STEVE EDER and DAVE PHILIPPS
Kitty Bennett contributed research.
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 military service as 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 Vietnam. The others were for education.
His experience during the 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. In an emotional 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.”
Trump’s public statements about his draft experience sometimes conflict with his Selective Service records, and he is often hazy in recalling details.
In an interview with The New York Times last 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 draft officials, who granted him the medical exemption. He could not remember the doctor’s name.
“I had a doctor that gave me a letter — a very strong letter on the heels,” Trump said in the interview.
Asked to provide The Times with a copy of the letter, which he had obtained after his fourth student deferment, 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.
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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 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.
In the 2015 biography “The Truth About Trump,” the author, Michael D’Antonio, described interviewing Trump, who at one point slipped off a loafer to display a tiny bulge on his heel. And during a news conference last year, Trump could not recall which heel had been involved, prompting his campaign to release a statement saying it was both.
Trump, who has hailed his health as “perfection,” said the heel spurs were “not a big problem, but it was enough of a problem.”
“They were spurs,” he said. “You know, it was difficult from the long-term walking standpoint.”
In December, his longtime personal physician, Dr. Harold Bornstein, announced that Trump had “no significant medical problems” over four decades and that, if elected, he “will be the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency.” Bornstein made no mention of the bone spurs but did note the appendectomy from Trump’s childhood.
The medical deferment meant Trump, who had just completed the undergraduate real estate program at the Wharton School of Finance and Commerce at the University of Pennsylvania, could follow his father into the development business, which he was eager to do.
The story of Trump’s draft record has been reviewed by other publications, starting in 2011, when The Smoking Gun published his Selective Service documents. But a Times examination of his history, including interviews with Trump and experts on the era, revealed new details.
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 television 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 graduated from Wharton 18 months before the lottery — the first in the United States in 27 years — was held.
The fact that a candidate seeking the presidency received military deferments or otherwise avoided fighting in Vietnam is not unusual. 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 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.”
Even if his views on Vietnam are broadly shared today, both his record and his statements on the war have proved fraught for Trump during his campaign. Last summer, he faced a backlash when he declared that John McCain, the Republican senator who had been a prison of war during Vietnam, was “not a war hero,” explaining, “I like people who weren’t captured.” Then a series of audio clips surfaced from the 1990s, including one in which Trump told Howard Stern, the radio show host, that avoiding sexually transmitted diseases while dating “is my personal Vietnam.”
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, at the local draft office 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, in the Bronx, and then as a transfer student at in the real estate program at the Wharton School, in Philadelphia.
He received subsequent student deferments during his sophomore, junior and senior years.
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At Fordham, Trump commuted from his parents’ home in Queens and played squash, football and tennis at the intramural level. He remembered Fordham for its “good sports.”
At Wharton, Trump began preparing in earnest for his career in real estate by buying and selling fixer-upper town houses in Pennsylvania and driving home to New York on weekends to work for his father.
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.
At Penn and other universities, Vietnam dominated discussions. Trump said Wharton, with its business focus, had been somewhat different. Although he “hated the concept of the war,” he said, he did not speak out against it.
“I was never a fan of the Vietnam War,” he said. “But I was never at the protest level, either, because I had other things to do.”
© 2016 New York Times News Service