Bush's Air Guard stint
started well, then faded into mystery
Air Force Times
William H. McMichael
(weekending) Issue Date: September 27, 2004
John F. Kerry's service in Vietnam and his postwar
testimonials have been targeted all summer by Republican-funded
critics and veterans groups — so much so that for several
months they have obscured George W. Bush's much-criticized
Vietnam-era service in the National Guard. A renewed interest in
Bush's service raised by a critical CBS News report
exploded in controversy over whether some recently unearthed Bush
documents were actually forgeries.
From most accounts, Bush appears to have received preferential
treatment to get into the Air National Guard and avoid the draft
after he graduated from Yale University in 1968. He was initially
regarded as a good pilot, but his performance faded over his
final two years in the Guard and he was suspended from flight
status. He did not fly for the remaining 18 months he served in
the Guard, though he was obligated to do so.
And for significant chunks of time, Bush did not report for
duty at all. His superiors took no action, and he was honorably
discharged in 1973, six months before he should have been.
In a 2002 interview with USA Today, Dean Roome, a former
fighter pilot who lived with Bush in the early 1970s, said Bush
was a model officer during the first part of his career. But
overall, he said, Bush's Air Guard career was erratic
— the first three years solid, the last two troubled.
"You wonder if you know who George Bush is,' Roome
said. "I think he digressed after a while. In the first
half, he was gung-ho. Where George failed was to fulfill his
obligation as a pilot. It was an irrational time in his
Awaiting the draft
In June 1968, with his student deferment ready to expire when
he graduated from Yale, Bush faced the draft, just like hundreds
of thousands of other young Americans. The controversial Vietnam
War was raging, and draftees often ended up in Vietnam's
jungles. Thirty-eight percent of the 1.73 million men drafted
between 1965 and 1973 served in Vietnam, and draftees accounted
for 30.4 percent of the war's 58,245 combat deaths.
Bush did not get drafted. Instead, two weeks before
graduation, he joined the Texas Air National Guard — a
so-called "champagne unit' that included other sons
of rich and influential Texans. He signed up for a six-year term.
There was a waiting list, as was the case at most Guard and
Reserve units throughout the country, because such service was
generally considered a likely way to avoid combat (5,977
reservists and 101 guardsmen died in Vietnam). But according to
one highly visible source, Bush didn't have to wait.
Former Texas Lt. Gov. Ben Barnes told the CBS program
"60 Minutes' on Sept. 8 that he'd used his
political influence to jump the young Bush ahead of
"hundreds' of others to get the Guard slot.
He'd first said this publicly after testifying in a 1999
federal court deposition, saying he'd done the favor at the
request of a Bush family friend. At the time Bush joined the Air
Guard, his father, George H.W. Bush, was serving his first term
as a congressman from Texas.
"I would describe it as preferential treatment,'
Barnes, a Democrat who is supporting Kerry's presidential
bid, told CBS.
For its part, the Bush campaign stands behind the
president's service. "The president's proud of
his service,' said Reed Dickins, a Bush campaign spokesman.
"The president served honorably, similarly to the thousands
of National Guard (members) that are serving our country today.
The attacks on this president's service have been purely
It may be difficult for younger readers to understand the
volatility of this issue during the Vietnam era, particularly
given the extensive involvement of today's Guard and
reserve in Iraq. Secretary of State Colin Powell's 1995
book "My American Journey' put it eloquently:
"The policies — determining who would be drafted
and who would be deferred, who would serve and who would escape,
who would die and who would live — were an antidemocratic
disgrace,' Powell wrote. "I am angry that so many of
the sons of the powerful and well placed … managed to
wangle slots in reserve and National Guard units. Of the many
tragedies of Vietnam, this raw class discrimination strikes me as
the most damaging to the ideal that all Americans are created
equal and owe equal allegiance to their country.'
Bush graduated from flight school in 1969, was certified July
9, 1970, as "combat ready' in the F-102, and began
winning praise for his flight and leadership skills. On his April
30, 1971, fitness report, covering 166 active-duty days over a
period of 17 months, he earned high marks.
"Lt. Bush is an exceptionally fine young officer and
pilot,' wrote his commanding officer in the 111th Fighter
Interceptor Squadron in Houston, Lt. Col. Jerry B. Killian. Bush
"performed in an outstanding manner … a natural
But from there, Bush's performance slipped. The descent
began when Bush apparently did not follow an order to report for
his annual flight physical in May 1972, which got him
The grounding was noted in one of the four documents unveiled
by CBS — which were given to the White House, which
released them to the rest of the media. It appears to be an order
signed by Killian suspending Bush from flight status "due
to failure to perform to USAF/TexANG standards and failure to
meet annual physical examination (flight) as ordered.'
Handwriting experts hired by many media organizations as well
as other critics contend the document, and possibly all four, are
forgeries. However, Killian's order is confirmed by two
documents that were not part of the CBS papers. The first is a
White House-released letter from the commander of the 147th
Fighter Group, Col. Bobby W. Hodges, to its Texas higher command
dated Sept. 5, 1972, with a subject line of "Suspension
From Flying Status.'
The letter documents the missed flight physical and the
suspension, "effective 1 Aug 1972.' A Sept. 29 order
from the National Guard Bureau further confirms the missed
physical and the suspension.
On May 26, 1972, Bush asked in writing for reassignment to an
Air Reserve squadron in Alabama so he could work on the U.S.
Senate campaign of Republican Winton "Red' Blount, a
close friend of his influential father. That was rejected because
Bush was obligated to serve as a Ready Reservist until May 26,
1974, and was ineligible for assignment to the Air Reserve. About
three months later, on Sept. 5, Bush asked to perform
"equivalent duty' with the Alabama unit from
September to November. Killian approved the request a day later.
The orders went through on Sept. 15, and while Bush had missed
the Sept. 9-10 unit training assembly, the document noted he
could make the next two. Bush's Officer Military Record
shows an Oct. 1, 1973, discharge from the Texas Air National
Guard and transfer to the Alabama unit.
Another White House-released document shows a total of 56
points Bush apparently earned during this 12-month period, but
it's awarded in one lump sum rather than credited for each
training period. But this document also contains an error,
listing Bush's status as "PLT On-Fly' —
meaning he was on flight status — when he had not been for
a year. This, said retired Army Lt. Col. Gerald A. Lechliter, who
has done an in-depth analysis of Bush's pay records
(www.nytimes.com/packages/pdf/opinion/lechliter.pdf), makes the
form's authenticity suspect.
There's also the record of a Jan. 6, 1973, dental exam
performed on Bush at Dannelly Air National Guard Base, Ala.
There's nothing that documents why Bush, who reportedly
returned to Texas after the election, didn't get this work
done closer to home.
Bush's attendance and participation in weekend drills
had been meticulously recorded up through May 1972. But other
than the points record and the dental exam record, the year
following Bush's request for reassignment to Alabama is a
In a fitness report supplement released by the White House
this year, an administrative officer wrote, "Not rated for
the period 1 May 72 through 30 Apr 73. Report for this period not
available for administrative reasons.'
In the remarks section, Killian wrote that Bush "has not
been observed at this unit during the period of report. …
He cleared this base on 15 May 1972 and has been performing
equivalent training in a non flying status' with the
Alabama unit. Bush, however, was only authorized to be gone from
September to November.
‘Don't remember seeing you'
The same day Barnes spoke with CBS, a new pro-Kerry group,
Texans for Truth, announced it was launching a TV ad campaign
that would attack Bush for failing to perform his duties while
temporarily assigned to the Alabama unit. While it wasn't a
new accusation, the ad featured a member of that unit who said
he'd never met the future president.
"I heard George Bush get up and say, ‘I served in
the 187th Air National Guard in Montgomery,
Alabama,'' retired Lt. Col. Robert Mintz said on
camera. "Really? That was my unit. And I don't
remember seeing you there. …'
On Sept. 5, Bush formally asked Killian for a discharge from
the Texas unit so he could attend Harvard Business School in
Cambridge, Mass. Two weeks later, Hodges approved the request and
honorably discharged Bush, administratively transferring him to
Headquarters, Air Reserve Personnel Center in Denver.
Two months earlier, on June 30, Bush signed a statement
promising that if he left his Texas Ready Reserve unit, "it
is my responsibility to locate and be assigned to another Reserve
Forces unit or mobilization augmentation position. If I fail to
do so, I am subject to involuntary order to active duty for up to
There is no record of Bush ever having signed on with a
Massachusetts Reserve unit. In 1999, Dan Bartlett, working for
the Bush campaign, told The Washington Post that Bush had
completed his six-year commitment with a Boston unit. That
didn't happen, Bartlett recently told The Boston Globe.
"I must have misspoke,' he said. The following March,
Bush was redesignated as an "executive support
officer.' In May, he was placed on inactive status. On Nov.
21 — apparently at Bush's written request, according
to an undated letter sent from Massachusetts and released by the
White House in which he requests "to discharge from the
standby reserve' — he received an honorable discharge
"from all appointments in the United States Air
Documents in question
The renewed examination of the Bush record, however, has been
somewhat obscured by the explosion of media interest in the
documents CBS displayed on the same program featuring Barnes.
In a matter of minutes, Internet "bloggers' were
raising questions about the authenticity of the documents,
claiming that that era's typewriters could not have
produced some of the typographical elements in the memos and that
they were computer-generated forgeries. They also said that
Killian's signature was either forged or copied from actual
Killian's former secretary, Marian Carr Knox, 86, of
Houston, has said she believed the memos were fake but their
content accurately reflected Killian's opinions.
"I know that I didn't type them,' she said
in an interview with CBS. "However, the information in
those is correct.'
As of Sept. 16, CBS continued to stand by its reporting.
William H. McMichael covers the Navy from Hampton Roads, Va.
Reach him at (757) 223-0096 or by e-mail at