From most accounts, Bush appears to have received preferential treatment to get into the Air National Guard and avoid the draft after he graduated from Yale University in 1968. He was initially regarded as a good pilot, but his performance faded over his final two years in the Guard and he was suspended from flight status. He did not fly for the remaining 18 months he served in the Guard, though he was obligated to do so.
And for significant chunks of time, Bush did not report for duty at all. His superiors took no action, and he was honorably discharged in 1973, six months before he should have been.
In a 2002 interview with USA Today, Dean Roome, a former fighter pilot who lived with Bush in the early 1970s, said Bush was a model officer during the first part of his career. But overall, he said, Bush’s Air Guard career was erratic — the first three years solid, the last two troubled.
“You wonder if you know who George Bush is,” Roome said. “I think he digressed after a while. In the first half, he was gung-ho. Where George failed was to fulfill his obligation as a pilot. It was an irrational time in his life.”
Awaiting the draft
In June 1968, with his student deferment ready to expire when he graduated from Yale, Bush faced the draft, just like hundreds of thousands of other young Americans. The controversial Vietnam War was raging, and draftees often ended up in Vietnam’s jungles. Thirty-eight percent of the 1.73 million men drafted between 1965 and 1973 served in Vietnam, and draftees accounted for 30.4 percent of the war’s 58,245 combat deaths.
Bush did not get drafted. Instead, two weeks before graduation, he joined the Texas Air National Guard — a so-called “champagne unit” that included other sons of rich and influential Texans. He signed up for a six-year term. There was a waiting list, as was the case at most Guard and Reserve units throughout the country, because such service was generally considered a likely way to avoid combat (5,977 reservists and 101 guardsmen died in Vietnam). But according to one highly visible source, Bush didn’t have to wait.
Former Texas Lt. Gov. Ben Barnes told the CBS program “60 Minutes” on Sept. 8 that he’d used his political influence to jump the young Bush ahead of “hundreds” of others to get the Guard slot. He’d first said this publicly after testifying in a 1999 federal court deposition, saying he’d done the favor at the request of a Bush family friend. At the time Bush joined the Air Guard, his father, George H.W. Bush, was serving his first term as a congressman from Texas.
“I would describe it as preferential treatment,” Barnes, a Democrat who is supporting Kerry’s presidential bid, told CBS.
For its part, the Bush campaign stands behind the president’s service. “The president’s proud of his service,” said Reed Dickins, a Bush campaign spokesman. “The president served honorably, similarly to the thousands of National Guard (members) that are serving our country today. The attacks on this president’s service have been purely political.”
It may be difficult for younger readers to understand the volatility of this issue during the Vietnam era, particularly given the extensive involvement of today’s Guard and reserve in Iraq. Secretary of State Colin Powell’s 1995 book “My American Journey” put it eloquently:
“The policies — determining who would be drafted and who would be deferred, who would serve and who would escape, who would die and who would live — were an antidemocratic disgrace,” Powell wrote. “I am angry that so many of the sons of the powerful and well placed … managed to wangle slots in reserve and National Guard units. Of the many tragedies of Vietnam, this raw class discrimination strikes me as the most damaging to the ideal that all Americans are created equal and owe equal allegiance to their country.”
Bush graduated from flight school in 1969, was certified July 9, 1970, as “combat ready” in the F-102, and began winning praise for his flight and leadership skills. On his April 30, 1971, fitness report, covering 166 active-duty days over a period of 17 months, he earned high marks.
“Lt. Bush is an exceptionally fine young officer and pilot,” wrote his commanding officer in the 111th Fighter Interceptor Squadron in Houston, Lt. Col. Jerry B. Killian. Bush “performed in an outstanding manner … a natural leader.”
But from there, Bush’s performance slipped. The descent began when Bush apparently did not follow an order to report for his annual flight physical in May 1972, which got him grounded.
The grounding was noted in one of the four documents unveiled by CBS — which were given to the White House, which released them to the rest of the media. It appears to be an order signed by Killian suspending Bush from flight status “due to failure to perform to USAF/TexANG standards and failure to meet annual physical examination (flight) as ordered.”
Handwriting experts hired by many media organizations as well as other critics contend the document, and possibly all four, are forgeries. However, Killian’s order is confirmed by two documents that were not part of the CBS papers. The first is a White House-released letter from the commander of the 147th Fighter Group, Col. Bobby W. Hodges, to its Texas higher command dated Sept. 5, 1972, with a subject line of “Suspension From Flying Status.”
The letter documents the missed flight physical and the suspension, “effective 1 Aug 1972.” A Sept. 29 order from the National Guard Bureau further confirms the missed physical and the suspension.
On May 26, 1972, Bush asked in writing for reassignment to an Air Reserve squadron in Alabama so he could work on the U.S. Senate campaign of Republican Winton “Red” Blount, a close friend of his influential father. That was rejected because Bush was obligated to serve as a Ready Reservist until May 26, 1974, and was ineligible for assignment to the Air Reserve. About three months later, on Sept. 5, Bush asked to perform “equivalent duty” with the Alabama unit from September to November. Killian approved the request a day later. The orders went through on Sept. 15, and while Bush had missed the Sept. 9-10 unit training assembly, the document noted he could make the next two. Bush’s Officer Military Record shows an Oct. 1, 1973, discharge from the Texas Air National Guard and transfer to the Alabama unit.
Another White House-released document shows a total of 56 points Bush apparently earned during this 12-month period, but it’s awarded in one lump sum rather than credited for each training period. But this document also contains an error, listing Bush’s status as “PLT On-Fly” — meaning he was on flight status — when he had not been for a year. This, said retired Army Lt. Col. Gerald A. Lechliter, who has done an in-depth analysis of Bush’s pay records (www.nytimes.com/packages/pdf/opinion/lechliter.pdf), makes the form’s authenticity suspect.
There’s also the record of a Jan. 6, 1973, dental exam performed on Bush at Dannelly Air National Guard Base, Ala. There’s nothing that documents why Bush, who reportedly returned to Texas after the election, didn’t get this work done closer to home.
Bush’s attendance and participation in weekend drills had been meticulously recorded up through May 1972. But other than the points record and the dental exam record, the year following Bush’s request for reassignment to Alabama is a blank.
In a fitness report supplement released by the White House this year, an administrative officer wrote, “Not rated for the period 1 May 72 through 30 Apr 73. Report for this period not available for administrative reasons.”
In the remarks section, Killian wrote that Bush “has not been observed at this unit during the period of report. … He cleared this base on 15 May 1972 and has been performing equivalent training in a non flying status” with the Alabama unit. Bush, however, was only authorized to be gone from September to November.
‘Don’t remember seeing you’
The same day Barnes spoke with CBS, a new pro-Kerry group, Texans for Truth, announced it was launching a TV ad campaign that would attack Bush for failing to perform his duties while temporarily assigned to the Alabama unit. While it wasn’t a new accusation, the ad featured a member of that unit who said he’d never met the future president.
“I heard George Bush get up and say, ‘I served in the 187th Air National Guard in Montgomery, Alabama,’” retired Lt. Col. Robert Mintz said on camera. “Really? That was my unit. And I don’t remember seeing you there. …”
On Sept. 5, Bush formally asked Killian for a discharge from the Texas unit so he could attend Harvard Business School in Cambridge, Mass. Two weeks later, Hodges approved the request and honorably discharged Bush, administratively transferring him to Headquarters, Air Reserve Personnel Center in Denver.
Two months earlier, on June 30, Bush signed a statement promising that if he left his Texas Ready Reserve unit, “it is my responsibility to locate and be assigned to another Reserve Forces unit or mobilization augmentation position. If I fail to do so, I am subject to involuntary order to active duty for up to 24 months.”
There is no record of Bush ever having signed on with a Massachusetts Reserve unit. In 1999, Dan Bartlett, working for the Bush campaign, told The Washington Post that Bush had completed his six-year commitment with a Boston unit. That didn’t happen, Bartlett recently told The Boston Globe. “I must have misspoke,” he said. The following March, Bush was redesignated as an “executive support officer.” In May, he was placed on inactive status. On Nov. 21 — apparently at Bush’s written request, according to an undated letter sent from Massachusetts and released by the White House in which he requests “to discharge from the standby reserve” — he received an honorable discharge “from all appointments in the United States Air Force.”
Documents in question
The renewed examination of the Bush record, however, has been somewhat obscured by the explosion of media interest in the documents CBS displayed on the same program featuring Barnes.
In a matter of minutes, Internet “bloggers” were raising questions about the authenticity of the documents, claiming that that era’s typewriters could not have produced some of the typographical elements in the memos and that they were computer-generated forgeries. They also said that Killian’s signature was either forged or copied from actual documents.
Killian’s former secretary, Marian Carr Knox, 86, of Houston, has said she believed the memos were fake but their content accurately reflected Killian’s opinions.
“I know that I didn’t type them,” she said in an interview with CBS. “However, the information in those is correct.”
As of Sept. 16, CBS continued to stand by its reporting.
H. McMichael covers the Navy from Hampton Roads, Va. Reach him at
(757) 223-0096 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
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