By Celanie Polanick
VALLEY NEWS DISPATCH
Monday, November 3, 2008
When Frank Condelli's draft number came up in 1967, he knew he had to
think of something -- fast -- or he'd be in the thick of the Vietnam
War by the time he was 25.
Instead of submitting to military service, he bolted, became a draft
dodger and started a new life in Canada.
Making the decision to leave New Kensington wasn't easy, but it was
the decision to vote for the first time that took him 30 years.
Because he remained a U.S. citizen, he retained all his rights,
including the right to vote at his most recent stateside address.
But he's never voted, in the U.S. or in Canada -- never, that is, until now.
"The reason I decided to vote this year is that this is a very
important election," Condelli said. "Something has to happen."
So, he registered at his childhood home in New Kensington -- which
has belonged to another family for more than 30 years, he said -- and
sent in his absentee ballot over a week ago. He voted for the
Democratic presidential candidate, Barack Obama.
"I'm not sure he's the saving grace, to tell you the truth," Condelli
said. "I just think it's a big change that might wake some people up."
As much as it might bother some people, Condelli's vote is perfectly
legal, said Jim Montini, Westmoreland County Elections Director. If a
natural-born U.S. citizen wants to vote, he said, the person must
register and not be serving a prison sentence for a felony.
That Condelli can still vote after leaving the U.S. as a draft
resister and not returning for more than 40 years surprises and
angers some people.
Count Robert Wurmb, 53, of New Kensington, president of the American
Legion Post 684 in Arnold, among them. Condelli should not be allowed
to vote, said the Marine veteran who enlisted at age 18 and served in Vietnam.
"If you can't fight for your country when you're called up, you
should lose a lot of your privileges," he said.
For Americans living abroad, voter turnout has traditionally been
very low, according to a study by the federal Election Assistance
Commission. Of the estimated 6 million potential voters living or
deployed on military service outside the country, fewer than 1
million requested ballots in 2006, the study said. And fewer than a
third of those were returned.
The commission believes that number will be substantially higher this
year, according to Army Lt. Col. Les' Melnyk, a spokesman for the
Department of Defense, which administers the Federal Voting
Assistance Program, which facilitates overseas voting.
Under the Selective Service law, draft evasion was a federal crime
and those who did it often went to jail. Anyone who returned to the
United States faced immediate arrest.
According to John Hagan, a noted author and researcher on draft
evasion and the Vietnam War, about 50,000 young Americans left the
U.S. to avoid the Vietnam War, most going to Canada. About half of
them were draft-age men; the other half were women who left with them.
"To a high degree, this migration involved some of the best and the
brightest young people in American society," Hagan said.
Hagan himself left the U.S. in 1969 at age 21 to avoid the war and
attended graduate school in Alberta. He returned to the U.S. after
President Jimmy Carter issued an amnesty declaration in 1977.
Now the John D. MacArthur Professor of Sociology and Law at
Northwestern University, Hagan estimates about half of those who fled
remained in Canada.
Many who stayed were like Condelli, who started a business and raised
"When they came here, they were all trying to hide out, and now they
don't care," Condelli said. "They've got lives, families, jobs,
businesses. They could care less about getting involved in all that
stuff. They're not all wanting to come back to the United States."
While living in Canada, Condelli has been motorcycle racer, auto
mechanic and owned a goat farm. He currently restores vintage
Volkswagen buses in Almonte, Ontario.
He returns to New Kensington yearly to visit his mother and sister.
The sister, Pat Condelli, declined to discuss her brother, saying the
whole experience had been very painful for her family -- and remains
so, even 40 years later.
Celanie Polanick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 724-226-4702.