The War Hero vs. the AWOL Airman - Why the Bush Military Service Story Should Not Fade Away

At a rally in Pembroke, NH, on January 17, 2004, as he introduced the candidate, filmmaker Michael Moore noted that retired General Wesley Clark was a champion debater. "I know what you're thinking. I want to see that debate" between Clark and Bush -- "the general versus the deserter." The remarks would probably have been dismissed for what they were -- campaign rhetoric -- had not Peter Jennings brought the matter up at a debate among the Democratic candidates in New Hampshire in late January. Jennings challenged Clark to repudiate Moore's line, calling it a "reckless charge, not supported by the facts...." Clark sidestepped the question, and his son later told an online Washington Post discussion, "... from what I understand Bush has an honorable discharge which means legally he can't be described as a deserter - because of that discharge. Frankly it is up to the press to thoroughly investigate the allegations of George W Bush being AWOL."

Democrats apparently realized that the issue might have new resonance this year. Appearing on ABC's This Week on February 1, Democratic National committee chair Terry McAuliffe flatly declared that Bush had been AWOL. Slate published an article by Brendan Koerner that asked "Is President Bush a Deserter?" (answer: no, but he might have been AWOL). pointed to "Bush's missing year" and asked "Did Bush drop out of the National Guard to avoid drug testing?" Finally, during Bush's appearance on Meet the Press, Tim Russert asked him to respond to McAuliffe's allegations. Bush emphasized that he was honorably discharged, and tried to reframe questions about his service as impugning the National Guard in general. But after mild prodding from Russert, Bush did agree to release "everything to settle this."

Monday night, February 9, 2004 unnamed White House "officials" told the New York Times that they had obtained payroll records, the availability of which they claimed not to have known previously. The records were released on Tuesday, February 10, and covered 18 months of Bush's National Guard service in 1972 and 1973. Reporters noted that the records documented only the days on which Bush was paid for his service during those years. But they also appeared to show that Bush did not report for duty between mid-April and late October 1972. According to earlier reports, Bush was in Alabama during that time, working as campaign manager for his father's friend Winton Blount, who was running for US Senate.

Far from satisfying critics, the release of payroll records once again highlighted uncertainty surrounding Bush's service in the latter half on 1972. This period had come under scrutiny during the 2000 presidential campaign. Bush, who began his guard service in Texas, received permission to train with a unit in Alabama so that he could work on the Blount campaign. But the Alabama guard has no record of Bush's service in the state. While the payroll records released on February 10 document that Bush was paid for two days in October 1972 and four days in November 1972, they did not indicate that he had actually reported for duty in Alabama.

After the records' release, Alabama guard officials reiterated that they had no record of Bush's service, but added that the record would have been sent to Texas. Guard officials told the Times that the lax state of record keeping in 1972 and 1973 would have made it possible to be paid without having appeared for service dates. They also said that it would have been possible to make up as many service dates as Bush apparently missed, although that would have required a conversation with the unit commander. One of Bush's commanders, Lt. Col. William Turnipseed, said previously that while he is not sure, he does not remember Mr. Bush reporting for duty, although he added that he does not recall how often he himself was not on the base at that time.

Bush returned to Texas in the winter of 1973 where he served a total of 27 days between January and June, 19 days in July, and then returned to Harvard Business school despite approximately six months remaining on his service obligation. Repeating the claim made during the 2000 campaign that Bush must have fulfilled his service obligation adequately to have received an honorable discharge, the White House re-released documents showing that Bush had accumulated more than the minimum number of service points toward retirement pay during 1972 and 1973.

On Wednesday, February 11, as the White House announced that it was awaiting additional records, the New York Times reported receiving a copy of a 1998 letter from a retired lieutenant colonel in the Texas National Guard to a Texas state senator alleging that Bush aides had reviewed Bush's guard file to "make sure nothing will embarrass the governor during his re-election campaign." The retired officer, Bill Burkett, wrote Austin Democrat Senator Gonzalo Barrientos that Dan Bartlett, then an aide to Governor Bush, and now White House communications director, and Gen. Daniel James, then the head of the Texas National Guard, had checked Bush's file. Burkett repeated to the Times allegations he makes in a book to be published this month, that Bush aides ordered the guard to "remove damaging information." Burkett also alleged that he witnessed Gen. John Scribner, head of the Camp Mabry military museum, going through Bush's personnel records, and saw Bush's name on papers that had been discarded in a trash container.

Senator Barrientos office confirmed that it had communicated with Burkett. Mr. Bartlett and Joe Allbaugh, Bush's chief of staff at the time of the incident, denied that records had been altered, but acknowledged speaking with National Guard officials as Bush began his gubernatorial reelection campaign. George Conn, a former chief warrant officer with the Texas Guard, declined to comment on Burkett's allegations, but vouched for his character. "I know LTC Bill Burkett and served with him several years ago in the Texas Army National Guard. I believe him to be honest and forthright. He 'calls things like he sees them,'" Conn told the Times. Retired Lt. Col. Dennis Adams confirmed to the Times that Burkett discussed the incidents with him at the time. "We talked about them several different times," he said. (Burkett's allegations are detailed in Bush's War For Reelection by James Moore.)

On Friday, February 13, the White House released hundreds of pages of Bush's National Guard records. The stack which on television looked more substantial than it was, contained many duplicates of documents released during the 2000 campaign. White House communications director Dan Bartlett attempted to justify the duplication by saying that the overriding concern in releasing the documents had been speed. Analysts initially assumed that the timing of the release meant that there was incriminating information among the many pages. But the real reason appeared to be a desire to defuse criticism from Democrats. In an interview with the Times the next day, Bartlett recalled that questions about Bush's military service had appeared during the 2000 campaign, but that the Gore campaign did not pursue them. This time although administration officials had said that Mr. Bush would not "engage" in the campaign until spring at the earliest, Mr. McAuliffe's public characterization of Bush as AWOL, and an apparently successful attempt to contrast Bush's spotty service with the record of decorated war hero and de facto Democratic nominee John Kerry, "so infuriated and stunned the White House, officials said, that Mr. Bush decided he could not sit by quietly."

Yet the mountain of paper contained no new evidence that Bush reported for duty in Alabama in 1972 and 1973. Among the documents was a previously released dental record from Dannelly Air National Guard base in Montgomery, AL, dated January 1973. The White House position is that the the dental and payroll records, combined with the undisputed fact that Bush resided in Alabama during the period in question, prove that he appeared for duty in Alabama.

Naw, Ol' George Wasn't There

The voluminous documents still did nothing to explain a key mystery in Bush's service history: why he failed to take a physical in 1972. A document from Maj. Gen. Francis Greenlief, chief of the National Guard Bureau, dated September 29, 1972, stated that on "verbal orders" of the commander, Bush was suspended from flying. "Reason for suspension: Failure to accomplish annual medical examination." Dan Bartlett told Reuters that Bush did not take the physical because he was going to be doing Guard duty that did not involve flying.

Bob Mintz and Paul Bishop, who served in the 187th Air National Guard Tactical squadron at Dannelly AFB, the Alabama unit to which Bush had been assigned, told the Memphis Flyer that they had been told to expect him, but he never appeared. "I remember that I heard someone was coming to drill with us from Texas. And it was implied that it was somebody with political influence. I was a young bachelor then. I was looking for somebody to prowl around with." But Bush never appeared. "And I was looking for him," Mintz insisted, adding that he assumed that Bush had "changed his mind and went somewhere else." "There’s no way we wouldn't have noticed a strange rooster in the henhouse, especially since we were looking for him," said Mintz, now a FedEx pilot. Mintz who has voted for Republicans, independents, and Democrats described a "negative reaction" to what he sees as Bush's dissembling over his service record. "You don’t do that as an officer, you don’t do that as a pilot, you don’t do it as an important person, and you don’t do it as a citizen. This guy’s got a lot of nerve."

"I talked to one of my buddies the other day and asked if he could remember Bush at drill at any time, and he said, 'Naw, ol' George wasn't there. And he wasn't at the Pit, either." The "Pit" was a local watering hole frequented by pilots. Mintz's buddy Paul Bishop confirmed Mintz's recollection -- or lack thereof. "... [N]ever saw hide nor hair of Mr. Bush," he said, adding "... in fact, I saw more of Al Sharpton at the base than I did of George W. Bush." Bishop, who voted for Bush in the 2000 election, doesn't completely condemn the war in Iraq, but like Mintz is perturbed by Bush's apparent lack of sincerity about his military service. During the 2000 election he had not been overly concerned about Bush's claims, but the second Iraq war brought the issue into focus. "I think a commander-in-chief who sends his men off to war ought to be a veteran who has seen the sting of battle," Bishop said. "In Iraq: we have a bunch of great soldiers, but they are not policemen. I don’t think he [the president] was well advised; right now it’s costing us an American life a day."

Part of the problem, Bishop told the Flyer, is Bush's inexperience with combat operations, resulting in an inability to connect or identify with the serviceperson in the field. Not surprisingly, Bishop is not alone in that concern. A Fox national survey of 900 voters, conducted January 21 and 22, asked the question: In the future, if the United States were faced with a foreign crisis such as Iraq, who do you think would do a better job handling the situation, a candidate who has served as president during war or a candidate who has served as a soldier in combat? (The question might more properly have been phrased "... a candidate who is a combat veteran ....") By 41 - 33% respondents favored a combat veteran. As the Houston Chronicle's Cragg Hines wrote recently, "Now the administration has to worry that voters might actually prefer a president with some hands-on combat experience (which the president and others of us in his age group avoided so skillfully)."

Writing in Atlanta Creative Loafing, John Sugg derided Bush's claim that his honorable discharge constituted evidence that he had fulfilled his service obligation. Sugg located a murderer on Georgia's death row, who prior to his incarceration was an officer in the Georgia Army reserve. While sitting in his cell awaiting execution, the inmate was promoted from lieutenant to captain, received credit for his Reserve service, and was honorably discharged. As Sugg colorfully put it, "If a killer can get credit for Reserve service while in jail, a privileged and insouciant playboy can certainly be a no-show at drills and still collect pay."

Bush campaign chairman Marc Racicot stoked the controversy when, on February 23, he told National Public Radio's Juan Williams that Bush and Kerry's service records "compare very favorably." Bush, said Racicot, "signed up for dangerous duty.... He volunteered to go to Vietnam. He wasn't selected to go but nonetheless served his country very well." The Hill's Josh Marshall was quick to point out that on his enlistment forms Bush had checked the box "I do not" volunteer to go overseas.

Bush himself had also recently contradicted Racicot. During Bush's Meet the Press appearance, moderator Tim Russert asked Bush directly if he had volunteered to go to Vietnam. "No, you're right," Bush responded. Pressed by reporters, Racicot claimed he had read about Bush volunteering in in a "national publication," but couldn't remember which one. An aide subsequently pointed reporters to a February 19 article in the National Review that described Bush volunteering for a program called Palace Alert that "dispatched qualified F-102 pilots in the Guard to Europe and the Far East, occasionally to Vietnam, on three- to six-month assignments." Bush, it turns out, had used the Palace Alert story before. There is no evidence of this in Bush's service records. Moreover, the program was shut down a week after Bush finished flight school.

Everything Old Is New Again

Observers have speculated as to why questions about Bush's military service have provoked greater interest now than they did in 2000. There appear to be several reasons. One is that the Gore campaign did not pursue the issue vigorously because Al Gore's own service was viewed as a potentially problematic. Although Gore served as an army journalist in Vietnam, his service was regarded by some as a politically motivated attempt to offset the anti-war stance of his father, a US senator. Gore also reportedly claimed that he came "under fire" during his service in Vietnam, which turned out not to be true.

A second reason is Bush's relationship with the press. A 1999 article in the Texas Observer declared "In the Texas media, the Governor walks on water." According to the Observer, Bush began actively cultivating the Texas media during the 1988 Republican convention in New Orleans. Bush stayed in the same hotel as the Texas press, and determinedly ingratiated himself with key Texas newspaper and broadcast journalists. The Observer cited Berkeley journalism professor Ben Bagdikian's observation that "reporters learn to respond to the institutional biases of their editors, who in turn learn to respond to the institutional biases of their publishers." The bias of large news outlets is in favor of large corporate interests, and "Bush has more corporate endorsements (and funding) than Michael Jordan, so they realize there is an institutional bias against publishing critical stories about Bush."

While in principle the national media may have been more likely than the Texas media to criticize Bush, during the 2000 election the press played an important role in propagating the myth of George Bush, regular guy. As Ted Macgregor noted in recent commentary for the Pacific Northwest Inlander, "The media rarely mentioned that his regular-guy connection to voters probably stopped at getting out of serving in Vietnam, getting three oil companies and a baseball team through his father's connections, easy entry to Ivy League schools, etc. Media pundits even determined that he won the presidential debates simply because he didn't screw up and for managing to pronounce foreign leaders' names correctly." By contrast, the press happily repeated stories promoted by Republican operatives and Fox News that Gore claimed to have invented the Internet, and that he thought he was the basis for a character in Love Story. Gore did head the first Congressional inquiry into improving the Internet, and was the basis for the character in Love Story, but, as Macgregor observed, "Corrections, when they ran, were never as big as the story in the first place."

In May 2000 Boston Globe reporter Walter Robinson published a detailed analysis of Bush's service in the Texas Air National Guard. The report, which drew on "160 pages of ... records, assembled by the Globe from a variety of sources and supplemented by interviews with former Guard officials," concluded that "In his final 18 months of military service in 1972 and 1973, Bush did not fly at all. And for much of that time, Bush was all but unaccounted for: For a full year, there is no record that he showed up for the periodic drills required of part-time guardsmen." This directly contradicted a statement made in Bush's 1999 autobiography A Charge to Keep, in which he wrote that, after completing his pilot training in June 1970, "I continued flying with my unit for the next several years."

Robinson's report appeared on May 23. Less than a week later, CNN's Inside Politics covered Memorial Day appearances by Bush and Gore. Bernard Shaw anchored the segment:

SHAW: Vice President Gore marked Memorial Day in western Pennsylvania with a wreath and a speech honoring those who gave their lives while touching lightly on his own Vietnam record.

GORE (videotape): And today, we particularly honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice. I know that my service doesn't in any way match that of the heroes that we honor on this day. I was a reporter, and when I went into the field, I carried a pencil and an M-16.

SHAW: Gore spent six months in Vietnam as an Army journalist…At a similar ceremony near Fort Hood Army Base in Texas, governor George W. Bush paid his tribute to the fallen.

BUSH (videotape): We dedicate ourselves to the memory of the bravest of the brave to remember them in our time for all time.

SHAW: Bush did not once mention his own service as a pilot with the Texas Air National Guard. Instead he focused on the future...

According to the Daily Howler, the Robinson report was mentioned only once on Inside Politics between Memorial Day and Election Day, and then only by's Jake Tapper.

A third reason for the greater public interest in Bush's spotty military record this time around may be that the de facto democratic candidate, John Kerry, is a decorated war veteran, having received three Purple Hearts, a Silver Star, and a Bronze Star. Kerry enlisted in the Navy after graduating from Yale, and, after receiving training, was given command of a "Swift" Navy patrol boat in 1968, operating in the Mekong Delta. In December 1968 he was wounded in combat, and received his first Purple Heart. He received a second Purple Heart in February 1969 when he was wounded by shrapnel during a gunboat battle. A little over a week later, after coming under fire while on patrol Kerry decided to initiate a counterattack; during the fight he left his boat, pursued a Viet Cong fighter onto land, and retrieved a rocket launcher. For his actions Kerry was awarded the Silver Star. Section 3746, title 10, U.S.C, the federal statute authorizing the Silver Cross states that it "may be awarded to any individual ... who, while serving in any capacity with the Armed Forces of the United States, distinguishes himself or herself by gallantry in action....

A month later a mine detonated near Kerry's boat, wounding him in the right arm. The boat behind Kerry's, carrying Green Beret Jim Rassmann, was blown out of the water. Kerry and his crew maneuvered their boat toward Rassmann, and Kerry pulled him aboard. Kerry was awarded a third Purple Heart, and a Bronze Star. (The Bronze Star was created in 1944 to reward "acts of heroism."). Having been wounded in combat three times, Kerry qualified to be transferred to noncombat duty, which he did in April 1969. In January 1970 he requested and received permission for an early discharge so that he could run for Congress. In June of that year he joined Vietnam Veterans Against the War, and became an informal spokesman for the group.

Not having seen each other since 1969, Rassmann called the Kerry campaign on January 16, 2004, and offered to help. Six other members of Kerry's boat crew joined him to campaign in New Hampshire. Robert Poe wrote in

... Vietnam veterans, with characteristic modesty, claimed their long-overdue seat at the head table of American politics. And that brought an unexpected threat to the Bush team's reelection plans, which relied on beating up liberals who didn't know how to fight back.

[The veterans'] presence made the election itself larger. The contest became more than a choice between Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals. It became a referendum on whether Vietnam still matters to us, and perhaps on whether it ever did. And thus it became our best, and perhaps last, chance to use the Vietnam War to make ourselves a better nation, rather than allow it to make us a worse one.

Vietnam veterans had begun joining the Kerry campaign in significant numbers during the summer of 2003, in response to Bush policies on veterans' pensions, disability compensation and medical care. Simply by their presence, the vets prompted unflattering comparisons with Bush and many of his neocon coterie. The implicit question for the group that has collectively been labeled the "chickenhawks", wrote Poe, is "If you're such a great patriot, why didn't you go fight like we did?" One answer, Poe suggested, is that "neoconservatives are not more courageous or patriotic that the liberals they despise."

Like Bob Mintz, Paul Bishop, and the respondents to Fox's poll, many Americans may find that Kerry's war record gives him the edge in a "character" comparison with Bush. The presence of Vietnam veterans in the Kerry campaign may allow the Democrats to extend the character comparison to the political parties. This time around Republicans may find it harder to sell their favorite oversimplification: Democrat = anti-war, Republican = pro-war. Kerry's vote in support of the Iraq war resolution, while unpopular with some progressives, prevents Bush from labeling him as weak on terrorism. If Vietnam veterans can be a voice against the simplistic worldview that helped entangle the US in the Vietnam war -- and arguably the war in Iraq -- they will have set in motion a change whose effects may reach well beyond this year's contest of the war hero vs. the AWOL airman.


Clark, Wesley Jr. "Election 2004: The Clark Campaign" Online discussion. Washington Post 10 Feb. 2004

Broder, David S. "Clark: Bush Guard Duty Not an Issue" Washington Post 18 Jan. 2004

Meet the Press. Mod. Tim Russert. NBC. 8 Feb. 2004

Bumiller, Elisabeth "Bush's National Guard Pay Records Are Released" NY Times 11 Feb. 2004

Blumenthal, Ralph "Move to Screen Bush File in 90's Is Reported" NY Times 12 Feb. 2004

Holland, Steve "Bush releases National Guard files" Reuters. 14 Feb. 2004

Baker, Jackson "On Guard -- Or Awol?" Memphis Flyer 16 Feb. 2004

Hines, Cragg "Bush in Alabama, Kerry in Vietnam" Houston Chronicle 3 Feb. 2004

Sugg, John F. "Bush's 'Summer Patriot' Reserve Duty " Creative Loafing Atlanta 26 Feb. 2004

McGregor, Ted S., Jr. "Bush's Media Pass" Pacific Northwest Inlander 12 Feb. 2004

Robinson, Walter V. "One-year gap in Bush's National Guard duty" Boston Globe 23 May 2000

--. "Bush's Guard service: What the record shows" Boston Globe 5 Feb. 2004

Somberby, Bob "Spinning Bush At War (Part 3)!" Daily Howler 7 May 2003

Dubose, Louis, et al. "Dubya and the Press" Texas Observer 17 Sep. 1999

"Brothers in Arms?" Mother Jones 8 Feb. 2004

"Kerry Reunites with Fellow Veteran in Iowa" 17 Jan. 2004.

Poe, Robert "Kerry vs. the chicken hawks" 19 Feb. 2004

Marshall, Josh "Bush camp’s lies keep Guard issue in the spotlight" The Hill 26 Feb. 2004

See also the Boston Globe's special section on Bush's national guard service.