Before he was president, before he was governor, before he was an oilman or ran a professional baseball team, or was widely known as the drifting and carousing son of a famous father, George Walker Bush flew airplanes. He earned his pilot wings lifting F-102 interceptor jets off of a Texas Air National Guard tarmac in Houston.
Today, he is commander in chief in Washington and has sent U.S. troops to fight and die in Afghanistan and Iraq. Today, he has declared war against terrorists and, in speeches and highly publicized visits with the troops, has made that endeavor his battle cry for reelection.
Now, however, the 2004 presidential campaign has taken a detour, back 30 years to the Vietnam era. And the president faces new doubts about an old but nagging question: What did he do during that war?
The issue has been intensified by the likelihood that Bush will face a Democratic candidate who was a genuine war hero, who came home from a real war as a highly decorated Navy swift-boat commander in Vietnam and who has effectively used his military experience as an asset in building his political career.
In the long run, this election may be fought over what course the war on terror should take. But in recent weeks, Bush has found himself being measured against the military record of Democratic front-runner Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, amid sharper questioning about the president's service record.
Most immediately, the issue returned in the form of suggestions by Democrats that Bush shirked his obligations during a period from 1972 to 1973 when he was attached to the Alabama National Guard.
Beyond that narrow question lies the larger issue of whether Bush received preferential treatment when he was admitted to the Texas Guard and received a commission as a second lieutenant at a time when the Guard nationwide had 100,000 names on waiting lists and officer commissions were not given lightly.
The White House and Bush loyalists, as well as many of his fellow guardsmen, say he served with distinction. They say he gave nearly six years of his young life to combat readiness -- winning promotions and keeping himself prepared for call-up duty in Vietnam, if needed.
"He served honorably and he fulfilled all of his requirements," said retired Lt. Col. Albert C. Lloyd Jr., his personnel director in the Texas Air National Guard.
Some of Bush's critics have declared him AWOL or a deserter. They point to selected records released from his military files that suggest he was basically a no-show during his temporary gig in Alabama, that he was grounded and put on nonflying status for failing to accomplish a physical, and that he seemed to have frittered away his final year before taking an early discharge eight months shy of his six-year obligation.
They also complain that he was a rich kid with deep family political connections -- his father was congressman from Houston and his grandfather had been a U.S. senator from Connecticut -- for whom the Guard cut corners to make sure he was kept out of harm's way, specifically the Vietnam draft.
The White House released documents throughout last week that it said supported Bush's account -- including ones Friday night, which it said amounted to everything it had.
An examination of those documents, and nearly 200 pages of his service record obtained by The Times in 1999 as Bush was starting his first campaign for the White House, plus interviews with Guard officials, veterans and military experts, showed that while there was no evidence of illegality or regulations broken to accommodate Bush's entry or rise in the service, doors were opened and good fortune flowed to him at opportune times.
Retired Col. Charles C. Shoemake, an Air Force veteran who later joined the Texas Air National Guard, has told The Times, "We were flooded with applications back then. I'm not going to deny a lot of them turned to the Guard to get out of Vietnam." He added about Bush, "His name didn't hurt, obviously."
George W. Bush graduated from Yale University in 1968, soon to become eligible for the draft. Mindful of his father's World War II exploits as a bomber pilot, he showed up at the Texas Air National Guard office announcing he wanted to fly jets "just like Daddy."
The National Guard was a far different creature then than it is today.
Now, members of the Guard are being used in Afghanistan and Iraq, as they were in an earlier war, waged by Bush's father, in the Persian Gulf.
But in the late 1960s, the National Guard was a safe haven from the draft for young men who did not want to opt for Canada or the regular army. Instead, guardsmen ended up in a sort of nether land, not honored or denounced as Vietnam veterans, but also not considered hip or despised as draft dodgers.
During the Vietnam period, the rules were often relaxed, with commanders giving plenty of leeway for guardsmen to juggle their military duty around civilian lives.
It was into this world that Bush came in the summer of 1968. His military records show that, with long waiting lists for many Guard units around the country, he jumped into the Air Guard and the officer ranks without the exceptional credentials and ROTC training that other officer candidates often possessed. He was also given a highly coveted pilot's slot.
Bush's application, as well as his commission, were handled by then-Col. Walter B. "Buck" Staudt, who said, "Nobody did anything for him.... There was no ... influence on his behalf. Neither his daddy nor anybody else got him into the Guard." Staudt, who retired in 1972 as a brigadier general, said Bush was enrolled quickly because there was a demand for pilot candidates.
But Tom Hail, a historian for the Texas Air National Guard, said that records did not show a pilot shortage in the Guard squadron at the time. Hail, who reviewed the unit's personnel records for a special Guard museum display on Gov. Bush's service, said Bush's unit had 27 pilots at the time he began applying.
While that number was two short of its authorized strength, the unit had two other pilots who were in training and another awaiting a transfer into the unit. There was no apparent need to fast-track applicants, he said.
As for a direct commission for someone of Bush's limited qualifications, Hail said, "I've never heard of that. Generally they did that for doctors only, mostly because we needed extra flight surgeons."
Bush did a year of flight school training in Georgia, and at his graduation his father gave the commencement address. The new pilot moved back to Houston, performing routine flight maneuvers over the Gulf of Mexico.
The Guard program Bush entered required a summer of basic training, a year of flight school, then a prescribed schedule of weekend duty and summer duty, stretching over six years in all.
During his time in the Guard, Bush was not called up for Vietnam, for two reasons. Washington leaders did not want to engage Guard and reserve units for fear of negative political fallout once so-called "weekend warriors" began dying. And the plane he was trained on was being phased out of the regular Air Force and was not needed in Southeast Asia. Bush has maintained that he supported the war and would have served in Vietnam if his unit had been called up.
He was not the only son of privilege in the Texas Guard then. The son of Sen. Lloyd Bentsen of Texas, a Democrat, also served.
Regardless of how he got into the Guard, Bush's commanders rated him well.
Staudt recorded that Bush was "a quiet, intelligent young man who has the interest, motivation and knowledge necessary in today's Air Force and Air National Guard flying programs."
Stated another performance report: "Lt. Bush is a dynamic, outstanding young officer. He clearly stands out."
The Texas Guard capitalized on the Bush name, especially as the elder Bush rose from congressman to United Nations ambassador to head of the Republican National Committee while son George served in the Guard. Periodically, Guard officials put out press releases drumming up attention to the young man who "gets high all right," but not on drugs; from flying.
The young Bush, 21 when he joined the Guard, had other pursuits too.
He drove a convertible sports car and braved the bachelor life in cramped, often disheveled rooms in one of Houston's tonier singles apartment complexes. He also drank (a habit he did not completely forgo until he reached 40) and dated. And like his father, he had an early passion for politics.
In 1972, his father's friend Winton "Red" Blount Jr. was running for the Senate in Alabama, and Bush sought and obtained a transfer to a Guard unit in Montgomery. This one did not come so easily -- not because Alabama wouldn't accept him, but because Texas didn't want to sign off on Bush's plan.
In May of 1972, his squadron commander, Maj. William D. Harris Jr., said in an fitness evaluation that "Lt. Bush is very active in civic affairs in the community and has a deep interest in the operation of our government. He had recently accepted a position as campaign manager for a candidate for United States Senate."
To keep his Guard service active, Bush first applied for transfer to an Air Reserve unit in Montgomery. Lt. Col. Reece Bricken of the Alabama unit approved the transfer but cautioned in a report back to Bush: "The continuation of this type unit is uncertain at this time and we may last 3 months, 6 months, a year or who knows! With this in mind, if you are willing to accept assignment under these circumstances, welcome! We're glad to have you."
But Bush's superiors in Texas nixed the transfer; they ruled him ineligible since it was noncompatible service. Bush next applied for the 187th Tactical Reconnaissance Group in Montgomery, which flew Phantom II jets, even though Bush was not qualified to fly the aircraft.
Yet this transfer was on grounds that it met requirements for "equivalent duty" in that Bush could still study flying manuals and take other lessons to hone his readiness.
The records released so far are unclear as to exactly when Bush headed to Alabama. He submitted his application in September 1972 for the 187th and requested -- and received -- the transfer for September, October and November of that year.
But back in Texas, his superiors were not happy. While still under their jurisdiction, he was suspended from flying for "failure to accomplish annual medical examination," effective Aug. 1.
Any pilot knows that he must submit to physicals, especially if he hopes to prove his fitness and keep his wings. The records do not state why Bush did not accomplish the exams. In 1999, campaign officials said Bush wanted to wait and take his medical exam with a doctor he knew in Houston.
On Friday, White House communications director Dan Bartlett said Bush did not take the physical because he knew he was transferring to Alabama and would be in a nonflying status there.
The pay records released by the White House last week indicate that Bush did not show up for any Guard duty for more than six months, between April 16, 1972, while still in Texas, to Oct. 28, 1972, presumably while in Alabama.
According to the White House's interpretation of those pay sheets, Bush performed Guard tasks at the Montgomery base on Oct. 28 and Oct. 29, and again Nov. 11-14, shortly after the Senate election there.
The White House has not provided a roster of Alabama guardsmen who remember Bush, and most veterans of the Alabama squadron cannot recall him at all. But Republican operatives did release the name of Bill Calhoun.
Calhoun, who now lives in the Atlanta area, said he was a supervisor in the Alabama squadron and remembered Bush because he and Bush were the only Republicans in a squadron that otherwise was full of "George Wallace Democrats."
He said Bush signed in "probably from four weekends to six weekends" and usually spent his time in Calhoun's upstairs office reading flight magazines and pilot accident reports -- which was considered acceptable duty.
"He was very punctual and very dedicated and never complained about it," Calhoun said. "A typical fighter pilot, a little more quiet than some of us. And drinking and carousing -- that was typical of a fighter pilot."
He added that Bush always appeared in uniform and "there was some resentment" from other squadron members, who did not like a man coming from Texas and talking Republican politics.
"We had lunch sometimes, and he told me he was working pretty heavily in the campaign, at least long hours," Calhoun said. "I asked him if he was going to be a politician and he said, 'I don't know. Probably.' "
Calhoun conceded that 30 years was a long time, but he stuck to his recollections of Bush being there for weekend duty. However, the pay sheets cover only two weekends, plus a Monday and Tuesday.
Blount lost the election. His son, Winton Blount III, who also worked on the campaign, recalled Bush as an engaging, energetic presence. But he said Bush's Guard duty at the same time just was "not the kind of thing people generally would have been aware of."
He added, "There was generally some knowledge that he had some Guard duty to do, that he was a jet pilot."
Bush wouldn't have had to account for his time away from the campaign, if he took any. Blount said he himself was not a full-time presence in the campaign because he was married and working as a businessman in Miami and traveling back to Alabama regularly to pitch in.
Another campaign aide, Ruth Noble Groom, said Bush was away from Montgomery a lot during that period because he was responsible for organizing Blount committees in counties all over Alabama.
A girlfriend of Bush's, Emily Marks Curtis, who also worked on the Senate campaign , said she never saw him in uniform and he never took her to the base. Still, she remembered Bush returning to Alabama after the election for more Guard duty.
"Why else would he come back to Montgomery?" she said, apparently referring to the mid-November pay sheet dates. "That's what he did while he was there."
He returned to Houston but apparently was seldom seen there either, still in a nonflying status. In May 1973, Harris wrote in the pilot's annual report that "Bush has not been observed at this unit" during the last year.
He left the Guard in September 1973, en route to Harvard Business School. He was clocked out eight months early, and given an honorable discharge, all of which Texas officials defend as acceptable since he had accrued enough duty points to fulfill his obligation.
In asking for the early discharge, Bush was succinct, writing to his superiors little more than, "I have enjoyed my association" with the Guard.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
A look at Bush's military record
During the Vietnam War, George W. Bush was admitted to the Texas Guard and received a commission as a second lieutenant. Some important dates:
January: While still at Yale, Bush completes Air Force officer qualification test in New Haven, Conn.
May: Texas Air National Guard Commander Col. Walter B. "Buck" Staudt meets with Bush, recommends him for a direct commission to second lieutenant and acceptance for pilot training. Bush joins the Guard on May 27 as an enlistee at Ellington Air Force Base, near Houston.
July 12: Federal Recognition Examining Board says Bush is qualified for promotion to second lieutenant with the 111th Fighter Interceptor Squadron.
July 14: Enters basic training in San Antonio, Texas.
August: Completes basic training.
September: Promoted to second lieutenant.
November: Undergoes pilot training at Moody Air Force Base, Georgia.
December: Begins serving as a trainee with the 111th Squadron.
January: Assigned flight duty as an F-102 fighter pilot with the 111th Squadron.
August: Three-member board recommends promotion to first lieutenant.
Regularly attends drills and alerts at Ellington; begins working at a Houston agricultural company.
January-April: Continues service in the Texas Air National Guard.
May 24: Requests permission to transfer to Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, so he can work in the Senate campaign of Winton "Red" Blount Jr. , a family friend. Texas unit does not approve transfer.
August: Fails to take required flight physical.
September: Suspended from flight status.
September: Requests and receives approval for a three-month transfer to 187th Tactical Reconnaissance Group in Montgomery, Ala.
October: Is paid for two days service; it is not certain where he served.
November: Returns to his Texas unit at Ellington, serves four days.
January: Serves six days; according to White House records, has a dental exam at Dannelly Field Air National Guard Base in Montgomery, Ala., on Jan. 6.
April-July: Serves 40 days, participating in nonflying drills. Last day for which he is paid is July 30.
September: Requests discharge from the Texas Air National Guard so he can attend Harvard Business School.
October: Receives honorable discharge eight months before the end of his enlistment.
Sources: Associated Press, White House, Chicago Tribune; Graphics reporting by Tom Reinken
Staff writer Greg Miller contributed to this report.