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White House defends Bush service in Guard

Some members of Ala. unit don’t recall seeing him
Tucson, Arizona | Published: 02.12.2004
WASHINGTON - The White House hardened its defense of President Bush’s National Guard service Wednesday, saying his critics are “trolling for trash.” Yet, several members of an Alabama unit Bush was assigned to said they couldn’t recall ever seeing him.
The Boston Globe reported that Bush’s August 1972 suspension from flight status in the Texas Air National Guard - triggered by his failure to take a required annual flight physical - should have prompted an investigation by his commander, a written acknowledgment by Bush and perhaps a written report to senior Air Force officials, according to Air Force regulations in effect at the time.
Bush, who was a fighter-interceptor pilot assigned to the Texas Air National Guard, did not fly after April 1972 - just before the missed physical and 30 months before his flight commitment ended. He also did not attend National Guard training for several months that year and was permitted to cut short his military commitment a year later in 1973.
The Associated Press contacted more than a dozen people who were members of the Montgomery-based 187th Tactical Reconnaissance Group in 1972. All were quick to point out that the unit had as many as 800 members and Bush was not yet famous.
Bush, who spent most of his service in Texas, received permission to perform his duties in Alabama while working on a family friend’s political campaign.
“Trolling for trash”
“I don’t remember seeing him. That does not mean he was not here,” said Wayne Rambo, who was a first lieutenant with the 187th. “I don’t want to cast any aspersions or to say he was or was not there.”
Bush’s spokesman, Scott McClellan, said the renewed requests for additional records show that some people “are more interested in trolling for trash for political gain” with the presidential election nine months away.
The White House also released a copy of a dental evaluation Bush had in the National Guard in Alabama to rebut suggestions from Democrats who have questioned whether the president ever showed up for duty there.
A copy of the dental examination done on Jan. 6, 1973, documents the president’s serving at Dannelly Air National Guard Base in Alabama, McClellan said in a statement. The exam, however, was done after November 1972, when earlier reports have said Bush returned to Texas.
Late Wednesday, assistant White House press secretary Erin Healy told the Globe that the White House does not have records about the flight physical. A spokesman for the National Guard Bureau said if there are records about any inquiry into Bush’s flight status, they would most likely be in Bush’s personnel file, stored in a military records facility in Colorado.
For military aviators, the annual flight physical is a line they must cross to retain flying status.
Two retired National Guard generals, in interviews Wednesday with the Globe, said they were surprised that Bush - or any military pilot - would forgo a required annual flight physical and take no apparent steps to rectify the problem and return to flying. “There is no excuse for that. Aviators just don’t miss their flight physicals,” said Maj. Gen. Paul A. Weaver Jr., who retired in 2002 as the Pentagon’s director of the Air National Guard.
Brig. Gen. David L. McGinnis, a former top aide to the assistant secretary of defense for reserve affairs, told the Globe that Bush’s failure to remain on flying status amounts to a violation of the signed pledge by Bush that he would fly for at least five years after he completed flight school in November 1969.
“Failure to take your flight physical is like a failure to show up for duty. It is an obligation you can’t blow off,” McGinnis said.
Bush’s last flight physical was in May 1971.
The following April, just before his next physical was due, Bush moved temporarily to Alabama to work on a Republican U.S. Senate race, and was given permission to attend Guard drills at a Montgomery Air Guard base. But he did not appear for his May 1972 physical, and he performed no duty at all until late October 1972, according to Guard records that became public this week.
A Sept. 29, 1972, order sent to Bush by the National Guard Bureau, the Defense Department agency that oversees the Guard, noted that Bush had been verbally suspended from flying on Aug. 1. The written order made it official: “Reason for suspension: Failure to accomplish annual medical examination.”
The order required Bush to acknowledge the suspension in writing and also said: “The local commander who has authority to convene a Flying Evaluation Board will direct an investigation as to why the individual failed to accomplish the medical examination.” After that, the commander had two options - to convene the Evaluation Board to review Bush’s suspension or forward a detailed report on his case up the chain of command.
Either way, officials said Wednesday, there should have been a record of the investigation.
Guard file questions arise
Meanwhile, The New York Times reported that a retired lieutenant colonel in the Texas National Guard complained to a member of the Texas Senate in 1998 that aides to then-Gov. Bush improperly screened Bush’s National Guard files in a search for information that could embarrass the governor in future elections.
The retired officer, Bill Burkett, said in the letter to Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, a Democrat from Austin, that Dan Bartlett, then a senior aide to Bush and now White House communications director, and Gen. Daniel James, then the head of the Texas National Guard, reviewed the file to “make sure nothing will embarrass the governor during his re-election campaign.”
A copy of the letter was provided to the Times by a lawyer for Burkett to support statements he makes in a book to be published this month, which Burkett repeated in interviews this week, that Bush’s aides ordered Guard officials to remove damaging information from Bush’s military personnel files.
Bartlett denied on Wednesday that any records were altered. James, since named head of the Air National Guard by President Bush, also denied Burkett’s account. But Bartlett and another former official in Bush’s administration in Texas, Joseph Allbaugh, acknowledged speaking to National Guard officials about the files as Bush was preparing to seek re-election as governor.
Both said their goal was to ensure the records would be helpful to journalists asking about Bush’s military experience.
The New York Daily News said Bush left his Texas Air National Guard assignment and moved to Alabama in 1972 even though the Air Force denied his request for a transfer, according to his military records.
Bush did not seek an official transfer until nine days after he moved to Alabama in May 1972.
The Air Force rejected Bush’s request, saying the fighter pilot was “ineligible” to move to the Alabama unit Bush wanted - a squadron of postal handlers.
Nevertheless, Bush stayed in Alabama until his Texas commanders finally gave him written authorization five months later to train there.