MIST COUNTY, Minn.—After a long career, it is finally time for National Guard Brigadier General James "Lucky" Lawrence to put away his lightly used combat boots. On Friday, he will retire from the Minnesota Guard after a long career in which he avoided service in in four American wars. He couldn't be prouder.
The general, who first enlisted in 1971, is one of the longest-serving soldiers in the entire armed forces. He admits to our reporter, with some embarrassment, that he originally enlisted under age.
"I knew there was a draft on and I really didn't want to go to Vietnam," he says. "So I went to the Guard recruiter and signed up. No one cared that I didn't have a diploma. I lied about my age and no one checked. When I shipped to boot camp I was only 15."
Lawrence served a four-year enlistment as a radio repairman, performing a handful of field exercises during the period where the President Richard Nixon ended the draft. He left the service just as U.S. forces completed their withdrawal from South Vietnam, and the war ended with communist tanks rolling into Saigon.
"I felt screwed over," Lawrence told us. "My time in the guard felt pointless when I realized I never would have gone to Vietnam anyways."
After finishing his GED and then a college degree, Lawrence found a steady job as a wildlife inspector with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. His civilian career went well, but in the early 1980s he decided he need, in his words, an "insurance policy" again.
"Reagan kept talking about the Soviets invading Afghanistan and I was worried we might go fight there," Lawrence recalled. "So I figured, just to be safe, I'd rejoin the guard. That way the Army couldn't touch me if they went off to some little war like Vietnam again."
This time, Lawrence became an officer, commissioning as a second lieutenant in the field artillery, which he figured would be "far behind the lines" if a major war started. His part-time military career took off, and he was eventually promoted to colonel.
The terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001 and their aftermath shocked him.
"What really amazed me was when they mobilized the Air National Guard to do air patrols," he said. "It made me worry that maybe people didn't care if you mobilized the guard anymore. I mean, heck, the American people might be willing to send their lower-middle-class citizen soldiers to fight in the war rather than poor draftees."
"That's not a decision we used to take lightly."
Fortunately for him, in 2003 Lawrence was selected to attend the U.S. Army War College, where senior military leaders are educated for positions of higher responsibility. "My brigade got deployed to Kuwait, so it wouldn't have been so bad," the seasoned soldier muses. "But, anyways, I was studying at Carlisle Barracks so I never had to wear a gas mask in the desert or any of that stuff."
"A lot of my civilian work experience translated directly to the war college. Running an army isn't so different from counting gophers," he says. In 2004, after graduating from the War College with honors, he pinned on the single star of a brigadier general.
Lawrence admits he was "concerned" when President George Bush announced a "surge" U.S. troops into Iraq in 2006.
"I hadn't gotten any orders but it seemed like it could get bad." However, that year he was selected to become the Assistant Adjutant General of the State Guard of Minnesota. "You can't send me to war from this job," Lawrence says with a smile. "They need me running things in Minneapolis. So I stuck with it, even got extended when we had that second surge into Afghanistan in 2010."
"It's been an honor."