One-year gap in Bush's National Guard duty

No record of airman at drills from 1972-73

By Walter V. Robinson, Globe Staff, 5/23/2000

USTIN, Texas - After George W. Bush became governor in 1995, the Houston Air National Guard unit he had served with during the Vietnam War years honored him for his work, noting that he flew an F-102 fighter-interceptor until his discharge in October 1973.

George Bush In his first four years, George Bush spent the equivalent of 21 months on active duty. (AFP photo)


During his first four years in the Texas Air National Guard, according to his military records, Bush had a busy schedule of full-time training and drills:

* May 28, 1968: Bush enlists as an Airman Basic in the 147th Fighter-Interceptor Group, Ellington Air Force Base, Houston, and is selected to attend pilot training.

* July 12, 1968: A three-member board of officers decides that Bush should get a direct commission as a second lieutenant after competing airman's basic training.

* July 14 to Aug. 25, 1968: Bush attends six weeks of basic training at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas.

* Sept. 4, 1968: Bush is commissioned a second lieutenant and takes an 8-week leave to work on a Senate campaign in Florida.

* Nov. 25, 1968 to Nov. 28, 1969: Bush attends and graduates from flight school at Moody Air Force Base, Georgia.

* December 1969 to June 27, 1970: Bush trains full-time to be an F-102 pilot at Ellington Air Force Base.

* July 1970 to April 16, 1972: Bush, as a certified fighter pilot, attends frequent drills and alerts at Ellington.

During his fifth year as a guardsman, Bush's records show no sign he appeared for duty.

* May 24, 1972: Bush, who has moved to Alabama to work on a US Senate race, gets permission to serve with a reserve unit in Alabama. But headquarters decided Bush must serve with a more active unit.

* Sept. 5, 1972: Bush is granted permission to do his Guard duty at the 187th Tactical Recon Group in Montgomery. But Bush's record shows no evidence he did the duty, and the unit commander says he never showed up.

* November 1972 to April 30, 1973: Bush returns to Houston, but apparently not to his Air Force unit.

* May 2, 1973: The two lieutenant colonels in charge of Bush's unit in Houston cannot rate him for the prior 12 months, saying he has not been at the unit in that period.

* May to July 1973: Bush, after special orders are issued for him to report for duty, logs 36 days of duty.

* July 30, 1973: His last day in uniform, according to his records.

* Oct. 1, 1973: A month after Bush starts at Harvard Business School, he is formally discharged from the Texas Air National Guard -- eight months before his six-year term expires.


And Bush himself, in his 1999 autobiography, ''A Charge to Keep,'' recounts the thrills of his pilot training, which he completed in June 1970. ''I continued flying with my unit for the next several years,'' the governor wrote.

But both accounts are contradicted by copies of Bush's military records, obtained by the Globe. In his final 18 months of military service in 1972 and 1973, Bush did not fly at all. And for much of that time, Bush was all but unaccounted for: For a full year, there is no record that he showed up for the periodic drills required of part-time guardsmen.

Bush, who declined to be interviewed on the issue, said through a spokesman that he has ''some recollection'' of attending drills that year, but maybe not consistently.

From May to November 1972, Bush was in Alabama working in a US Senate campaign, and was required to attend drills at an Air National Guard unit in Montgomery. But there is no evidence in his record that he did so. And William Turnipseed, the retired general who commanded the Alabama unit back then, said in an interview last week that Bush never appeared for duty there.

After the election, Bush returned to Houston. But seven months later, in May 1973, his two superior officers at Ellington Air Force Base could not perform his annual evaluation covering the year from May 1, 1972 to April 30, 1973 because, they wrote, ''Lt. Bush has not been observed at this unit during the period of this report.''

Bush, they mistakenly concluded, had been training with the Alabama unit for the previous 12 months. Both men have since died. But Ellington's top personnel officer at the time, retired Colonel Rufus G. Martin, said he had believed that First Lieutenant Bush completed his final year of service in Alabama.

A Bush spokesman, Dan Bartlett, said after talking with the governor that Bush recalls performing some duty in Alabama and ''recalls coming back to Houston and doing [Guard] duty, though he does not recall if it was on a consistent basis.''

Noting that Bush, by that point, was no longer flying, Bartlett added, ''It's possible his presence and role became secondary.''

Last night, Mindy Tucker, another Bush campaign aide, asserted that the governor ''fulfilled all of his requirements in the Guard.'' If he missed any drills, she said, he made them up later on.

Under Air National Guard rules at the time, guardsmen who missed duty could be reported to their Selective Service Board and inducted into the Army as draftees.

If Bush's interest in Guard duty waned, as spokesman Bartlett hinted, the records and former Guard officials suggest that Bush's unit was lackadaisical in holding him to his commitment. Many states, Texas among them, had a record during the Vietnam War of providing a haven in the Guard for the sons of the well-connected, and a tendency to excuse shirking by those with political connections.

Those who trained and flew with Bush, until he gave up flying in April 1972, said he was among the best pilots in the 111th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron. In the 22-month period between the end of his flight training and his move to Alabama, Bush logged numerous hours of duty, well above the minimum requirements for so-called ''weekend warriors.''

Indeed, in the first four years of his six-year commitment, Bush spent the equivalent of 21 months on active duty, including 18 months in flight school. His Democratic opponent, Vice President Al Gore, who enlisted in the Army for two years and spent five months in Vietnam, logged only about a month more active service, since he won an early release from service.

Still, the puzzling gap in Bush's military service is likely to heighten speculation about the conspicuous underachievement that marked the period between his 1968 graduation from Yale University and his 1973 entry into Harvard Business School. It is speculation that Bush has helped to fuel: For example, he refused for months last year to say whether he had ever used illegal drugs. Subsequently, however, Bush amended his stance, saying that he had not done so since 1974.

The period in 1972 and 1973 when Bush sidestepped his military obligation coincides with a well-publicized incident during the 1972 Christmas holidays: Bush had a confrontation with his father after he took his younger brother, Marvin, out drinking and returned to the family's Washington home after knocking over some garbage cans on the ride home.

In his autobiography, Bush says that his decision to go to business school the following September was ''a turning point for me.''

Assessing Bush's military service three decades later is no easy task: Some of his superiors are no longer alive. Others declined to comment, or, understandably, cannot recall details about Bush's comings and goings. And as Bush has risen in public life over the last several years, Texas military officials have put many of his records off-limits and heavily redacted many other pages, ostensibly because of privacy rules.

But 160 pages of his records, assembled by the Globe from a variety of sources and supplemented by interviews with former Guard officials, paint a picture of an Air Guardsman who enjoyed favored treatment on several occasions.

The ease of Bush's entry into the Air Guard was widely reported last year. At a time when such billets were coveted and his father was a Houston congressman, Bush vaulted to the top of a waiting list of 500. Bush and his father have denied that he received any preferential treatment. But last year, Ben Barnes, who was speaker of the Texas House in 1968, said in a sworn deposition in a civil lawsuit that he called Guard officials seeking a Guard slot for Bush after a friend of Bush's father asked him to do so.

Before he went to basic training, Bush was approved for an automatic commission as a second lieutenant and assignment to flight school despite a score of just 25 percent on a pilot aptitude test. Such commissions were not uncommon, although most often they went to prospective pilots who had college ROTC courses or prior Air Force experience. Bush had neither.

In interviews last week, Guard officials from that era said Bush leapfrogged over other applicants because few applicants were willing to commit to the 18 months of flight training or the inherent dangers of flying.

As a pilot, the future governor appeared to do well. After eight weeks of basic training in the summer of 1968 - and a two-month break to work on a Senate race in Florida - Bush attended 55 weeks of flight school at Moody Air Force Base in Georgia, from November 1968 to November 1969, followed by five months of full-time training on the F-102 back at Ellington.

Retired Colonel Maurice H. Udell, Bush's instructor in the F-102, said he was impressed with Bush's talent and his attitude. ''He had his boots shined, his uniform pressed, his hair cut and he said, `Yes, sir' and `No, sir,''' the instructor recalled.

Said Udell, ''I would rank him in the top 5 percent of pilots I knew. And in the thinking department, he was in the top 1 percent. He was very capable and tough as a boot.''

But 22 months after finishing his training, and with two years left on his six-year commitment, Bush gave up flying - for good, it would turn out. He sought permission to do ''equivalent training'' at a Guard unit in Alabama, where he planned to work for several months on the Republican Senate campaign of Winton Blount, a friend of Bush's father. The proposed move took Bush off flight status, since no Alabama Guard unit had the F-102 he was trained to fly.

At that point, starting in May 1972, First Lieutenant Bush began to disappear from the Guard's radar screen.

When the Globe first raised questions about this period earlier this month, Bartlett, Bush's spokesman, referred a reporter to Albert Lloyd Jr., a retired colonel who was the Texas Air Guard's personnel director from 1969 to 1995.

Lloyd, who a year ago helped the Bush campaign make sense of the governor's military records, said Bush's aides were concerned about the gap in his records back then.

On May 24, 1972, after he moved to Alabama, Bush made a formal request to do his equivalent training at the 9921st Air Reserve Squadron at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama. Two days later, that unit's commander, Lieutenant Colonel Reese H. Bricken, agreed to have Bush join his unit temporarily.

In Houston, Bush's superiors approved. But a higher headquarters disapproved, noting that Bricken's unit did not have regular drills.

''We met just one weeknight a month. We were only a postal unit. We had no airplanes. We had no pilots. We had no nothing,'' Bricken said in an interview.

Last week, Lloyd said he is mystified why Bush's superiors at the time approved duty at such a unit.

Inexplicably, months went by with no resolution to Bush's status - and no Guard duty. Bush's evident disconnection from his Guard duties was underscored in August, when he was removed from flight status for failing to take his annual flight physical.

Finally, on Sept. 5, 1972, Bush requested permission to do duty for September, October, and November at the 187th Tactical Recon Group in Montgomery. Permission was granted, and Bush was directed to report to Turnipseed, the unit's commander.

In interviews last week, Turnipseed and his administrative officer at the time, Kenneth K. Lott, said they had no memory of Bush ever reporting.

''Had he reported in, I would have had some recall, and I do not,'' Turnipseed said. ''I had been in Texas, done my flight training there. If we had had a first lieutenant from Texas, I would have remembered.''

Lloyd, the retired Texas Air Guard official, said he does not know whether Bush performed duty in Alabama. ''If he did, his drill attendance should have been certified and sent to Ellington, and there would have been a record. We cannot find the records to show he fulfilled the requirements in Alabama,'' he said.

Indeed, Bush's discharge papers list his service and duty station for each of his first four years in the Air Guard. But there is no record of training listed after May 1972, and no mention of any service in Alabama. On that discharge form, Lloyd said, ''there should have been an entry for the period between May 1972 and May 1973.''

Said Lloyd, ''It appeared he had a bad year. He might have lost interest, since he knew he was getting out.''

In an effort last year to solve the puzzle, Lloyd said he scoured Guard records, where he found two ''special orders'' commanding Bush to appear for active duty on nine days in May 1973. That is the same month that Lieutenant Colonel William D. Harris Jr. and Lieutenant Colonel Jerry B. Killian effectively declared Bush missing from duty.

In Bush's annual efficiency report, dated May 2, 1973, the two supervising pilots did not rate Bush for the prior year, writing, ''Lt. Bush has not been observed at this unit during the period of report. A civilian occupation made it necessary for him to move to Montgomery, Alabama. He cleared this base on 15 May 1972 and has been performing equivalent training in a non-flying status with the 187 Tac Recon Gp, Dannelly ANG Base, Alabama.''

Asked about that declaration, campaign spokesman Bartlett said Bush told him that since he was no longer flying, he was doing ''odds and ends'' under different supervisors whose names he could not recall.

But retired colonel Martin, the unit's former administrative officer, said he too thought Bush had been in Alabama for that entire year. Harris and Killian, he said, would have known if Bush returned to duty at Ellington. And Bush, in his autobiography, identifies the late colonel Killian as a friend, making it even more likely that Killian knew where Bush was.

Lieutenant Bush, to be sure, had gone off flying status when he went to Alabama. But had he returned to his unit in November 1972, there would have been no barrier to him flying again, except passing a flight physical. Although the F-102 was being phased out, his unit's records show that Guard pilots logged thousands of hours in the F-102 in 1973.

During his search, Lloyd said, the only other paperwork he discovered was a single torn page bearing Bush's social security number and numbers awarding some points for Guard duty. But the partial page is undated. If it represents the year in question, it leaves unexplained why Bush's two superior officers would have declared him absent for the full year.

There is no doubt that Bush was in Houston in late 1972 and early 1973. During that period, according to Bush's autobiography, he held a civilian job working for an inner-city, antipoverty program in the city.

Lloyd, who has studied the records extensively, said he is an admirer of the governor and believes ''the governor honestly served his country and fulfilled his commitment.''

But Lloyd said it is possible that since Bush had his sights set on discharge and the unit was beginning to replace the F-102s, Bush's superiors told him he was not ''in the flow chart. Maybe George Bush took that as a signal and said, `Hell, I'm not going to bother going to drills.'

''Well, then it comes rating time, and someone says, `Oh...he hasn't fulfilled his obligation.' I'll bet someone called him up and said, `George, you're in a pickle. Get your ass down here and perform some duty.' And he did,'' Lloyd said.

That would explain, Lloyd said, the records showing Bush cramming so many drills into May, June, and July 1973. During those three months, Bush spent 36 days on duty.

Bush's last day in uniform before he moved to Cambridge was July 30, 1973. His official release from active duty was dated Oct. 1, 1973, eight months before his six-year commitment was scheduled to end.

Officially, the period between May 1972 and May 1973 remains unaccounted for. In November 1973, responding to a request from the headquarters of the Air National Guard for Bush's annual evaluation for that year, Martin, the Ellington administrative officer, wrote, ''Report for this period not available for administrative reasons.''