Bush went AWOL for real

White House tries to quell criticism of military service

By Noble Johns

Atlanta (BNW)
—Pay stubs and other military records released by the White House on Tuesday show President Bush got credit for attending military drills in 1972 and 1973 when he was a part-time officer in the Texas Air National Guard, but nothing so far proves that he was not Absent Without Leave (AWOL). In fact, it appears to me to be a rigged situation where Bush got off from serving his country, and has been lying about it for over twenty years.

But disclosures that Bush was paid for 82 days over those two years are unlikely to quell election-year charges of special treatment during his service — especially as a fall campaign against Democratic front-runner John Kerry, a decorated Vietnam War combat veteran, appears increasingly likely.

"These documents make it very clear that the president of the United States fulfilled his duties," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said. "When you serve, you are paid for that service, and these documents outline the day he was paid."

The pay stubs do not give any indication what Bush was doing during a five-month gap in 1972, and they shed little light on an 11-month period extending into 1973. Part of that time, Bush worked in the political campaign of an unsuccessful Senate candidate in Alabama and says he performed part-time Guard duties. Bush says he took part in weekend Alabama Air National Guard drills in Montgomery, but no one there remembers seeing him.

The White House released payroll documents and annual service "point summaries" covering Bush's service.

The point summaries were initially released during the 2000 presidential campaign, but McClellan said the payroll records were recently discovered at the Air Reserve Personnel Center in Colorado.

Bush said during a television interview Sunday on NBC's "Meet The Press" that he would make the records public. Other presidential candidates have made it a policy to release military records, even though it's not a legal requirement.

10 years of criticism

Allegations of absenteeism while in the National Guard have dogged Bush since 1994 when he first ran for governor of Texas, although a friend who went through flight training with him in Georgia said Tuesday that Bush got no special favors.

The issue resurfaced in 2000 in comparisons to former Vice President Al Gore, who served in the Army and spent five months in a noncombat role in Vietnam.

Kerry, campaigning Tuesday in Tennessee and Virginia, declined comment on the White House disclosures.

Democrat unconvinced

Bush's military record was spotlighted recently when filmmaker Michael Moore called Bush a "deserter" during a campaign rally for retired Gen. Wesley Clark. Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe said the president had been "AWOL," or absent without leave, and Kerry has said it was open to question whether Bush had fulfilled his six-year military commitment.

McAuliffe told the Associated Press on Tuesday: "The handful of documents released today by the White House creates more questions than answers."

The charges are especially sensitive because they detract from Bush's image as a "war president" in the ongoing fight against international terrorism.

Bush joined the Texas Air National Guard in 1968, when his father was a Republican congressman from Houston, and leapfrogged hundreds of other applicants to get a highly coveted pilot position. He was promoted to junior officer status after six weeks of basic training without having to go through the more rigorous Officer Candidate School.

He started flight training at Moody Air Force Base in Valdosta and finished about 52 weeks later in 1969.

Paul Repp, 58, a retired Delta Air Lines pilot who went through Air Force flight training at Moody and became close friends with Bush there, said the future president was treated like any other student.

"We started with 55 students and ended with 46," Repp said. "Some people could handle it, some couldn't. It was very demanding, but he was always in the upper half, the upper quarter, of the class."

'Loved the flying', but could not fly

Bush flew T-41 single-engine propeller trainers, T-37 twin-engine jets and T-38 supersonic jets at Moody. After graduation, he went to Houston for instruction in F-102 interceptors and became a fully qualified pilot.

"He loved the airplane, loved the flying," said Repp, who stayed at Moody as a T-38 instructor and visited Bush in Houston. "They were sending Guard units to Vietnam, and there's no question in my mind he would have gone if his unit had been called."

At the time, however, Air National Guard units were rarely called to front-line service, and they were widely regarded as exclusive flying clubs for politically connected patrons. Longtime Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen's son was a member of Bush's unit.

Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, who served in the National Guard two years before Bush, wrote in a column Tuesday that he himself had engaged in "a perfectly legal form of hooky" in which he was paid for years of weekend and summer guard duty for which he didn't show up.

Pay-stub gaps

Bush's unit — the 111th Interceptor Squadron — wasn't called for Vietnam. Bush moved to Alabama in 1972 to work on the Senate campaign of Republican Winton Blount, a family friend. Bush asked for a transfer to a nonflying Alabama Guard unit, but top Air National Guard officials in Denver denied his request. Bush was allowed to work part-time at the 187th Tactical Recon Group in Montgomery.

The pay records released Tuesday show Bush was not paid for any service from May to September of 1972. He was paid for two days in October, four days in November and none in December 1972. He also was not paid for February or March 1973. The payroll documents — a bare-bones list of dates for which he received pay — do not indicate what Bush was doing, or where, during the days for which he received pay.

His supervisors in Texas wrote in an evaluation in 1973 that they couldn't rate Bush's performance since he had "not been observed" on duty in Houston.

But in a memo written Monday at the White House's request and released with the other documents on Bush's service, retired Lt. Col. Albert Lloyd asserted the record proves Bush "completed his military obligation in a satisfactory manner." Lloyd served in the Texas Air National Guard from 1956 until 1995, and his positions required him to validate service dates for Guard members.

His assessment of Bush's service was based on a review of the payroll records and related documents provided to him, not on personal experience with Bush.

Controversy not 'absurd'

Bush won early discharge from the Guard to attend Harvard Business School in the fall of 1973.

Repp says he's not surprised Bush's service in Alabama was overlooked. The Vietnam War was drawing down in the early 1970s, and pilots were returning in large numbers. Reservists sometimes clocked in for weekend duties, discovered there was nothing to do, then clocked out at the end of the day.

"There were cutbacks coming," Repp said, "and everyone was doing less and less flying."

By then, Bush had missed scheduled physical exams and wasn't allowed to fly at all.

Repp, who volunteered for Bush's political campaigns for governor and president, said it's wrong for political opponents to claim Bush was hypocritical or dodged personal risk during those tumultuous years.

"Flying a single-seat, single-engine interceptor in all weather isn't for the faint of heart," Repp said. "To make so much of this, after all this time, is absurd."

Right!

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