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THE RACE FOR THE WHITE HOUSE

An Agile Pilot Who Flew Under the Radar

After a promising start in a coveted Guard slot, George W. Bush nearly dropped out of sight.

September 27, 2004|James Rainey, Stephen Braun and Ralph Vartabedian | Times Staff Writers

HOUSTON — 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.

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.

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.

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