at me “Nobody refuses an order in my command.”

The road to conscientious objector status in the military is long in time and tedious in detail, and I failed it, twice. Dylan had it so right. There’s no success like failure, and failure’s no success. Perhaps that should be a Peace Corps mantra.

The captain kept his copy book unblotted, and his actions postponed my orders to Vietnam instantly. He dealt himself a few weeks to pack up and leave for college but the orders remained, suspended over me like a Damoclean sword for the next fifteen months. If for an instant I dropped out of CO status, the Vietnam orders took immediate effect, and my landing in Saigon would be the next day.

But at Ft Ord, I was now in the limbo of “holdover” — like a stateless person, housed and fed, but with no real assignment. My daily task was to wait for paperwork to make its ponderous way through bureaucracy, periodically required to appear, speak my piece, sign a document, and wait for the next summons. Thousands of Peace Corps Volunteers, sent to towns to search out their own projects, would find my status familiar.

We are at a juncture now where I will introduce my army village. The duty clerk, mysteriously, found it humorous to assign me as a janitor to the company chapel, so first there is the chaplain, Captain Reverend Nice, a kind, ineffectual man who couldn’t attract a flock; his appointment book was ever empty. Each day, he left the chapel at lunch, and only rarely returned in the afternoons. Rather, he stayed home in the post’s family housing, minding his children while his wife went to her job as a florist’s assistant.

There is straight-laced Corporal Smack, with close-cropped hair and bookish, dark-rimmed glasses, whose job it was to schedule the chaplain’s appointments. Formerly a Los Angeles drug dealer, he had been stopped in his VW van for a “hippie search”, and the police, in their delight at finding several kilos of marijuana and some baggies of LSD, had overlooked the heroin crammed up under the dashboard. Cpl. Smack sold the heroin for quick cash, his father hired a private detective, and the detective bribed the judge handling his case to sentence Smack to three years military service.

There is Never-Quite-AWOL Sleeper, who snuck into the chapel each night to sleep on a funky mattress in the attic. Pvt. Sleeper was bucking for a discharge, generally by being deliberately incompetent. He joined my village a few months in, after I uncovered a quirk in Army regs. A soldier not at his post cannot be charged with AWOL so long as he can show that he was on the base. So each day, Pvt. Sleeper would sign in for a meal at one of the many mess halls on the fort, and each night, he would climb a tree at the back of the chapel, slip through an attic window I kept unlocked, and sleep in peace. During the day, he would walk the fort’s streets, never at his assigned post, appearing for sick bay at the hospital, buying cigarettes at the PX, or booking an afternoon appointment with Chaplain Nice, which Cpl. Smack would log and then cancel, noting that the chaplain was called away.

There is Big J, a formidable black soldier by appearance, but the gentlest of souls, whom I recruited to the village by persuading Rev. Nice that putting the chapel shipshape was a two-man job. Big J bunked in the holdover barracks with me, where he was daily persecuted by a malicious sergeant who preyed on his deep religious faith.

As Peace Corps Volunteers, we are trained to work with the people of our town, to organize the resources of our community, to incorporate the local traditions into our projects. It was not so different in the Army. The military, in 1969 at least, still observed the tradition of sanctuary. Its police did not enter a chapel to arrest a non-violent, wanted soldier. The JAG office, I observed when Captain John Wayne dispatched me to it, housed a complete set of military regulations, two long rows of loose leaf binders racked down the center of a barracks-turned-office building. I also saw, as I twiddled my thumbs there that first visit, that the Army lawyers left en masse for lunch at noon, and dribbled back in after one-o-clock. For an hour, it was unmanned – and unlocked.

It was there I discovered that Sleeper could not be charged with AWOL (a stockade level offense) so long as he could prove he was on base. I looked it up after he wandered into the chapel one afternoon to escape a long, dreary afternoon of wind and rain. Rev. Nice had left for the day, the chalice was shiny and gleaming on the alter, and I was napping on one of the pews. Cpl. Smack was in the reception room by the front door, playing an Iron Butterfly album on a phonograph he kept shut in a cupboard when the chaplain was in the building.

If there is a song that was the dissidents’ anthem at Ft. Ord, it was “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vidak,” a drunken rock band singing “in the garden of eden” about as intelligibly as we may have sounded trying to sing along with the folk songs of our host country nationals. It was playing the Saturday night the fort had been locked down in response to thousands of protesters gathering outside the gates for Armed Farces Day. Confined to barracks, my company had pushed the bunks to the walls, spread mattresses across the floor, and cranked up “Iron Butterfly” on continuous loop. Bongs passed, joints circulated and pill poppers lay stretched out in oblivion. Outside, blue light suddenly flashed through one of the windows, a mini-Fillmore light show. “Far out,” someone said. “Groovy.”

Two MP’s walked in, their jeep’s blue lights still flashing, their spit-shined boots clunking hard on the linoleum floor. They surveyed the room. One of them approached a bonger group sitting cross-legged on the mattresses. The MP grabbed a bong, examined it, and inhaled deeply.His companion intercepted a fat, newly-lit joint. The bonger took another hit. “Wowie,” he said. “What dope’s that?’

“From Nam,” a floor-sitter said.The bonger MP handed the bong back and looked over at the other MP. “Ready?” His friend held up the fat joint.“Yeah. Let’s ride.”They walked out, back to patrol for protesters who might have broken through the high chain link fence that separated the fort from the highway.

Civilian groups had organized the protest to coincide with the army’s annual Armed Forces Day open house, but my chapel dissidents forced the fort closed. We mimeographed stacks of invitations for Armed Farces Day, with blanks to fill in. Using lists collected from company clerks, we filled in names and building numbers: “Sgt Smith invites you to visit him in Building 19, Room C for a discussion about peace and war. Come as you are.” We provided tall stacks of the invitations to the civilian leaders, to be handed to the protesters as they entered the fort. When the army sniffed out the plan, they slammed the gates shut and posted guards, leaving thousands of protesters howling on the highway berm.

I have leaped far ahead in these events, but as we learned in our villages, understanding alien cultures is not always linear. Harassed soldier-dissidents came naturally to the sanctuary of the chapel, an oasis in the lifer storm that swirled outside, and I had few duties to perform. By eight each morning, I had run the vacuum, polished the chalice, dusted the altar, banged the ceiling to awaken never-awol-Sleeper, sipped some sacramental grape juice, and brewed the chaplain’s coffee Once Rev. Nice was seated in his office, coffee mug full, a Stars and Stripes laid out on his desk, Big J and I would grab some tools – a shovel, rakes, shears, a step ladder – and discuss outside Rev. Nice’s door our plan for ship-shaping the chapel that day, landscaping, cleaning, patching, whatever we could think of. Then we’d slip quietly up the choir loft steps, a loft that was never used because the chapel had no choir.

So the loft became my office. A troubled trooper would come in, Cpl. Smack would greet him and chat, then direct him appropriately. In rare instances, someone truly wanted Christian counseling, and Smack would send him in to see Rev. Nice, occasional events that brought to the chaplain’s dour surface a cheerfulness that caused him to sit high in his chair, to straighten his backbone, and to let his droopy eyes liven. I genuinely liked Rev. Nice.

But I took over his chapel anyway.

It is not that I neglected my own cause, but that the wait times for advancing my personal paperwork were considerable. Regs required me to pass five interviews: the company commander, the company chaplain, an Army lawyer, the brigade commander, and finally a Pentagon general, in exactly this sequence. An appointment for one interview could not be made until the previous expert had issued his opinion on me, thumbs up or thumbs down. Hurry up and wait, then hurry up and wait again.

I waited, housed in a barracks overseen by Sgt. Shot-Thrice, a draftee wounded three times in firefights in Vietnam. “Three times is enough,” he told me. “Those bullets out there got my name on ’em.” The third bullet he’d taken had sliced away his eyebrow, ripping across his forehead deep enough to expose bone, millimeters from splashing his brains into the Mekong jungle. The army had ordered him back to Vietnam for a potential fourth, a bullet which Sgt. Shot-Thrice did not doubt would find him.

“You got to help me,” he pleaded. I was midway through my military service by then, and my reputation among draftees as someone who could navigate the relentless army bureaucracy was spiraling across the fort. Sgt. Shot-Thrice had grown up as a big city gang member; his draft notice had lifted him out of a situation he did not know how to escape. We came from cultures as different as that which I had found in my Peace Corps village in Ethiopia.

“You’re trusting a white guy?” I asked him.

“I know you’re screwing off everyday,” he said. We were sitting in the choir loft at the chapel, the chaplain long gone for the afternoon. At the other end of the church, a large Jesus hung crucified over the alter. “You got some kind of white-guy cause thing going. So, yeah. I’ll trust you.”

The food in Ethiopia is spicy hot, spiked with berbere, a finely ground combination of red peppers and other spices. It is eaten right-handed, dipping pancake-like injera into a spicy stew; the stew gets on one’s fingers as well as the injera. A novice to the culture rubs his eye once with his eating hand, and the resulting pain is so instant, so in-that-moment involuntarily blinding, that Volunteers can go the rest of their tours never repeating the mistake.

“Come on to the mess hall,” I said. “We’ll use that big scar over your eye.”  The plan was simple.  We sat at a table in the empty mess and I unscrewed the cap from a pepper shaker. I poured some ground pepper into each side pocket of his jerry jacket. “Reach in your pockets and grind some of that pepper between your thumb and forefinger.” He gazed straight at me while he did it. “Now make sure you don’t have any pepper grains on your fingers, then rub your eyes.” And he did.

His eyes shut down immediately. He swore. “Open your eyes,” I said. “Now! Do it!”

He tried. He couldn’t. I reached over and pushed open the eyelid below his battle scar. He knocked my hand away. The eye closed back tight, and I explained the plan.  The next day we would show up at the base hospital, dosing his eyes just before we got in sight so as to get him straight to emergency doctors.  Each time the pepper began to wear off, he was to rub his eyes again, making sure no grains got into his eyes, only the fumes. After a while, he was to let the pepper wear off, do whatever the doctors advised, and come back to barracks. In a couple days, we’d repeat the operation.

“Sooner or later, they’ll decide it’s all in your head. Just piss and moan about having nightmares of when you got shot across your eye,” I said. And so Sgt. Shot-Thrice did. And so the doctors decided he had a psychosomatic condition. And so they asked him where he wanted assigned for his next post. And so he was assigned to a fort near his girl friend’s home.  And thus, even a simple Peace Corps eating experience came home to serve the cause of peace.

Unlike a Peace Corps village, peopled by families with ties to the area that stretch back generations, Ft. Ord was transient. It existed to move troops. In, through, out – my chapel clientele of disaffected soldiers was ever-changing as the army vacuumed in the nation’s youth and shaped them up for foreign service at breakneck speed, trampling rights, blind-eyeing injustices, and hooyah-ing past the simmering, ever-deepening dissidence of a generation. But both the village and the fort were governed by entrenched authorities resistant to change, and as I shepherded the paperwork of my refusal of orders, I was meeting the authorities, and the times were undeniably changing.

There is a cherished belief in civilian America that we are innocent until proven guilty, a cultural value so deeply embedded that we do not commonly question it.  But military justice is the opposite. Facing court-martial, you are presumed guilty, and it is up to you to prove your innocence.  The two systems are entirely separate, and it is this gap between the two systems that I bridged.  I took my military case into the civilian justice system, and I won. But first I had to fail, and then fail again.  Law is curious stuff.

It had not been done before, and by “it,” I mean using habeas corpus to shift a military case into federal court to gain justice.  Simply put, habeas corpus means someone has control of your body, and you seek to remedy that through the law. Almost simultaneously with my refusing orders to Vietnam, a judge had ruled that a soldier could seek redress in federal courts. However, the soldier had to first exhaust all means of relief within the military system.  The change was so new, no soldier had ever tried it.

When my refusal had been diverted to conscientious objection by the John Wayne captain, my path to exhausting my remedies within the army had been defined. I had first to fill an application that included an essay about my conscientious objection to war. Upon handing that in, I was interviewed four times, first by the John Wayner. He looked at my application, snorted, and wrote “No” on it. “Get out of my office,” he said.

Next up was the chaplain, where I scored a weak “yes”.  At legal, I got “no” along with a one page rebuttal of my essay.  At brigade, it was another “no”, and my paperwork was sent to the Pentagon, from which I fully expected a final “no”, and which I got.  Failure #1 was in the books, and I was six months in the army.

In cases of denial, the army allowed the denied a second opportunity to run the gauntlet, and this I had to do to qualify for submitting habeas corpus to federal court. But just as we had begun to find our way around in our Peace Corps villages after several months, I was becoming more adept at army culture.  My new commanding officer, a wounded Vietnam vet who walked with a limp and a cane, needed someone to talk to.  “I’m a member of the ACLU,” he announced, my application in front of him.  “I’ll defend your right to free speech any day.”

I wondered if he remembered that a few days previous he had written me up on an Article 15 (an executive punishment process).

“Our rights – that’s what I was fighting for in Vietnam.”

He had busted me once more back down to a Pvt. E-1.

“We disagree on a lot things,” he said, glancing down at my application.

And he had fined me a chunk of my subsistence pay – I was paid higher as a PCV.

“But I wouldn’t have you in my platoon.  You’ve got to trust everybody when you’re in the jungle.  Trust!  You’ve got to have trust.”

Then he had sent me out to the company street with a push broom to use up my evening.

“I wouldn’t want you over there where some captain had to trust you.  I wouldn’t wish that on him.”

About every fifteen minutes, until it got dark, he had peeked out the office door to make sure I was still stroking the street.

“So I’m going to approve your application.”   And he did.

The chaplain interview, with Rev. Nice  a few weeks later, went smoothly. He sipped a second cup of coffee.  I brewed a tea-bag tea, and after an inconsequential conversation, Approval 2 was mine.  I even typed it up for the reverend.  Then it was on to legal, the toughest approval to obtain, and for which I studied.  Several days each week, I slipped into the empty lunchtime JAG offices and read case studies, learning key phrases that would make it a chore for the lawyer conducting the interview to deny me.  The strategy worked, and a few days after my interview, I received approval #3.  My confidence began to ride high.

The 4th approval, brigade, was normally a formality, an assertion that the previous interviews had been rigorously and fairly conducted. Three approvals almost always garnered a fourth, and it was rare that the Pentagon review ran counter to the brigade commander’s finding. So I had confidence – until I was informed that the brigade commander had a busy schedule and I was to interview with a substitute.

By this time my reputation as a dissident had spread widely through the fort, and there were growing cohorts of lifers with whom my progress in gaining CO status did not sit well. Petty harassments multiplied and more weeks than not, I was serving the maximum punishments allowable under Article 15. But as Volunteers know, pushing against the established order has consequences, Peace Corps is not a popularity contest, and change is not without obstacles.

My imminent obstacle was the brigade commander’s hand-picked substitute, his friend, brought in as a consultant, with a degree from Harvard Divinity. We met in an airless office on a hot California day, starting early morning and talking until the late afternoon. When the hired gun did not hear what he needed, he brought me back for a second day, his questions ranging ever wider. His disapproval, when it came, was short and to the point. “Subject traveled in Bulgaria and met Communists. His objections are political, not conscientious.” Thus, my second failure was ensured, and upon receiving the Pentagon’s denial, I had legally exhausted my military avenues of redress.

At the Federal Courthouse in San Francisco, I filed Habeas Corpus. I filed In Propria Persona. I filed In Forma Pauperis. The judge to whom I pleaded my case as a poor person lectured me on being a spendthrift, but when I pointed out to him that the court fees to file my motions were more than my month’s wages, he signed the order designating me a pauper. The US Attorney on whom I served the Habeas Corpus motion later gained fame as the prosecutor who convicted Patty Hearst as a terrorist. The JAG officer at Ft. Ord on whom I served the stay (a standstill order) I obtained that day later did prison time as one of Nixon’s “dirty tricksters”.

However, I almost failed. The court of the Northern District of California moved swiftly compared to the army’s glacial pace. My day of reckoning arrived. I stood at the bar of the court, the government’s defense attorney to my left, and an aging judge looking down at us. A small gallery at the back of the court room was packed with friends and interested parties. America’s attorney stated that the US had nothing to add to the briefs that were already filed. The judge looked at me.“Actually, I don’t know the law in this kind of case,” he said.  “If you want a decision, take it to appeals court.” And I was  dismissed, washed out, done. Maybe that is why the precedent I was setting went publicly unnoticed. Then again, maybe the reason is that at almost the same time I stood before the judge, the brother of Black Panther radical George Jackson was shooting his way through the Marin County Courthouse just across the bay, a bloody headline grabbing cause celeb in which Angela Davis quickly became a high profile suspect.

But the devil is in the details. The day I lodged my case, I filed In Propria Persona; that is, I represented myself without a lawyer. I also filed as a pauper and immediately upon the on-call judge granting me that status, I asked for a court-appointed lawyer. At the time, the law surrounding court-appointed counsel was in great flux, and the judge demurred. The request and its refusal lurked in the background while the US Attorney and I dueled with briefs and counter-briefs until our day in court.

“Meet me outside the exit door,” the US Attorney whispered to me as we turned away from the judge. “This isn’t what I wanted.” Outside the courtroom, he explained further. “We don’t want this going to appeals court. If you file a Motion for Reconsideration, I’ll take it the judge myself.”  Not only had I validated the right of soldiers to be heard in civilian court via habeas corpus, but my complaint now carried the potential for soldiers to gain the right to court-appointed attorneys.  Given the times and the level of dissidence among draftees, flood gates would have opened.

A few days later, I filed the motion, and the US Attorney kept his word. In chambers, he explained the government’s position to the judge, got his signature, and personally phoned me the news. I was standing at an army desk. I gripped the phone receiver tightly and pressed it hard to my ear. My knees buckled and I held onto the edge of the desk to stay standing. “Say again?” I asked.

“The judge signed. You’re out. Good luck to you.” Paperwork churned, mail flowed, and a few weeks later, I walked out the gates, free to navigate the rest of my life.

Karl Drobnic (Ethiopia, 1966-68)

Today, habeas corpus is standard practice for soldiers seeking legal remedy to truncate their tours of duty. Around and about every major base are lawyers who specialize in such cases. In 1970, however, it was an untested avenue of redress, and of the role I played, I will say that within the brew and ferment of our differences, we are a nation of laws, with procedures available to all, and that we can listen and respond respectfully, despite contention, as we trek our slow national march in the direction of our better angels. But could I have traveled that arduous path at Ft. Ord without having the Peace Corps experience in my knapsack? I do not think so.

Who is Karl Drobnic

Karl Drobnic (Ethiopia 1966-68)

“I was a secondary school teacher in Goba, the provincial capital of Bale Province, about 150 miles south of the capital of Addis Ababa. There was no all-weather road at the time, but during the dry seasons, there was a plane from Addis Ababa once a week. I taught EFL to grades 8-12. As a school project, we built a wooden foot bridge over the Tigona River, which many students had to cross to get to the school. The first 18 months in Goba were notable for the shifta rebellion going on in the Bale Mountains. The battles were often nearby, and we were under curfew most months until late in my service. It also rained incessantly through the first two dry seasons that I was there, so the scheduled plane often couldn’t land, and the way out was by horseback over the mountains to an all-weather road, a 2-day journey to Addis Ababa.

“Subsequent to Peace Corps and the events described in “Bringing It All Back Home,” I was a Fulbright lecturer in Sumatra. My focus in Padang was to qualify intelligentsia and professionals for the numerous Cold-War scholarships to English-speaking nations available to Indonesians. I was able to get 30-40 Sumatrans on planes to pursue degree programs in the US and England during my two years there.

After Sumatra, I landed at Oregon State University, and had a 25-year career on the faculty teaching ESL and administering international contracts. I was an early adopter of the “English for Specific Purposes” methodology, which helped change the teaching methods in ESL/EFL to descriptive from prescriptive (the oral/aural methodology favored by Peace Corps trainers in the ’60s). My contributions to the field were the subject of a historical retrospective in the English for Specific Purposes Journal in 2020. (Swales, John (October 2020). “ESP serial publications before The ESP Journal/English for Specific Purposes: Recollections and reflections of an old-timer.” English for Specific Purposes. 60: 4–8.)

My university career included stints with institutions in Sri Lanka, Peru, and North Yemen, where I was a USAID Chief of Party for a project that built a faculty of agriculture for Yemen’s national university. After retiring from OSU, I published an investment newsletter that was frequently cited in the national press (Barrons, Wall St. Journal, Dow Jones News, etc) throughout the ’90s.

I am spending my retirement years in Oregon, which has been home-base for the past 50 years.”



Leave a comment
  • Persistence, integrity, and moral fortitude are qualities that help PCVs but not military draftees who attempt to question authority. Humanity can be positively served in many ways. Thank you for your service, Karl.

    • You”re welcome, Mary Lou. There is much I respect about our military. For many in the ranks, it can be a way out of desperate situations.

    • Thank you. This is fascinating. You certainly were able to grasp the legal implications of what you wanted do. I remember that time so well. As a woman, I was not subject to the Draft. But so many young men were. I remember that men could be drafted at 18, sent to Vietnam at 19 and be dead by 20 and would not have been able to vote until they were 21, That was so unfair.

      At about the same as you were working on your legal case, the 26the amendment giving 18 years old the right to vote, was passing quickly through the states and became law in July of 1971. Nixon had already “retired Hersey as head of the Selective Service and the lottery was in effect to lessen some of the constant suspense and worry about the Draft.

      1972 was the first year 18 year olds could vote and they voted in the Nixon landslide. The Draft was suspended in 1973. We have had a Voluntary military ever since. And between the final withdraw from Vietnam and 9/11, the
      US has really not been involved in large scale warfare. This not to lessen the impact of what you did, but the times “they were achanging”.

  • Thank you for your service both as a Peace Corps Volunteer and a soldier who forged a way for all soldiers to get justice.
    Did you have any legal training before being drafted?

    • No, Joanne, I didn’t. I’d never even been in a courtroom. A Legal Aid lawyer taught me how to use a law library and gave me a sheaf of the blank legal paper that briefs are written on. He also let me read some briefs so that I learned how a brief is structured. But he was not allowed to represent soldiers.

      I had access to two law libraries, one of which subscribed to a newsletter that summarized cases involving draft law and induction. Draft boards had been unaccountable for so long that they had violated rights in many and multiple ways, and there were many cases going through the courts. Those cases narrowed down my search for relevant Federal laws, but none involved soldiers attempting habeas corpus.

      • Thank you, Karl. It has just occurred to me. I have another question for you. If the “Draft” had not been suspended by 1973, do you think your legal victory could have allowed all other men who were Drafted to use your case to be able to avoid being drafted? Could you have brought down the Draft?

  • That’s an interesting question that never occurred to me. If the result of an appeal had been that draftees were entitled to court-appointed lawyers, then courts would have become clogged and the military burdened with thousands of sidelined draftees seeking redress. But what a long-shot.

    The military already was seriously game-planning for a move to an all-volunteer army. The march of technology was making it too time-expensive to train draftees in evolving specialties. It took too much time to train specialists that were going to be out the door in two years.

    Another factor was the poor reading skills of many draftees. The military desired to offer career and pay opportunities that would attract more academically qualified recruits. That went hand-in-hand with the advances in military technology being developed and deployed.

    Cost of a lawyer: There were lawyers around Ft. Ord who went to the stockade and offered to get prisoners freed/discharged for $1,500 starting fee. That was a huge sum in 1969. So access to court-appointed attorneys would have certainly changed the dynamic.

    • Thank you. It was a very important time in military history. I think the Selective Service commission had lowered the standard on education and IQs in order to fulfil manpower needs. That may have complicated training. I think your court case should appear in any such objective history.

  • Thank you for sharing a most interesting informative reading. I am overwhelmed with a proud realization of the meaningful and important roles , as well as adventurous life of my Uncle, Karl Drobnic.

  • I was one of your English language students at OSU during the first half of 1975.
    I still remember something you told me when I asked about when would you consider that we had enough.
    Your answer was along the lines of: “The day you come in the morning and tell me that you had a dream in English”.

    I just read the above and I find your stand against the war admirable, to say the least. I wish I had known this background then.

    • Hello, Ali

      Are you Ali Al-Easa from Saudi Arabia? Ali Al-Mohgrabi from Libya? …???

      There were so many Arab students coming to the US in 1975.

      I’m happy to hear from you, Ali.

  • Hello Karl
    Ali Irhouma. I was one of a group of 24 students from Libya.
    I must say that you have got good memory to remember students’ names from those early times.
    I am pleased to hear from you too.

    • Ali,
      I remember you, and your group, very well. Libya has been through so much since that time, and I’ve often wondered what became of all of you when reading news about Libya. Please e-mail me at one of my private e-mail addresses:

      I look forward to hearing more from you.

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