Is the commander-in- chief's own record of mil itary service a fitting topic for discussion dur ing this presidential campaign season?
I would say yes for a number of reasons.
First, although the charge was raised in the 2000 campaign that Bush had been AWOL from his Air National Guard unit for a year or more during the Vietnam War, Bush never granted access to his service records, which might prove whether he did or did not serve out his obligation honorably.
Second, Bush has tied his presidency to his prowess as a wartime leader. Almost unilaterally, he launched a war against Iraq, fumbling to come up with a justification after Saddam Hussein turned out not to have weapons of mass destruction. That war has claimed the lives of more than 500 American men and women, left thousands more maimed for life and disrupted the lives of tens of thousands of military families, many of them in the National Guard.
Third, Bush's Democratic opponent is likely to be Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, a decorated veteran of Vietnam who returned home to champion Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Bush's minions have begun publicly questioning Kerry's commitment to the military because of his Senate votes against some weapons systems.
In short, the answer to the question of whether Bush's military record is fair game can be summed up with another question: WWGD? What would George do? If Kerry had been AWOL from the National Guard while Bush was putting his life on the line in Vietnam, is there anyone who thinks Bush would not exploit that?
Kerry already has made a pointed reference to Bush's Top Gun simulation aboard the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln last May 1 when a banner declared, prematurely, "Mission accomplished!"
"I know something about aircraft carriers for real," said Kerry, a former Navy lieutenant.
(You say you never before heard about Bush's spotty military record? The Internet teems with information, much of it quoting mainstream publications. Start at www.awolbush.com/.
Kerry politely didn't mention the absurdity of Bush being depicted in full flight regalia as a fighter pilot action figure ($50 and up on eBay).
It is generally conceded by everyone except Bush and his sycophants that, in 1968, Bush's father, a congressman at the time, helped his oldest son jump over a long waiting list to get into the Texas Air National Guard. He signed up for two years of active duty and four years of reserve duty. Bush was enrolled in pilot training despite scoring in the bottom 25 percent in pilot aptitude.
Although Bush said he wanted to follow in his dad's footsteps as a wartime combat pilot, his application shows he checked the "does not wish to serve overseas" box.
Fair enough. After completing a 26-month active duty Army hitch myself in the fall of 1964, I chose to be discharged into the Reserves rather than volunteer for Vietnam.
Bush began his National Guard service with gusto, going through pilot school and putting in the required flight hours to maintain his proficiency rating. Soon, however, he was blending politics with his military duty, taking leaves of absence to work on a Republican's U.S. Senate campaign in Florida, his dad's congressional campaign and then, from May to November 1972, relocating to Alabama to work on a Republican U.S. Senate campaign.
Bush was required to attend drills with the Alabama National Guard, but there is no evidence that he ever showed up. Two superior officers, Lt. Col. William D. Harris Jr. and Lt. Col. Jerry B. Killian, stated that they could not perform Bush's annual evaluation for the year from May 1, 1972 to April 30, 1973, because "Lt. Bush has not been observed in this unit during the period of this report."
Bush stopped flying completely in April 1972 for reasons not explained. Critics speculate that Bush's abandonment of flying coincided with the beginning of the armed forces' testing of pilots for alcohol and substance abuse. Bush was an admitted alcoholic, and questions about his alleged drug use have never been fully answered.
If you or someone you know served in the National Guard or Reserves during the Vietnam War, ask yourself what would have been the price of disappearing from duty for a full year. For those not named Bush, the penalty was assignment to the war zone.
After being asked, pretty please, to report to duty, Bush put in 36 days in 1973 before he was formally discharged eight months early to start Harvard Business School.
Not surprisingly, Bush has been reluctant to talk about his National Guard service, giving vague answers ("I can't remember what I did"; "I made up some missed weekends"; "I fulfilled my weekends at one period of time"; "I got an honorable discharge") but offering no corroboration that he performed his duties, except from loyal campaign staffers.
Two veterans groups, one in Texas and one in Alabama, have offered rewards totaling $3,000 for proof that Bush actually served in the Alabama National Guard. No takers so far. So, yes, the commander-in-chief still has some explaining to do.
Brazaitis, formerly a Plain Dealer senior editor, is a Washington columnist.
© 2004 The Plain Dealer