The controversy over Bush's service centers on what his critics call "the period in question," that is, the time from May 1972 until May 1973. What is not mentioned as often is that that period was in fact Bush's fifth year in the Guard, one that followed four years of often intense service.
Bush joined in May 1968. He went through six weeks of basic training — a full-time job — at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Tex. Then he underwent 53 weeks of flight training — again, full time — at Moody Air Force Base in Valdosta, Ga. Then he underwent 21 weeks of fighter interceptor training — full time — at Ellington Air Force Base in Houston. Counting other, shorter, postings in between, by the end of his training period Bush had served two years on active duty.
Certified to fly the F-102 fighter plane, Bush then began a period of frequent — usually weekly — flying. The F-102 was designed to shoot down other fighter planes, and the missions Bush flew were training flights, mostly over the Gulf of Mexico and often at night, in which pilots took turns being the predator and the prey."If you're going to practice how to shoot down another airplane, then you have to have another airplane up there to work on," recalls retired Col. William Campenni, who flew with Bush in 1970 and 1971. "He'd be the target for the first half of the mission, and then we'd switch."
During that period Bush's superiors gave him consistently high ratings as a pilot. "Lt. Bush is an exceptional fighter interceptor pilot and officer," wrote one in a 1972 evaluation. Another evaluation, in 1971, called Bush "an exceptionally fine young officer and pilot" who "continually flies intercept missions with the unit to increase his proficiency even further." And a third rating, in 1970, said Bush "clearly stands out as a top notch fighter interceptor pilot" and was also "a natural leader whom his contemporaries look to for leadership."
All that flying involved quite a bit of work. "Being a pilot is more than just a monthly appearance," says Bob Harmon, a former Guard pilot who was a member of Bush's group in 1971 and 1972. "You cannot maintain your currency by doing just one drill a month. He was flying once or twice a week during that time, from May of 1971 until May of 1972." While the work was certainly not as dangerous as fighting in the jungles of Vietnam, it wasn't exactly safe, either. Harmon remembers a half-dozen Texas Air National Guard fliers who died in accidents over the years, in cluding one during the time Bush was flying. "This was not an endeavor without risk," Harmon notes.
THE MOVE TO
The records show that Bush kept up his rigorous schedule of flying through the spring of 1972: He was credited for duty on ten days in March of that year, and seven days in April. Then, as Bush began his fifth year of service in the Guard, he appears to have stepped back dramatically. The records indicate that he received no credit in May, June, July, August, and September 1972. In October, he was credited with two days, and in November he was credited with four. There were no days in December, and then six in January 1973. Then there were no days in February and March.
The change was the result of Bush's decision to go to Alabama to work on the Senate campaign of Republican Winton Blount. With an obligation to the Guard, Bush asked to perform equivalent service in Alabama. That was not an unusual request, given that members of the Guard, like everyone else, often moved around the country. "It was a common thing," recalls Brigadier General Turnipseed. "If we had had a guy in Houston, he could have made equivalent training with Bush's unit. It was so common that the guy who wrote the letter telling Bush to come didn't even tell me about it."
The president's critics have charged that he did not show up for service — was "AWOL" — in Alabama. Bush says he did serve, and his case is supported by records showing that he was paid and given retirement credit for days of service while he was known to be in Alabama. The records also show that Bush received a dental examination on January 6, 1973, at Dannelly Air National Guard base, home of the 187th (January 6 was one of the days that pay records show Bush receiving credit for service). And while a number of Guard members at the base say they do not remember seeing Bush among the roughly 900 men who served there during that time, another member, a retired lieutenant named John Calhoun, says he remembers seeing Bush at the base several times.
What seems most likely is that Bush was indeed at Dannelly, but there was not very much for a non-flying pilot to do. Flying fighter jets involves constant practice and training; Bush had to know when he left Texas that he would no longer be able to engage in either one very often, which meant that he would essentially leave flying, at least for some substantial period of time. In addition, the 187th could not accommodate another pilot, at least regularly. "He was not going to fly," says Turnipseed. "We didn't have enough airplanes or sorties to handle our own pilots, so we wouldn't have done it for some guy passing through."
On the other hand, showing up for drills was still meeting one's responsibility to the Guard. And, as 1973 went along, the evidence suggests that Bush stepped up his work to make up for the time he had missed earlier. In April of that year, he received credit for two days; in May, he received credit for 14 days; in June, five days; and in July, 19 days. That was the last service Bush performed in the Guard. Later that year, he asked for and received permission to leave the Guard early so he could attend Harvard Business School. He was given an honorable discharge after serving five years, four months, and five days of his original six-year commitment.
The records indicate that, despite his move to Alabama, Bush met his obligation to the Guard in the 1972-73 year. At that time, Guardsmen were awarded points based on the days they reported for duty each year. They were given 15 points just for being in the Guard, and were then required to accumulate a total of 50 points to satisfy the annual requirement. In his first four years of service, Bush piled up lots of points; he earned 253 points in his first year, 340 in his second, 137 in his third, and 112 in his fourth. For the year from May 1972 to May 1973, records show Bush earned 56 points, a much smaller total, but more than the minimum requirement (his service was measured on a May-to-May basis because he first joined the Guard in that month in 1968).
Bush then racked up another 56 points in June and July of 1973, which met the minimum requirement for the 1973-74 year, which was Bush's last year of service. Together, the record "clearly shows that First Lieutenant George W. Bush has satisfactory years for both '72-'73 and '73-'74, which proves that he completed his military obligation in a satisfactory manner," says retired Lt. Col. Albert Lloyd, a Guard personnel officer who reviewed the records at the request of the White House.
All in all, the documents show that Bush served intensively for four years and then let up in his fifth and sixth years, although he still did enough to meet Guard requirements. The records also suggest that Bush's superiors were not only happy with his performance from 1968 to 1972, but also happy with his decision to go to Alabama. Indeed, Bush's evaluating officer wrote in May 1972 that "Lt. Bush is very active in civic affairs in the community and manifests a deep interest in the operation of our government. He has recently accepted the position as campaign manager for a candidate for United States Senate. He is a good representative of the military and Air National Guard in the business world."