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Documents Say Bush Got Breaks in Military

Squad commander felt pressure to 'sugarcoat' lapses for flier given a coveted Air Guard slot.

September 09, 2004|James Rainey | Times Staff Writer

George W. Bush's squadron commander in the Texas Air National Guard grounded the young lieutenant from flying when he missed a medical examination and failed to meet performance standards, according to documents made public Wednesday that revived an issue that had shadowed Bush for much of his political career.

Four memos from the late Col. Jerry Killian, released Wednesday by CBS' "60 Minutes," suggest that Bush received favored treatment during a time in the early 1970s when many young men were being drafted and sent to fight in Vietnam.

In one memo, dated Aug. 18, 1972, Killian wrote that he was being pressured from higher-ups in the Guard to gloss over Bush's poor performance and to "sugarcoat" his evaluation.

"I'm having trouble running interference and doing my job," he wrote.

The memos appeared to be written by Killian to himself and were maintained in his own files, "60 Minutes" reported.

The news program cited the opinion of a handwriting expert and a close friend of Killian's who said all four memos appeared authentic.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday September 11, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 101 words Type of Material: Correction
National Guard memos -- An article in Section A on Thursday about newly released memos regarding President Bush's service in the Texas Air National Guard incorrectly identified the range of the memo dates. The four memos, which appear to have been written by the late Lt. Col. Jerry Killian, Bush's supervisor, were dated from May 4, 1972, to Aug. 18, 1973. The article incorrectly gave the date of the Aug. 18, 1973 memo -- which indicated Killian had been pressured by higher-ups in the Guard to gloss over Bush's poor performance and to "sugarcoat" his evaluation -- as Aug. 18, 1972.

Questions about Bush's military service have persisted for much of his political life and were raised four years ago in his first run for the White House. The topic was reinvigorated by several revelations Wednesday:

* Killian's memos and an interview with a Texas Democratic politician and John F. Kerry supporter who said he helped Bush jump to the front of the line to get in the Air National Guard.

* A Boston Globe story published Wednesday that concluded Bush "fell well short of meeting his military obligation" in part because he failed to report for duty to a Guard unit in Boston when he moved there to attend Harvard Business School.

* And a new television ad by a liberal Texas advocacy group that features a former guardsman saying he never saw Bush, though they both served in the Alabama Air National Guard at the same time.

White House officials said Wednesday that the Killian memos and reports on Bush's Guard service were mostly rehashes of previous reports and supported their contention that the president fulfilled his duties.

"If the president had not fulfilled his commitment he would not have been honorably discharged," spokesman Scott McClellan said.

Still, intensifying scrutiny of the president's record -- and whereabouts -- in the Air National Guard seemed to put the White House on the defensive in a campaign that previously focused on Kerry's service in Vietnam and his subsequent antiwar activities

Bush's service has been in dispute for years because of a six-month gap in 1972 that has not been fully explained by military records. Repeated news reports and document releases by the White House and Pentagon have not settled the question.

Killian's memos, written daily in the early 1970s when he commanded Bush's squadron at Houston's Ellington Air Force Base, appear to be the most damaging revelations in long-running accusations by his critics that he had received special treatment. The memos involving Bush were dated between May 4 and Aug. 18, 1972.

They suggest that Killian, who died in May 1984, ordered Bush to take a physical so that he could maintain his flying status, in contradiction to White House reports that Bush didn't need the exam because he was transferring to an assignment where he would not be flying.

And although the official version from Bush's camp has been that he was grounded on Aug. 1, 1972 only because he had not completed the physical, Killian cited other reasons, as well.

"On this date, I ordered that 1st Lt. Bush be suspended not just for failing to take a physical," Killian wrote, according to the news report, "but for failing to perform to U.S. Air Force/Texas Air National Guard standards.

"The officer [then-Lt. Bush] has made no attempt to meet his training certification or flight physical," the memo goes on.

Previously released Pentagon records have shown that Killian gave glowing reports to Bush early on, calling him "an exceptionally fine young officer and pilot" who "performed in an outstanding manner."

But "60 Minutes" -- without saying how it obtained them -- reported that Killian also kept his own personal "daily memos" during that period at the Houston air base.

In one such memo from May 19, 1972, Killian wrote that Bush called him to talk about "how he can get out of coming to drill from now through November."

The memo goes on to say that Bush told Killian he was "working on another campaign for his dad" in Alabama, and "may not have the time" to take his physical. But Killian's memo suggests that some in the Guard command were not pleased. He advised the young flier of the military's "investment" in his flight training, which some experts have estimated at $1 million.

Bush had received permission from the Guard to move to that state to assist the U.S. Senate campaign of Winton Blount, a former postmaster general and Bush family friend.

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