EDITOR’S NOTE: The still-escalating fight over the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and their criticisms of John Kerry’s Vietnam War record has led to new Democratic attacks on George W. Bush and his service in the Texas Air National Guard. “George Bush used his father to get into the National Guard, was grounded and then went missing,” says an ad produced by MoveOn.org’s political action committee.
Democrats made similar attacks earlier this year. In April, Kerry referred to Bush as a president who “can’t even answer whether or not he showed up for duty in the National Guard,” and who “has yet to explain to America whether or not, and tell the truth, about whether he showed up for duty.” In February, Kerry said he wanted answers about Bush’s service in Alabama, saying “Just because you get an honorable discharge does not, in fact, answer that question.”
Lost amid all the charges are the facts about Bush’s time in the Guard. When did he serve? What did he do? Did he fulfill his responsibilities? Was he in Alabama? In the March 8, 2004, issue of National Review, Byron York investigated and found the answers.
Ask retired Brig. Gen. William Turnipseed whether the press has accurately reported what he said about George W. Bush, and you’ll get an earful. “No, I don’t think they have,” he begins. Turnipseed, the former head of the 187th Tactical Reconnaissance Group of the Alabama Air National Guard, was widely quoted as saying he never saw Bush in Alabama in 1972, and if the future president had been there, he would remember. In fact, Turnipseed says, he doesn’t recall whether Bush was there or not; the young flier, then a complete unknown in Alabama, was never part of the 900-man 187th, so Turnipseed wouldn’t have had much reason to notice him. But most reporters haven’t been interested in Turnipseed’s best recollection. “They don’t understand the Guard, they don’t want to understand the Guard, and they hate Bush,” he says. “So when I say, ‘There’s a good possibility that Bush showed up,’ why would they put that in their articles?”
In recent weeks, Turnipseed has found himself in the middle of a battle in which Democrats have called the president a “deserter” who went “AWOL” for an entire year during his time in the Air National Guard. When Democrats made those accusations–amplified by extensive press coverage–the White House was slow to fight back, insisting that the issue, which came up in the 2000 campaign, was closed and did not merit a response. It was only after NBC’s Tim Russert brought the story up during a one-hour interview with the president on February 8 that the White House changed course and released records of the president’s Guard service.
Those records have not quieted the most determined of the president’s enemies–no one who watches the Democratic opposition really believed they would–but they do make a strong case that Bush fulfilled his duties and met the requirements for Air National Guard officers during his service from 1968 to 1973. A look at those records, along with interviews with people who knew Bush at the time, suggests that after all the shouting is over, and some of the basic facts become known, this latest line of attack on the president will come to nothing.
FOUR YEARS OF FLYING
The controversy over Bush’s service centers on what his critics call “the period in question,” that is, the time from May 1972 until May 1973. What is not mentioned as often is that that period was in fact Bush’s fifth year in the Guard, one that followed four years of often intense service.
Bush joined in May 1968. He went through six weeks of basic training–a full-time job–at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Tex. Then he underwent 53 weeks of flight training–again, full time–at Moody Air Force Base in Valdosta, Ga. Then he underwent 21 weeks of fighter interceptor training–full time–at Ellington Air Force Base in Houston. Counting other, shorter, postings in between, by the end of his training period Bush had served two years on active duty.
Certified to fly the F-102 fighter plane, Bush then began a period of frequent–usually weekly–flying. The F-102 was designed to shoot down other fighter planes, and the missions Bush flew were training flights, mostly over the Gulf of Mexico and often at night, in which pilots took turns being the predator and the prey.”If you’re going to practice how to shoot down another airplane, then you have to have another airplane up there to work on,” recalls retired Col. William Campenni, who flew with Bush in 1970 and 1971. “He’d be the target for the first half of the mission, and then we’d switch.”
During that period Bush’s superiors gave him consistently high ratings as a pilot. “Lt. Bush is an exceptional fighter interceptor pilot and officer,” wrote one in a 1972 evaluation. Another evaluation, in 1971, called Bush “an exceptionally fine young officer and pilot” who “continually flies intercept missions with the unit to increase his proficiency even further.” And a third rating, in 1970, said Bush “clearly stands out as a top notch fighter interceptor pilot” and was also “a natural leader whom his contemporaries look to for leadership.”
All that flying involved quite a bit of work. “Being a pilot is more than just a monthly appearance,” says Bob Harmon, a former Guard pilot who was a member of Bush’s group in 1971 and 1972. “You cannot maintain your currency by doing just one drill a month. He was flying once or twice a week during that time, from May of 1971 until May of 1972.” While the work was certainly not as dangerous as fighting in the jungles of Vietnam, it wasn’t exactly safe, either. Harmon remembers a half-dozen Texas Air National Guard fliers who died in accidents over the years, in cluding one during the time Bush was flying. “This was not an endeavor without risk,” Harmon notes.
THE MOVE TO ALABAMA
The records show that Bush kept up his rigorous schedule of flying through the spring of 1972: He was credited for duty on ten days in March of that year, and seven days in April. Then, as Bush began his fifth year of service in the Guard, he appears to have stepped back dramatically. The records indicate that he received no credit in May, June, July, August, and September 1972. In October, he was credited with two days, and in November he was credited with four. There were no days in December, and then six in January 1973. Then there were no days in February and March.
The change was the result of Bush’s decision to go to Alabama to work on the Senate campaign of Republican Winton Blount. With an obligation to the Guard, Bush asked to perform equivalent service in Alabama. That was not an unusual request, given that members of the Guard, like everyone else, often moved around the country. “It was a common thing,” recalls Brigadier General Turnipseed. “If we had had a guy in Houston, he could have made equivalent training with Bush’s unit. It was so common that the guy who wrote the letter telling Bush to come didn’t even tell me about it.”
The president’s critics have charged that he did not show up for service–was “AWOL”–in Alabama. Bush says he did serve, and his case is supported by records showing that he was paid and given retirement credit for days of service while he was known to be in Alabama. The records also show that Bush received a dental examination on January 6, 1973, at Dannelly Air National Guard base, home of the 187th (January 6 was one of the days that pay records show Bush receiving credit for service). And while a number of Guard members at the base say they do not remember seeing Bush among the roughly 900 men who served there during that time, another member, a retired lieutenant named John Calhoun, says he remembers seeing Bush at the base several times.
What seems most likely is that Bush was indeed at Dannelly, but there was not very much for a non-flying pilot to do. Flying fighter jets involves constant practice and training; Bush had to know when he left Texas that he would no longer be able to engage in either one very often, which meant that he would essentially leave flying, at least for some substantial period of time. In addition, the 187th could not accommodate another pilot, at least regularly. “He was not going to fly,” says Turnipseed. “We didn’t have enough airplanes or sorties to handle our own pilots, so we wouldn’t have done it for some guy passing through.”
On the other hand, showing up for drills was still meeting one’s responsibility to the Guard. And, as 1973 went along, the evidence suggests that Bush stepped up his work to make up for the time he had missed earlier. In April of that year, he received credit for two days; in May, he received credit for 14 days; in June, five days; and in July, 19 days. That was the last service Bush performed in the Guard. Later that year, he asked for and received permission to leave the Guard early so he could attend Harvard Business School. He was given an honorable discharge after serving five years, four months, and five days of his original six-year commitment.
The records indicate that, despite his move to Alabama, Bush met his obligation to the Guard in the 1972-73 year. At that time, Guardsmen were awarded points based on the days they reported for duty each year. They were given 15 points just for being in the Guard, and were then required to accumulate a total of 50 points to satisfy the annual requirement. In his first four years of service, Bush piled up lots of points; he earned 253 points in his first year, 340 in his second, 137 in his third, and 112 in his fourth. For the year from May 1972 to May 1973, records show Bush earned 56 points, a much smaller total, but more than the minimum requirement (his service was measured on a May-to-May basis because he first joined the Guard in that month in 1968).
Bush then racked up another 56 points in June and July of 1973, which met the minimum requirement for the 1973-74 year, which was Bush’s last year of service. Together, the record “clearly shows that First Lieutenant George W. Bush has satisfactory years for both ‘72-’73 and ‘73-’74, which proves that he completed his military obligation in a satisfactory manner,” says retired Lt. Col. Albert Lloyd, a Guard personnel officer who reviewed the records at the request of the White House.
All in all, the documents show that Bush served intensively for four years and then let up in his fifth and sixth years, although he still did enough to meet Guard requirements. The records also suggest that Bush’s superiors were not only happy with his performance from 1968 to 1972, but also happy with his decision to go to Alabama. Indeed, Bush’s evaluating officer wrote in May 1972 that “Lt. Bush is very active in civic affairs in the community and manifests a deep interest in the operation of our government. He has recently accepted the position as campaign manager for a candidate for United States Senate. He is a good representative of the military and Air National Guard in the business world.”
Beyond their apparent hope that Bush would be a good ambassador for the Guard, Bush’s superiors might have been happy with his decision to go into politics for another reason: They simply had more people than they needed. “In 1972, there was an enormous glut of pilots,” says Campenni. “The Vietnam War was winding down, and the Air Force was putting pilots in desk jobs. In ‘72 or ‘73, if you were a pilot, active or Guard, and you had an obligation and wanted to get out, no problem. In fact, you were helping them solve their problem.”
THE UNENDING ATTACK
Despite the evidence, Democrats have continued to accuse the president of shirking his duty during his Guard career. “He went to Alabama for one year,” Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe said on ABC on February 1. “He didn’t show up. Call it whatever you want, AWOL, it doesn’t matter.” After Bush made his Guard records public, McAuliffe released a statement saying the documents “create more questions than answers.” Other Democrats, as well as an energetic team of liberal columnists and bloggers, echoed McAuliffe’s comments.
Perhaps the most impressive accomplishment of Bush’s detractors is that they managed to sell the idea–mostly unchallenged in the press–that Bush’s Air National Guard service consisted of one year during which he didn’t show up for duty. Far fewer people asked the question: Just how did Bush become a fighter pilot in the first place? Didn’t that involve, say, years of work? Bush’s four years of service prior to May 1972 were simply airbrushed out of the picture because many reporters did not believe they were part of the story.
It also seems likely that some of Bush’s adversaries used the Guard issue as a way to get at other questions about the president. The Guard record was said to have a bearing on Bush’s credibility, on the war in Iraq, on his fitness to lead. In addition, some journalists were nearly obsessed with forcing the president to release medical records from his time in the Guard because they hoped those records might reveal some evidence of drug use. The White House did not release the full set of medical records but did allow reporters to view them; the documents were entirely unexcep tional and contained nothing about drug use.
While all that was going on, both the White House and the Bush reelection campaign seemed consistently to underestimate the ferocity and resolve of the president’s adversaries. For weeks, as the controversy grew, the president did nothing to defend himself. Those who wanted to speak up in his defense, like William Campenni and Bob Harmon, were not contacted by the White House; instead, they decided to go public on their own. Even when John Calhoun, the man who remembers Bush in Alabama, sent the White House an e-mail saying he had useful information, he received a stock response, without any indication the White House was interested in what he had to say.
Now the evidence is public; anyone who is interested in learning about Bush’s service can do so. In the end, the president had the facts on his side. But he also had the good fortune to have the allegiance of men who feel so intensely about the Guard and their service that they wanted to speak out even if the White House didn’t seem to care. Men like Campenni and Harmon were deeply offended when Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry equated Guard service during the Vietnam War with fleeing the country or going to jail. That was simply too much. “I’m not a Bushie,” says Harmon. “The thing that got a few of us crawling out from under a rock, at no instigation from the White House, was that Guard service was being portrayed as being like a draft dodger.”