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An absence in Alabama

By MARK THOMPSON and JAMES CARNEY


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As Bush's military service re-emerges as an issue, here is what we know—and don't know

When George W. Bush was running for President four years ago, stories raising questions about his Vietnam-era service in the Texas Air National Guard never got much traction.

In the Republican primaries, John McCain forbid his staff to exploit the fact that while their guy was being beaten senseless in the Hanoi Hilton, Bush was safe at home, protecting Houston from foreign attack. Al Gore steered clear too.

It was not until a week before Election Day in November 2000 that Gore surrogates accused Bush of having gone AWOL—absent without leave—for an entire year while in the Guard. But few journalists, and fewer voters, paid much attention.

Now, thanks to the convergence of a prolonged war in Iraq, a presumptive Democratic nominee with a chestful of Vietnam combat medals and the eagerness of anti-Bush critics to sling accusations at the President, Bush's National Guard record is under scrutiny. It began with Michael Moore, the flamethrowing documentary filmmaker, labeling Bush a "deserter." Then Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic Party chairman, leveled the less serious AWOL charge.

Citing Bush's honorable discharge, military legal experts dismiss the two accusations as rhetoric. "No military lawyer would say what's being alleged here is either desertion or AWOL," says Eugene Fidell, president of the National Institute of Military Justice.

But Bush's Guard record is nevertheless emerging as a Rorschach test in the 2004 campaign. Supporters cite the record as evidence of the Commander in Chief's military background and skill: he did well on an officer-qualification test, won praise from fellow pilots for his flying prowess and received an honorable discharge.

Opponents see it as a laundry list of how a well-connected Texas scion pulled strings to avoid going to Vietnam, then failed to complete the scant service he signed up for—and now sends tens of thousands of U.S. troops to a war that has lost some of its rationale.

From the start, Bush's military record shows evidence of favoritism, beginning with the way he won a coveted spot in the Texas Air National Guard in May 1968—a time when nearly 300 Americans a week were coming home in body bags. "I'm saying to myself, 'What do I want to do?'" Bush told a Texas interviewer in 1989. "I think I don't want to be an infantry guy as a private in Vietnam. What I do decide to want to do is learn to fly."

After graduating from Yale, Bush leaped to the top of a 500-man Texas Guard wait list, despite scoring poorly on a pilot aptitude test. At the time, Bush's father was a G.O.P. Congressman from Houston, and Ben Barnes—who was speaker of the Texas House in 1968—testified in 1999 that he had put in a good word for Bush with Guard officials at the request of a Bush family friend.

Bush got into the Texas Guard's "champagne unit" (along with the sons of other Texas politicians, like John Connally and Lloyd Bentsen) and was trained to fly the F-102 Delta Dagger. After spending more than a year in training, Bush was obligated to report for duty one weekend a month at Houston's Ellington Air Force Base, protecting the Gulf Coast of the U.S. from aerial attack.

"No one used political influence to get him into the Guard," Walter B. (Buck) Staudt, Bush's commanding officer in the Texas Guard, insisted last week. "He passed all the tests, did all the stuff that's required. I thought he was a success."

The Texas Guard immortalized Bush's first solo flight in an F-102, issuing a press release at the time celebrating the patriotism of the freshly minted jet jockey. "George Walker Bush is one member of the younger generation who doesn't get his kicks from pot, hashish or speed," it began. Bush got all the high he needed, it continued, flying the F-102. "I've always wanted to be a fighter pilot, and I wouldn't want to fly anything else," the 23-year-old Bush said.

But the thrill soon wore off. Bush spent two years flying part time with the Texas National Guard and then in May 1972, he headed to Alabama to work for six months on the unsuccessful Senate campaign of family friend Winton Blount, who had resigned as chairman of the U.S. Postal Service to seek the seat. Bush applied to perform "equivalent" service with the Alabama National Guard during the campaign.

But Bush, a self-admitted carouser in his younger days, apparently played some hooky: no official record of his Alabama service has ever surfaced. Because the Alabama Guard did not fly F-102s, Bush accepted "non-flying status" in Montgomery, according to Texas Guard records. And because he was not flying, he elected not to get his annual flight physical, which forced the Guard to bar him from flying.

Bush was told to report to William Turnipseed, an officer in the Montgomery unit. "Had he reported in, I would have had some recall, and I do not," Turnipseed told the Boston Globe four years ago. "If we had had a first lieutenant from Texas, I would have remembered." But by last week Turnipseed's memory had grown cloudy. "I did say in 2000 that I didn't remember seeing him," Turnipseed, now 75, told TIME. "But after I said that, I backed up and realized I didn't even remember if I was on the base in 1972 or not."

Turnipseed said he was so busy checking out new airplanes outside Alabama and training, "I couldn't even follow football." He also noted that he voted for Bush in 2000 and plans to vote for the President again this year.

Bush returned to Houston after Blount lost his Senate race in November 1972. But there is no official record that Bush performed Guard drills during the next six months. In May 1973, Bush's superiors in Houston wrote that they could not give Bush his annual evaluation because he had "not been observed at this unit during the period of this report"—from May 1, 1972, to April 30, 1973.

Also in May 1973, the Texas Guard issued two "special orders" directing Bush to report for duty. Over the next three months, Bush returned to his original Texas Guard unit and crammed in 36 days of active duty, apparently fulfilling the Guard's demands. In October 1973 he received an honorable discharge—nearly eight months early—so he could attend Harvard Business School.

Senator John Kerry, the Democratic front runner, received an early discharge from military service too—because he had earned three Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star and a Silver Star during 11 months in Vietnam. That's a comparison his campaign hopes voters will be making this fall. But Kerry and the other Democrats may cause a backlash if they go too far in criticizing Bush's military record.

Kerry's statement last week on Bush's service seems to equate National Guard service with avoiding the draft. "I would defend the President's choice with respect to going into the Guard," Kerry told Fox News.

"I've never made any judgments about any choice somebody made about avoiding the draft, about going to Canada, going to jail, being a conscientious objector, going into the National Guard." Says Bush campaign spokeswoman Nicole Devenish: "John Kerry's statement was a huge insult to the 400,000 people who serve in the National Guard." Indeed, 48 of those killed in Iraq have been members of the National Guard.

Kerry aides told TIME last week that they were worried their candidate had already come close to crossing the line. "There were a lot of people cringing around here when John let himself get engaged in this thing," said one. "It could backfire, no matter what the truth is." Yet Kerry's war record seems to be working for him. In the latest TIME/CNN poll, 60% of voters say John Kerry did his duty for the country during the Vietnam War, while only 39% make that same assertion for President Bush.

—With reporting by Douglas Waller with Kerry



Copyright © 2004 Time Inc.

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