Okay, we were wrong–the we being those who called on Bush to honor his promise to release his entire Air National Guard records in the hope it would clarify the mysteries surrounding the last eighteen months of his service. After trying to back away from that promise, the Bush White House finally did relent. Last Friday, it handed out packets of hundreds of pages of Bush’s Air National Guard file. Yet these records contained not a single sheet that that can be used to resolve the controversy. In fact, the file only reinforces the existing questions.
To recap, here are the three key issues.
* In May 1972, Bush moved from Texas to Alabama to work on the Senate campaign of a family friend. He still had two years left on his Guard obligation. He requested permission to continue his Guard training in Alabama. But did he show up?
* Sometime after the November 1972 election, he returned to Houston. But his immediate supervisors at Ellington Air Base in Houston–his home base–noted in a May 2, 1973, annual performance review that Bush “has not been observed at this unit” for the past year. After that report, he put in several intensive stints of duty. But had Bush ignored his Guard responsibilities for months once he was back in Houston?
* In September 1972, he was grounded for failing to take a flight physical. Why did he not go through this simple step to preserve his flying status?
The new records provide answers to none of this. Although they detail much of his first years in the Air National Guard–his assignments, his training, his drills–they contain no specific references to duty he might have done in Alabama or Houston in the May 1972 to May 1973 period. Let’s look at the three pieces:
AlabamaOn May 24, 1972, Bush filed out a form requesting a transfer to the 9921st Air Reserve Squadron in Montgomery, Alabama. But according to this application, he was already in Alabama at work on that Senate campaign. On May 26, the commander of the 9921st wrote Bush to tell him that his application had been accepted. This suggests that Bush moved to Alabama before he had arranged for any Guard reassignment. Was that SOP?
In any event, two months later, on July 21, 1972, the Air Reserve Personnel Center in Denver nixed the reassignment, noting that Bush, “an obligated Reservist” could only be “assigned to a specific Ready Reserve Position.” Bush, the ARPC said, “is ineligible for assignment to an Air Reserve Squadron.”
There are no records indicating Bush did a stitch of work for the 9921st. Even the pay sheet summaries and attendance point records that the White House released earlier do not contain a single entry for the entire May to mid-October 1972 period.
After Bush’s reassignment was turned down, he waited six weeks to request another assignment. On September 5, he requested permission to “perform equivalent duty” at the 187th Tac Recon Group in Montgomery “for the months of September, October, and November.” He quickly received approval to do so. He was told that the “Unit Training Assembly schedule” for the 187th called for drills on October 7-8 and November 4-5 and that he should report to Lt. Col. William Turnipseed, the base commander. During the 2000 campaign, Turnipseed said that Bush had never reported in. He repeated that assertion recently, but then noted he was not completely certain. The Bush records do not list any service on the days of these training assembly drills. The pay sheet summaries note that Bush was paid for two days of service on October 28 and 29. But they do not specify what service was performed or where. After doing no work for the Guard from April through early September, did Bush wait another six weeks before reporting for duty?
An unnamed Republican close to Bush did point reporters to a former Alabama Air National Guard officer who had served at the Dannelly Air Base (the home of the 187th) who claimed he had seen Bush report for duty eight to ten times between May and October 1972. But Bush’s file shows that Bush did not even apply for reassignment to the 187th until September. And those pay sheet summaries only suggest Bush put in two days of service late in October. His file records contradict this person’s account.
HoustonFor the stretch from early January 1973 to early May 1973, the pay sheet summaries indicate eight days of possible service: January 4-6 and 8-10 and April 7-8. The summaries also note days of possible service on May 1-3. Presumably, the April and May service occurred at Ellington. But there is nothing– nothing–in the files that correspond to these days. Moreover, if Bush did put in time in April and early May 1973, why did his immediate superiors–who were buddies of his–sign a form on May 2 saying that Bush had not been seen at Ellington for a year? (Both men are deceased.) Could this mean that the pay sheet summaries are not accurate? These records–and a one-page document indicating he received a dental examination at an Alabama air base in early January 1973–are the key pieces of evidence for the Bush White House’s argument that Bush served during the missing year.
Most of the AWOL controversy has focused on Bush’s months in Alabama. But the question of whether he shirked his Guard responsibilities upon his return to Texas is as significant. Perhaps it is possible that his Guard file did not reflect his service in Alabama because he was doing temporary duty away from his home base. But why would his main file–which is loaded with information pertaining to his duty at Ellington before May 1972–have nothing in it about his activity at Ellington in the first four months of 1973? This gap is as suspicious as the Alabama hole.
The flight physicalBush’s file also provides no explanation for the flight physical that did not happen. The White House did allow reporters to look at medical records that were in Bush’s Guard files. But the journalists were not permitted to leave with copies. Apparently these records contained nothing unusual. In 2000, the Bush campaign said that Bush did not take a flight physical because he was living in Alabama and his personal physician was in Houston. But personal physicians did not administer flight exams; military surgeons did. More recently, the White House has said that because Bush was no longer flying fighter interceptor jets he had no reason to undergo a physical. Some military experts have found that explanation unpersuasive; others have called it reasonable. But why the shift in stories?
So the fog of Bush’s Guard service remains. The file is no help. Bill Burkett, a retired lieutenant colonel in the Texas National Guard did tell various newspapers recently that in 1997 he was in a National Guard office and overheard Joseph Allbaugh, then chief of staff for Governor George W. Bush, inform another officer that he needed to make sure there was nothing embarrassing in Bush’s Guard file. Burkett recalled he later spotted items from Bush’s file in the trash. Allbaugh and the White House denied these allegations. Is it possible that Allbaugh–or anyone else–could have rigged files in both the Texas office and the main repository in Denver? Suspicious minds can look at the released file and wonder why an absence in good record keeping happens to match the time period in question.
Still, the story of Bush’s missing year is unresolved. It may never be settled. Unless more records somehow materialize, or convincing witnesses come forward. And if the Bush White House has played this episode to a who-will-ever-know tie, perhaps that is, in the end, a win for the former Air National Guard first lieutenant with a file full of riddles.
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