Bill Clinton got his first taste of the military on the playing fields of Georgetown University, as a college freshman in the fall of 1964, a time when the political battle on campuses was Lyndon Johnson versus Barry Goldwater and Vietnam was a tiny, distant country.

Like other young men in those days, Clinton had signed up for the Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC), which combined classroom study of military science with the rudiments of drill. "We would meet once a week on Tuesday morning at quarter to eight at the football field and we would drill for about an hour," recalled Phil Plascencia, a New York businessman who said he was Clinton's cadet company commander that fall.

Clinton's ROTC experience lasted only one semester, after which the Air Force program at Georgetown was restricted to juniors and seniors, and within five years of entering college, he would write that he had come to loathe the military.

In broad strokes, his journey from freshman ROTC cadet to war protester was no more extraordinary than those of other young men of his generation, as the escalation of the war in Vietnam brought an explosion of anger on college campuses, along with struggles of conscience, conviction and expediency to avoid the jungles of Southeast Asia.

But his journey has since become anything but ordinary, as Clinton, the first of his generation to be nominated for president, struggles to erase doubts about his actions more than two decades ago, and equally important, his explanations of those actions since then. Both the inconsistencies in Clinton's statements as well as unresolved questions continue to plague his candidacy: Did he receive special treatment, skillfully play the odds or was he simply lucky?

His failure to serve in Vietnam, to serve in any branch of the military during Vietnam, puts him with the majority of men of his age. Based on the evidence, he broke no laws in avoiding service.

But the Republicans, even many who never served in the military or, like Vice President Quayle, escaped Vietnam through the National Guard or the Reserves, have concluded Clinton's draft story can be turned into a metaphor for character and credibility -- traits President Bush and others argue are essential in picking a president. Clinton counters that he has told the truth and that he received no special treatment.

Clinton's draft record for the 21 months between March 1968 and the draft lottery in December 1969 has long raised questions. How was he able to avoid being called for his pre-induction physical for 10 1/2 months after being reclassified 1-A? How could he be 1-A for 17 months during a period of large draft calls and never get called? Did he get into an ROTC program at the University of Arkansas in the summer of 1969 without telling officials there he had already received an induction notice? How could he get a deferment from the University of Arkansas ROTC program that summer when he planned to return to Oxford that same fall?

What follows is Clinton's story as it is now known, based on his draft records, the accounts of his friends and enemies, his own recollections and the information that has been turned up by various news organizations over the years -- along with the inconsistencies and questions that remain.

Clinton's Story

"I've always been interested in and supportive of the military," Clinton said last December. "That is something, you know, in some ways I wish I'd been a part of it. I wound up just going through the lottery and it was just a pure fluke that I wasn't called."

Clinton made these comments in an interview with The Washington Post on Dec. 16, 1991, almost two months before the draft became an issue in the presidential campaign and before the revelation of a letter he wrote in December 1969 in which he described how young men like himself "have come to find themselves still loving their country but loathing the military . . . "

Clinton registered for the draft soon after his 18th birthday on Aug. 19, 1964. On Nov. 17, 1964, he received a 2-S student deferment that would shield him from the draft throughout his undergraduate years.

Clinton came to Washington as a supporter of U.S. policy in Vietnam, but turned against it.

"In the early '60s I was inclined to be for the policy {on Vietnam} because I liked {President} Johnson a lot," Clinton said in the interview last December. "He was a southerner . . . he was pro-civil rights, and I was a southerner and we had always been a patriotic and kind of pro-military part of the country.

"I went to work for {former Arkansas senator J. William} Fulbright {chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee} in '66 and began to read the material and listen to the hearings {about Vietnam} that were being held then. . . . I knew about as much as anybody walking around about the facts. . . . I just knew enough from talking to him {Fulbright} and listening to him and seeing what I saw to know that our policy was doomed to fail and a lot of people were dying for reasons I did not think were warranted. I felt very strongly about it."

Clinton's opposition to the war grew along with gradual escalation of U.S. forces there -- and with the growing monthly draft calls required to meet the military's needs. By early 1968, during Clinton's senior year, there were nearly 500,000 Americans serving in Vietnam, and the military was asking for another 200,000 troops.

For young men like Clinton, college still afforded a comfortable and not dishonorable escape. Even after graduation, Clinton, who by then knew he had been awarded a coveted Rhodes scholarship to study at Oxford University in England, could look forward to continuing deferments as a graduate student.

All that changed on Feb. 16, 1968, when the Johnson administration unexpectedly abolished graduate deferments. To the college graduating class of 1968, the class most directly affected by Johnson's order, the day was remembered as "Black Friday." Within five weeks, Clinton had been reclassified 1-A (eligible for induction), in anticipation of his graduation that summer. Still, he went off to Oxford that fall as planned.

Before the controversy over Clinton's draft record erupted last February, triggered by an article in The Wall Street Journal, Clinton explained the sequence of events this way.

"The rule was there was no graduate deferment, but you got to finish the term you were in, right?" Clinton said in his December interview. "And as it happened, I told them I expected to be called while I was over there {in Oxford} the first year, but they never did."

That statement turned out to be incorrect. A letter produced last spring by Cliff Jackson, who was at Oxford with Clinton and now has become a political opponent, indicated that Clinton had received an induction notice in the spring of 1969 while in England. When confronted with the information, Clinton confirmed it. The induction notice, he said, came after the date for reporting for military service, and when he called his draft board, he was told to ignore the letter and settle the question of military service that summer when he returned to the United States.

"It just never occurred to me to make anything of it one way or the other, since it was just a routine matter," Clinton said in April. Still, it was enough of an event at the time that his Oxford classmates held a mock wake for Clinton, according to a Newsweek article in July.

Back in the United States that summer, Clinton said, he took and failed physical exams for both the Air Force and Navy officer training programs.

"Then I decided to go into the Army ROTC and go to law school {at the University of Arkansas} and then do my service," Clinton continued in the December interview. "The way I got back into the lottery was, at the end of the summer I just decided that was not a good thing to do, you know. I'd already had one good year at Oxford, but by then four of my classmates had died in Vietnam, including a boy that was one of my closest friends when I was a child.

"And so I asked to be put back in the draft," he continued. "I didn't know anything about any lottery and I sure as hell didn't know what my number was. And the guy that was head of the ROTC unit really tried to talk me out of it. He said, 'You don't need to do this.' I said, 'Yeah, I just can't put it off. Call me. Let's go.' I told my draft board. They said okay, if that's what you want to do we'll do it.

"The guy at the draft board then said they were going to call me in January. Then when this lottery came in and I got a high number {311}, I asked what does this mean, and they said we're still going to call everybody but you'll be called in May {1970}. I said okay, I'll be there in May. Then Nixon -- we didn't know any of this at the time -- that was the year Nixon deescalated the war so they never got to that number. It was just a fluke."

Lingering Questions

Throughout the controversy over what happened from March 1968 until the draft lottery in December 1969, Clinton has maintained that he "never received any unusual or favorable treatment" to avoid service. There are conflicting memories and assertions by officials of the Hot Springs, Ark., draft board over what happened.

With or without special treatment, Clinton survived his 1-A classification far longer than most men his age, waited far longer before taking his pre-induction physical, escaped one induction notice (as did others during that period), arranged to enter an ROTC program at the University of Arkansas even though he did not plan to enroll there for a full year, and may have given up his deferment at a time when he had limited exposure to being drafted.

The Los Angeles Times reported this month that Clinton benefited in 1968 and part of 1969 from a lobbying campaign by his uncle, Raymond Clinton, designed to delay the Hot Springs draft board from drafting him. The campaign included finding a slot in a Naval reserve unit.

Clinton said he knew nothing about the lobbying at the time. The article was based in part on the recollections of Henry M. Britt, who was Raymond Clinton's attorney, and who said Clinton must have known, and Trice Ellis Jr., who helped secure the Navy slot. Raymond Clinton is dead.

"The draft issue came up in every election {of Clinton's}," said Betsey Wright, a long-time Clinton aide. "Why is it that only in the first election after Uncle Raymond died {do} we hear about Uncle Raymond's involvement?"

Others have suggested that Clinton was able to go ahead with his studies in England in the fall of 1968 because draft boards gave Rhodes scholars one-year deferments, even when other graduate students were denied such deferments.

By now there is no dispute that after receiving the induction notice in April 1969, the future politician set to avoid the draft legally. Clinton would later write that "the decision not to be a {draft} resister and the related subsequent decisions were the most difficult of my life," and his goal in the summer of 1969 appeared to be to find legal means to stay out of Vietnam.

Cliff Jackson contends that Clinton faced a July 28, 1969, induction date and organized a campaign of political pressure to find an escape hatch. Clinton's campaign said last spring that Clinton had no recollection of the July 28 date, but the timing of his entry into the Army ROTC program at the University of Arkansas suggests he was eager to get the matter resolved as quickly as possible that summer.

Jackson has threatened to escalate his charge that Clinton schemed and brought pressure to avoid the induction date. He claims he has recently unearthed letters from the spring and summer of 1969 that describe, sometimes cryptically, what Clinton was doing "to kill the draft notice, avoid reporting on the scheduled induction date and get a deferment I don't believe he was entitled to receive," all of which Jackson claims he helped to execute in Clinton's behalf through friends in the Arkansas Republican Party.

Jackson said he was willing to share excerpts from the letters with several news organizations, but would not allow disclosure of their contents until they are published by the Los Angeles Times, with whom Jackson has been working for several months. The Washington Post declined to examine the excerpts or the originals under those terms.

Wright, who has reviewed Clinton's draft history, said sarcastically that Jackson "has a far better memory of Oxford days than anyone else there at the time" and discounts that Clinton received any special favors in securing a place in the University of Arkansas Law School, which made his ROTC deferment possible.

"I don't think anything was done for Bill that was . . . uncommon or irregular," she said, charging that Jackson is on a vendetta.

Clinton got his 1-D deferment on Aug. 7, 1969. Instead of entering law school, he returned to Oxford. What happened next remains a matter of confusion. At some point, Clinton decided to make himself eligible for the draft and said in February his stepfather had acted in his behalf to accomplish this. Newsweek, attributing the information to campaign officials, said this all happened in October 1969. Wright, questioned Friday, said she believed it took place in September. The difference is potentially significant.

In September 1969, President Richard M. Nixon, facing turmoil on college campuses, suspended draft calls for November and December of that year and said the October call would be spread out over three months. He also said that if Congress did not act, he would institute a lottery by executive order. On Oct. 1, he announced that anyone in graduate school could complete the full year.

Friends have described Clinton as filled with conflict that fall. Quoting a letter Clinton wrote to another friend, Strobe Talbott of Time Magazine wrote this spring that Clinton described himself as feeling as if he was "running away from something maybe for the first time in my life" and was in "mental torment."

Clinton has said he wrote a letter to the chairman of his draft board on Sept. 12, 1969, but "I never mailed it." If Clinton did not act to give up his deferment until October, he could have known he faced no liability from the draft until the following summer, that he could take his chances with the lottery and find alternative service if he got a low number.

It is not clear when he formally pulled out of the Arkansas ROTC program, since his first direct communication with Col. Eugene Holmes, who headed the program at the university, came in a Dec. 3, 1969, letter, a day after he applied to Yale Law School and two days after the lottery. Clinton thanked Holmes "for saving me from the draft."

Nov. 17, 1964: Classified 2-S (student deferment) while studying at Georgetown University.

March 20, 1968: Reclassified 1-A (eligible for induction) in anticipation of graduation from Georgetown.

Fall 1968: Goes to Oxford University in England as a Rhodes scholar.

Feb. 2, 1969: Passes his pre-induction physical in England.

April 1969: Receives induction notice, which his draft board tells him to ignore because it arrived after his deadline for induction.

Aug 7, 1969: Reclassified 1-D after joining ROTC program at the University of Arkansas, where he planned to enroll in the law school in the fall of 1970.

Fall 1969: Returns to Oxford for second year.

September-October 1969: Decides to make himself eligible for the draft.

Oct. 30, 1969: Is reclassified 1-A.

Dec. 1, 1969: Receives No. 311 in first draft lottery.

Dec. 2, 1969: Applies to Yale Law School.

Dec. 3, 1969: Writes Col. Eugene Holmes at the University of Arkansas ROTC program to explain why he has given up his deferment.