Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld apologized to veterans for remarks he made on the military draft that he said had been misconstrued by some as disparaging their service and sacrifice.

Rumsfeld issued a written apology Tuesday evening just hours after three Democrats in Congress criticized his statement that draftees had added "no value, no advantage" to the U.S. military because they served for such short periods of time.

The letter signed by Sens. Tom Daschle of South Dakota and John Kerry of Massachusetts and Rep. Lane Evans of Illinois argued that Rumsfeld's remarks at a Pentagon news conference were offensive to veterans.

"We are shocked, frankly, that you were apparently willing to dismiss the value of the service of millions of Americans, tens of thousands of whom gave their lives for their country in World War I, World War II, Korea and Vietnam," they wrote.

Rumsfeld made his comments Jan. 7 in response to a reporter's question about an effort by some in Congress to reinstate the draft. Rumsfeld, 70, who served in the active duty Navy from 1954-57, said he saw no need for a draft because the all-volunteer system that replaced conscription in the 1970s works better.

"If you think back to when we had the draft, people were brought in, they were paid some fraction of what they could make in the civilian manpower market because they were without choices," Rumsfeld said.

"Big categories were exempted -- people that were in college, people that were teaching, people that were married. It varied from time to time, but there were all kinds of exemptions. And what was left was sucked into the intake, trained for a period of months, and then went out, adding no value, no advantage, really, to the United States armed services over any sustained period of time, because the churning that took place, it took enormous amount of effort in terms of training, and then they were gone."

Veterans groups also objected to Rumsfeld's remarks.

Ronald F. Conley, national commander of the American Legion, wrote to the defense secretary asking that he retract his words and apologize to draftees' families.

"There are 58,229 names inscribed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington," Conley wrote. "Both draftees and volunteers alike are listed among the wall's honored dead. Their sacrifice was,

indeed, valuable."

In his written apology Tuesday, Rumsfeld described his remarks on draftees as "not eloquently stated."

He said he had not meant to say draftees added no value while they were serving. "They added great value. I was commenting on the loss of that value when they left the service."

Rumsfeld said he had no intention of disparaging the service of draftees.

"I always have had the highest respect for their service, and I offer my full apology to any veteran who misinterpreted my remarks."

When Rumsfeld spoke to a convention of the Retired Officers Association on Monday he made no mention of the draft and no one in the audience who posed questions after the speech mentioned the Jan. 7 comments.

It is rare for a defense secretary to issue a written apology on any topic.

"It is painful for anyone, and certainly a public servant whose words are carried far and wide, to have a comment so unfortunately misinterpreted," Rumsfeld said, adding that it was "particularly troubling" to know there are service men and women -- past and present -- "who may believe that the secretary of defense would say or mean what some have written. I did not. I would not."