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An Agile Pilot Who Flew Under the Radar

Times Staff Writers

On a temperate, crystal-clear Texas day in April 1972, Lt. George W. Bush took what turned out to be his last flight as a National Guard pilot.

Over the next 18 months of his tour, the man who is now America’s commander in chief paid little attention to his military duties, lost his flying status and was granted an early exit from the assignment that shielded him from combat in Vietnam.

A reexamination of Texas Air National Guard documents, Air Force regulations and accounts from former Guard officials and military experts depicts a capable young pilot who initially excelled, then barely scraped together enough credits in his final two years to meet the Guard’s minimum requirements.

Texas Guard officials seemed to tolerate Bush’s minimal compliance, including a six-month absence in 1972, and accommodated Bush’s request to end his military obligation early. His honorable discharge in October 1973 came eight months before his six-year service commitment was due to end, allowing him to enter Harvard Business School.

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Questions about Bush’s military service are not new. They have shadowed him since his father first ran for president in 1988. Yet the issues have not been fully resolved today, as many records that typically would be in his military file have not been found, and others have continued to trickle out from the Pentagon and the White House.

Although Bush initially earned praise as “an outstanding young pilot” -- with a seasoned veteran’s agility in an F-102 interceptor jet -- he appeared impatient after several years to get out of the Guard.

In 1972, he failed to take an annual flight physical that was standard among his fellow pilots. As a result, his commanders grounded him. By 1973, his superiors were forced to file a near-blank evaluation, conceding they had neither seen him in a year nor received any reports from his new overseers in Alabama.

“I don’t know if he got disenchanted with flying or what,” said retired Maj. Gen. Bobby W. Hodges, then the commander of Bush’s unit, the Houston-based 147th Fighter Interceptor Group. “Maybe he saw an opportunity to improve himself from a civilian standpoint. I don’t know.”

Bush said in a brief interview this month with a New Hampshire newspaper that his transfer to nonflying status in Alabama came after he was granted permission by his superiors in Texas.

“I did everything they asked me to do and met my requirements and was honorably discharged. I’m proud of my service,” he said.

As questions continue to be raised, aides point to Bush’s honorable discharge as the best proof that he fulfilled his duty. “When the Air National Guard assessed someone’s ability to receive an honorable discharge, they made sure they fulfilled their duties in a manner that was honorable,” said White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan. “Clearly, they concluded he had.”

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At 21, a draft-eligible George W. Bush graduated from Yale University and returned to Texas as the Vietnam War was peaking. It was 1968, the year of the Tet offensive, and American servicemen were dying at the rate of 30 a day.

Many of his Ivy League peers avoided their military obligations with deferments. But Bush found an officer’s slot with the Guard unit south of Houston, even though a Texas Guard historian has said the 29 pilot positions were already spoken for.

In the enlistment papers he filled out in May 1968, Bush committed to 18 months of basic training, officer candidacy and flight instruction and a six-year tour, due to end in May 1974. He was also given the option of volunteering for foreign duty -- which could have led him to Vietnam. Bush checked the box stating: “Do not volunteer for overseas.”

One explanation for his seamless entry into the Guard was provided recently by Ben Barnes, a onetime Texas Democratic official and a supporter of Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry. Barnes said that he aided Bush as a favor to his father, George H. W. Bush, then a Republican congressman from the Houston area.

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Former reservists who ran the Texas Guard in the 1970s have long backed Bush’s account that he received no special concessions. “George Bush was treated just like everybody else. We didn’t care who his father was,” said Richard D. Via, then a Texas Air Guard lieutenant colonel and training officer.

A growing chorus of Bush critics has emerged in recent weeks, saying his youthful conduct then is freshly relevant today. They contrast Bush’s early exit with the experience of thousands of weary American Guard troops and reservists today in strife-torn Iraq, who have had their war tours involuntarily extended under the Bush administration.

“If he wanted to get out of Vietnam, fine. But he had a minimal responsibility to meet his contract, and he broke it. Now he wants our military Guard people in Iraq to make the ultimate sacrifice and accept extended tours,” said Gerald A. Lechliter, a retired Army colonel who opposes Bush’s Iraq war policy.

Lechliter is among several critics -- some of them Democrats -- who have made detailed analyses of the president’s Guard records and say that he did not meet basic standards.

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The issue of Bush’s Guard performance reemerged this month when CBS News broadcast a story and released memos that appeared to describe efforts by some senior Texas Guard officers to “sugarcoat” the young lieutenant’s allegedly subpar performance.

The swift discrediting of the notes -- purportedly written by Bush’s commander and suspected as forgeries -- blunted the political impact on the president and his reelection campaign. But the commander’s secretary said Bush’s superiors chafed at pressure from above to give Bush good marks. And questions about Bush’s performance, treatment and exit from the Guard have not gone away.

When he signed up in 1968, Bush wrote in his “statement of intent” that flying would be “a lifetime pursuit.” An admiring 1970 Guard news release about the young flier quoted a thrilled Bush saying that “flying, the whole thing, is kicks.”

At the time, the cost of training a National Guard pilot was more than $1 million. In addition to their standard six-year service commitment, Guard pilots typically agreed to fly for five years upon completion of their flight training. That standard contract has yet to surface among Bush’s files.

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Bush has given a simple explanation for why he stopped flying after his last sortie on April 16, 1972. In “A Charge to Keep,” his 1999 autobiography, he said he “was no longer flying because the F-102 jet [he] had trained in was being replaced by a different fighter.”

The aging jets gradually were being replaced. Hodges said that in August or September of 1972, he received word that the 147th would be phasing out the F-102, leaving 11 fewer pilots’ slots. Official records show, however, that the number of those jets at Ellington remained unchanged from the time Bush stopped flying until the following year.

Of the 11 pilots who eventually dropped from the rolls of the 147th at that time, 10 had served more than two decades and had enough credits to retire, Hodges recalled. Pilots with less than two years remaining in their commitment “probably” would not be trained in a new plane, Hodges said. So Bush joined the retirees as the 11th to go.

Bush’s flagging commitment to the Guard came as the Vietnam War was winding down in 1972, and the military draft was curtailed the next year, easing the anxiety of draft-age men.

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Retired Maj. Gen. Paul A. Weaver Jr., former national director of the Air National Guard, said many commanders at the time were trying to “cleanse” their rosters of inactive members. “As a commander, you don’t want to deal with someone who didn’t want to be there. There were many like that at that time,” said Weaver, whose own squadron was in the Northeast.

Regulations were also not strictly enforced in many units, military experts say.

“On administrative matters, these Guard units were incredibly lax,” said Michael F. Noone Jr., a Catholic University law professor and retired Air Force colonel and judge advocate general who inspected Air Guard posts in the 1970s for the U.S. Air Defense Command. “Exceptions were made with regularity.”

Still, many of Bush’s fellow Texas Guardsmen honored and often exceeded their military service goals, as did thousands of other so-called weekend warriors.

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Two other sons of prominent Texans who entered the Texas Guard then far surpassed minimum standards. Lloyd Bentsen III, whose father was a businessman and rising Democratic politician, and John B. Connally III, whose father was Texas governor, both made captain. Bentsen, who served with Bush in the 147th, volunteered for an extra year.

Bush’s entry was reportedly speeded by Barnes, then the Democratic speaker of the Texas House and now a major donor to Kerry’s presidential campaign. Barnes said in recent interviews that a Texas oilman, a friend of Bush’s father, requested his help in getting young Bush into the Guard.

“I would describe it as preferential treatment,” said Barnes, who said he mentioned the Yale graduate to the Guard’s top general. Both the oilman and the general are now dead, and their descendants say they are unable to verify or dispute Barnes’ account.

Republicans respond that Barnes’ statements are designed to aide Kerry’s candidacy.

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The top commander at Ellington when Bush arrived, Col. Walter B. “Buck” Staudt, told The Times in 1999 that “neither his daddy nor anybody else” helped Bush win a Guard slot. Staudt did not respond to recent interview requests.

There is no record of any direct intercession by Bush’s father. But Guard officials were pleased to have the son of a congressman join a roster already crowded with princes from Texas’ political and business circles.

At least one beneficiary of the system, Bentsen, described in a recent interview how good fortune flowed his way.

The son of the future U.S. senator and Democratic vice presidential candidate had left Stanford University in 1968 with a master’s degree in business administration. Returning to Houston, he had just begun to worry about how he would fulfill his service obligation when a solution dropped into his lap.

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At a party one summer evening, a man Bentsen had never met, Staudt, approached him and shortly offered a position in the Texas Air National Guard.

Bentsen surmises that friends had told the commander of the 147th that he was looking for an assignment. Degrees from two top universities made him a prime officer candidate, although Bentsen acknowledges “there’s no denying” that his family’s name was “a factor” in smoothing his way to the hometown posting.

Recalling how fortunate he felt at the time, Bentsen said: “I was floored.”

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As the summer of 1972 approached, the prevailing opinion around Ellington Air Force Base, where Bush’s Guard unit was based, was that George Bush was a crackerjack pilot and the life of the party. Even the base’s support crewmen were slightly in awe of the brash, lean flier who thrived at the controls of the old F-102s.

“He fit right in with the other pilots,” recalled Bob Nouis, a retired Guard mechanic, reminiscing recently at American Legion Post 490, across the street from the base in suburban Houston. “Full of that vigor, with a little bit of swagger. He looked good in his uniform.”

Commanders and fellow pilots viewed Bush as a pal and a budding leader. “Just one of the boys,” Via said of him fondly. “If we had known he would be president one day, maybe we would have kept an immaculate log of what we had. But I guess the record has to speak for itself.”

The 147th’s pilots prided themselves as the “defenders of the Gulf Coast,” guarding Texas waters in the jet they called “the Deuce.” Bush proved himself a capable pilot on routine intercept maneuvers and on an air deployment to Canada. His commanders raved in his first yearly evaluation in 1971.

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“Lt. Bush is an exceptional fighter interceptor pilot” and “eagerly participates in scheduled unit activities,” wrote Maj. William D. Harris Jr. There was praise too from the late Lt. Col. Jerry B. Killian, commander of Bush’s 111th Fighter Interceptor Squadron.

But Bush’s second evaluation in May 1972 hinted that his interest was waning. His commanders downgraded him slightly from the highest mark in three categories: “performance of duties,” “leadership” and “promotion potential.”

In a recent interview, Hodges -- who succeeded Staudt as commander at Ellington -- said he could not recall the reason for Bush’s lower marks. He speculated it might have been because Bush missed a month of flying before leaving for Alabama.

“That’s a lame explanation,” countered Lechliter, who says Bush could not have been docked simply for failing to fly for such a short period.

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By the time his 1972 evaluation was filed on May 26, Bush had already left Houston for Montgomery, Ala., where he had a job waiting in the Senate campaign of Winton “Red” Blount, a onetime U.S. postmaster general and a friend of his father’s.

But according to Bush’s file, he didn’t show up for training for six months -- between May 15, when he was last seen by his Texas commanders, and late October, when he was credited with two days of training. Bush missed drills on at least 24 weekends over that period.

Guard rules specified no more than four weekend meeting absences a year. But Bush’s Texas records contain no explanation for the missing months.

“I was under the impression that he was intending to come back every month or so for four or five or six days to make up some drills and then go back [to Alabama],” Hodges recalled. “But maybe because of the situation, he felt like he couldn’t come back to make the drills up with us.”

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Bush’s onetime roommate and Guard buddy, Dean Roome, told USA Today in 2002 that the future president started out “gung-ho.” But, Roome added: “Where George failed was to fulfill his obligation as a pilot. It was an irrational time in his life.”

In subsequent interviews, Roome has backed away from that statement, saying only that Bush was a good pilot who completed his duty.

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Bush left Houston without a new unit to join. Guard records show he requested a nonflight assignment in Alabama in May, but was rejected. He tried again Sept. 5, and finally received clearance on Sept. 21 to train with the 187th Tactical Reconnaissance Group at Dannelly Air Base in Montgomery.

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In his request, Bush said he wanted to train in Alabama for only “the months of September, October and November.” But his failure to take an annual Guard flight physical in July, the month of his 26th birthday, hinted that he was uncertain about returning to flying.

An array of Guard officials -- including a Houston physician who spent 10 years as the flight surgeon for Bush’s air wing -- said they could not recall another pilot who skipped his mandatory medical exam.

“There were cases where they’d be a few weeks late because their regular jobs might get them in a bind,” retired flight surgeon Jerry Marcontell said in a recent interview. “But I don’t remember anyone missing a physical for months at a time. Certainly not a year.”

Killian, the squadron commander, took Bush’s initial failure to take the test as “an issue, but not earth-shattering,” Via recalled. But Killian’s secretary, Marion Carr Knox, said in recent interviews that Killian was “upset about it” and dictated a memo about his concerns.

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The memo Knox remembers has yet to surface. Although Knox dismisses the CBS memos as fakes, she says that real memos at the time raised not only the issue of Bush’s missed physical but also attempts by superiors to pump up his evaluation.

Bush and his aides have changed their explanation for the missed physical. They said four years ago that he could not get to his family doctor, then later raised the phaseout of the fighters he flew. But the wide array of Guard pilots interviewed said it was part of their culture to always be ready and never miss a physical.

If Bush was busy in his new political job in Montgomery, it was not apparent to all of his co-workers in the Blount campaign. He was hired as political director to coordinate with GOP county chairs around Alabama and to distribute campaign literature. But C. Murphy Archibald, a Blount nephew and campaign worker, said the future president often arrived late and left early, boasting about nightly barhopping exploits.

“It just seemed strange that someone in their mid-20s in the midst of a hard-fought Senate campaign would not think of something of more significance to talk about,” Archibald recalled. The young Blount relative, a Democrat, said he was soon assigned to take over Bush’s principal duties.

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Bush’s work habits also puzzled Linda Allison, a Blount volunteer and the widow of Jimmy Allison, then a political intimate of Bush’s father who went to Montgomery to manage Blount’s campaign.

Allison, who concedes she does not like Bush, said her husband explained at the time that “Big George wanted to get him away from the life he had been living” in Houston. She recalled the younger Bush as “the jokester; the fun-loving good guy.”

Other Blount veterans, including campaign worker Ruth Noble Groom, have told The Times that Bush worked solid hours and traveled widely for Blount, who was trounced by the popular incumbent, Sen. John J. Sparkman, in what was still a heavily Democratic South.

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At Dannelly Air Base in Montgomery, Alabama Air Guard pilots of the 187th Tactical Reconnaissance Group heard that a Texas pilot was due in to begin several months of nonflight training.

Retired Capt. Kenneth Lott, the 187th’s onetime personnel officer, had signed off on Bush’s temporary transfer. Retired Col. Leonard Walls trained pilots on base. Pilot Bob Mintz looked for the new man, hoping the Texan would join him and friends for drinks and dinner. But none of those men remember seeing Bush at the time.

Mintz revived the issue weeks ago when he appeared in an anti-Bush television ad by a group called Texans for Truth.

Earlier this year, the White House pointed to one former guardsman, John Calhoun, who claimed he lunched with Bush several times and saw him thumbing through flight manuals in an office at Dannelly. But the onetime lieutenant colonel reported meeting Bush in the spring and early summer -- long before Bush officially transferred there for training.

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Lott faults Texas Guard officials for failing to make sure Bush showed up on time. He recalled no check-up calls from Ellington or requests to keep track of Bush’s duty days and pay.

“The responsibility stayed with Texas,” he said. “It was up to them to keep tabs on him.”

Lott’s counterpart in Bush’s Texas unit, retired Col. Rufus G. Martin, said he never had a “personnel contact” at Dannelly who could forward information about Bush’s performance.

One of Bush’s commanders noted in his final May 1973 annual evaluation that “Lt. Bush has not been observed at this unit” in Texas for a full year -- a span that included the period in which Alabama Guard officials say he rarely appeared at their unit.

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Knox, the secretary to Killian and several other officers, said in recent interviews that some pilots at the Houston base resented Bush’s failure to appear for drills and would “snicker and so forth about what he was getting away with.”

National Guard commanders in Texas and across the nation said they occasionally allowed guardsmen to move from one state to another so that the “weekend warriors” could pursue their full-time jobs while serving in the military.

But retired Air Force Judge Advocate General Scott Silliman, now a law professor at Duke University, said Bush’s case was unusual because of the incomplete paper trail permitting such an arrangement.

Bush had returned to Houston by January 1973, finding work with an inner-city youth program run by former Houston Oiler football stars John White and Ernie “Big Cat” Ladd.

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Lt. Bush completed most of his required training in a flurry between May 29 and July 30, 1973, attendance records show. Martin, the retired Texas personnel officer, said Bush earned his points fairly.

Under a U.S. Code rule cited by Texas Air Guard officials and used by all Guard units across the country, Guard members are required to earn a minimum of 50 service points each year, beginning on the date of their enlistment.

During the Vietnam era, guardsmen who failed to measure up were sometimes warned they might be handed over to local draft boards and sent to active duty, Martin said. But nothing in Bush’s records suggests any such caution.

A guardsman typically received 78 points a year -- 15 just for being a member, another 15 for attending two-week summer “active duty” training and 48 for “unit training assemblies,” held one weekend per month.

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Bush’s attendance record shows that he amassed 56 and then 50 points in his final two Guard years, when he was based both in Texas and in Alabama.

Earlier this year, retired Texas Guard Lt. Col. Albert C. Lloyd Jr., a Bush consultant who reviewed the president’s Guard file, reported that Bush “completed his military obligation in a satisfactory manner.”

While Bush met the minimum standard, he fell far below the 78-point mark and pulled only about half the duty of most pilots, who typically racked up 100 points or more a year, according to several former Texas Guard officials.

All National Guard members are also covered by a second federal guideline. As members of the Ready Reserve, they are available for call-up during national emergencies, and are required to show up for 48 drill periods and 15 active-duty days each fiscal year.

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Under those measures, Bush received 51 points out of a 63-point training minimum from 1972 to 1973, his final full year of Guard service.

According to Lt. Col. Thomas Deall, director of public affairs for the Air Force Reserve Personnel Center in Denver, both the Guard and Ready Reserve standards had to be observed.

“All members of the reserve, in order to have a good year, have to have their drills and active duty,” Deall said. “People who miss drill weekends jeopardize getting a good year.”

Guard members needed six such “good years” -- with fully credited service -- to complete their duty.

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But Bush’s Texas Guard superiors said they knew nothing of that requirement, and other military experts said the 50-point rule had long been their prevailing annual standard.

If there were any doubts at the time about Bush’s performance, they were set aside by the fall of 1973. On Sept. 3, he requested an early discharge, saying he planned to attend Harvard Business School. Killian recommended the approval of his request a day later.

On Oct. 1, Bush was honorably discharged, eight months before his six-year commitment was to end.

In his one-paragraph resignation request, Bush reflected briefly on his days as a pilot. “I have enjoyed my association,” he wrote, “with the 111th Fighter Interceptor Squadron and the 147th Fighter Interceptor Group.”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Bush’s military service

George W. Bush joined the Texas Air National Guard in 1968 and was discharged in 1973. Some important dates:

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1968

May: Bush recommended for a direct commission to second lieutenant and acceptance to pilot school. Joins May 28.

August: Completes basic training.

November: Begins pilot training at Moody Air Force Base in Georgia.

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1970

January: Completes flight training and is assigned to the 111th Fighter Interceptor Squadron at Ellington Air Force Base, south of Houston.

1971

Fulfills his military obligations as a weekend warrior at Ellington.

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1972

April: Flies for the last time.

May: Requests permission to transfer to Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Ala.

July: Fails to take his required flight physical. Transfer to a nonflying unit at Maxwell rejected.

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September: Requests and receives approval for a three-month transfer to 187th Tactical Reconnaissance Group at Dannelly Air Base, also in Montgomery. Suspended from flight status.

1973

May-July: After transferring back to his unit in Texas, completes more than half of his yearly minimum duty requirement by serving 27 days in two months.

September: Requests a discharge to attend Harvard Business School.

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October: Receives an honorable discharge eight months before the end of his six-year enlistment.

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Sources: Pentagon and White House documents, Times interviews

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Rainey reported from Houston, Braun from Washington and Vartabedian from Los Angeles. Times staff researchers John Beckham, Vicki Gallay and Penny Love contributed to this report.


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