‘I Did My Duty,’ President Says of His Military Service Record
With Democrats sharpening their questions about whether President Bush fulfilled his military obligations during the Vietnam War, the president insisted Sunday that he was given an “honorable discharge and I did show up in Alabama” for temporary duty in the National Guard.
The issue about Bush’s military record dogged him in the 2000 presidential campaign and has been raised this year by Democrats claiming that he was absent without leave and that his military service stands in contrast to that of leading Democratic candidate John F. Kerry, a Massachusetts senator who distinguished himself in Vietnam.
But Bush, speaking in an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday, said that if records exist that will put to rest any doubts about his service, he is “absolutely” willing to authorize the release of those documents covering his service in the Texas and Alabama National Guard units.
He was referring to the Defense Finance and Accounting Service in Colorado, which maintains pay records of service members and presumably would have documentation on whether Bush had showed up for all of his military duty.
But officials at the agency, in Denver and at the headquarters in Washington, told The Times last week that before any records could be released, a Freedom of Information Act request must be filed and that the agency would then show the records to the White House communications office before proceeding.
Bryan Hubbard and Roger Still, spokesmen for the agency, said the processing could take months. They suggested that the White House might turn down the request.
Bush on Sunday put it this way: “People have been looking for these files for a long period of time, trust me.”
Noting that questions were first raised in his 1994 run for Texas governor, Bush said that “if we still have them ... the records are kept in Colorado, as I understand, and they scoured the records” -- an indication that the files may be missing.
Asked if he would authorize the release of “everything” to settle any doubts, the president responded, “Yes, absolutely.”
“I’m just telling you, I did my duty,” Bush said. “And it’s politics, you know, to kind of ascribe all kinds of motives to me. But I have been through it before. I’m used to it. What I don’t like is when people say serving in the Guard may not be a true service.”
Bush graduated from Yale University in 1968, making him eligible for the draft during the war in Vietnam. He joined the Texas Air National Guard, flying F-102 interceptor jets in Houston. Some critics have said he traded on influence from his well-connected family for the position, which he achieved without going through the normal routines of ROTC and other military training.
Bush signed a six-year commitment. In September 1972, he asked for a three-month transfer to Alabama to help manage the political campaign of Winton “Red” Blount, a friend of his father who was running for the Senate.
Several now-retired officials from the Alabama unit have said they do not remember Bush showing up for duty, and some Texas Air National Guard records show he was suspended for failing to accomplish an annual medical examination.
He later returned to Houston, but there were apparent problems there as well. His Texas records show, for instance, that in 1973 he could not be evaluated because “Bush has not been observed at this unit during the period of report.”
That year Bush was allowed to leave the Texas National Guard eight months short of his six-year obligation so he could enroll at the Harvard Business School. On Sunday, the president said he “worked it out with the military” to win the early discharge.
Former Vermont governor and Democratic presidential hopeful Howard Dean appeared on CNN’s “Late Edition With Wolf Blitzer” on Sunday and asked rhetorically, “Had the president not been a son of a congressman, would he have been able to be honorably discharged under the circumstances?”
Dean said all of Bush’s military records should be released to the media, adding, “I think there’s some hard questions that have been asked that the president needs to answer.”
Dean, also the scion of a wealthy family who became draft eligible when he graduated from Yale during the war, was granted a medical deferment because of a back ailment.