Jack Kemp, the Republican candidate for vice president, received a medical exemption in 1961 that allowed him to avoid active duty in the Army while he played quarterback for the San Diego Chargers.
Kemp was a private in the Army Reserve when his unit was called to active duty in the fall of 1961, during the Berlin crisis. But Army doctors, in a decision reviewed at the Pentagon because of Kemp’s prominence as a football player, determined that a shoulder injury made him unfit for duty. He went on to lead the Chargers to a division title that year, passing for 2,686 yards and 15 touchdowns.
Republicans have made military service an issue in the presidential campaign, showcasing Bob Dole’s injuries during World War II and criticizing President Clinton for avoiding service during the Vietnam War.
In San Diego last week, Dole said his military service made him a better American than those who did not serve and he mentioned his service frequently in his acceptance speech Thursday night.
Kemp played professional football for eight more years and suffered a knee injury in 1968. He cited lingering effects from that injury as the reason he had to fly first class at government expense while he was secretary of housing and urban development from 1989 to 1992.
A spokesman for the Dole-Kemp campaign said Friday that Kemp’s exemption came after a routine physical.
“The standard that the Army has on whether someone is able to be called up for active duty is a different standard than the one used every week by professional football teams,” said John Buckley, communications director for the campaign and a former aide to Kemp.
“The football standard was such that if they could physically throw their players onto the field, they were going to do it.” Kemp is not the only athlete to be found unfit for military service. Mickey Mantle, the late New York Yankees star, was classified 4-F and exempted from service during the Korean War because of osteomyelitis, a bone disease. Joe Namath, the former New York Jets quarterback, missed military duty during the Vietnam War because of a knee injury.
Kemp’s medical exemption was reported in the press when it was granted. A 1966 book by Murray Olderman (Prentice-Hall) said Kemp was baited as a draft dodger at the time. The issue was resurrected during Kemp’s brief race for the presidency in 1988, in an article in The Sacramento Bee.
Kemp had joined the Reserves in 1958 and spent part of a year on active duty as a private before starting his professional football career in 1960. He was in the Reserves when his unit, the San Diego-based 977th Transportation Company, was activated for duty on Oct. 15, 1961. President John F. Kennedy had called up reservists after the Berlin Wall was erected in August of that year.
A month before he was activated for duty, Kemp, who is right-handed, had injured his left shoulder while playing football. When Kemp took his physical at the Naval Training Center in San Diego, doctors found swelling and muscle spasms in his left shoulder and said the “voluntary range of motion” was 80 percent, according to Army medical records.
Some Army doctors recommended that he be excused from service because of the injury, according to the records.
Another doctor wrote about Kemp: “Not motivated for active duty.”
Because of his prominence in professional football, Kemp’s case was reviewed by the surgeon general of the Army in Washington.
“The surgeon general, Department of the Army, has requested an orthopedic consultation,” said one document.
“Subject reservist is assigned to an alerted unit and scheduled for active duty. Further this reservist is of national prominence.”
Kemp underwent a second physical at an Army hospital in San Francisco, and the final decision to exempt him was made by the surgeon general’s office. Kemp continued his football career and was regarded as a quarterback with a strong arm and an ability to scramble in the face of pursuers.
Virginia Stephanakis, a spokeswoman for the surgeon general’s office, said it would not have been unusual for an exemption case to be sent to Washington for review.
“It may have been that someone was aware of the sensitivities involved if he was well enough to play football but not healthy enough to serve in the Army,” she said.
Buckley, the campaign spokesman, said: “The Army medical records showed unequivocally that they made the medical decision that Kemp was not in sufficient condition to be called up for active duty.”
Kemp’s roommate on the Chargers in 1961, Ron Mix, a tackle who was later elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, was also a member of the 977th Reserve unit.
Mix was denied a deferment, although he was the sole support of his mother and he spent nearly a year at Fort Lewis, Wash., as a cook, traveling to games on weekends.
“Jack had a legitimate injury,” Mix, now a personal injury lawyer in San Diego, recalled last week.
“He would have 10 or so painkilling shots just to play. It sounds weird, but he could play football and not be fit to serve in the Army.”
Sid Gillman, the Chargers coach at the time, said he did not recall the shoulder injury. He said he remembered Kemp as a quarterback who relied more on strength than strategy.
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