Yeoman of the Guard

AWOL? Probably not. A draft dodger? No question.

W: barely flying during his Guard tenure

The documents released by the White House on Feb. 10 (available here, here, here, here, and here) don’t clear up all the questions surrounding President Bush’s whereabouts when he was in the Air National Guard. There are still zany discrepancies between documents and discrepancies between documents and the recollections of National Guard officials, and there are still periods when President Bush’s whereabouts remain weirdly difficult to establish. (Slate’s Josh Levin has produced what we hope is the most comprehensive Bush-National Guard time line available anywhere. See below.) Nonetheless, the documents do narrow the period of Bush’s apparent absence from Guard duty from one year to six months. They also establish that, if you use the most generous measure available, Bush squeaked by with enough service “points” to justify his honorable discharge. His early discharge in October 1973 to attend Harvard Business School still seems undeserved, given his poor attendance record, his apparent failure to meet the minimum-training requirement, and his suspension from flying (for failing to show up for a physical) during much of his time in what was, after all, the Air National Guard. Taken together, though, these documents indicate that it’s probably unfair to state, even metaphorically, that Bush went AWOL. Bush’s Guard service merits a D, not an F.


Important caveat: Chatterbox is assuming these documents have not been tampered with. Given their mysterious appearance now rather than four years ago, when the Boston Globe’s Walter V. Robinson put this story on the map, it isn’t completely paranoid to question their authenticity. (For what it’s worth, the National Personnel Records Center says it has no record of any changes being made.) We should further remember that the early 1970s, when these documents were first filed, was a golden age of executive branch corruption. Taking these factors into consideration, Chatterbox estimates that there’s a 5 percent chance that the White House-released documents are phony. A less rude way to put this is that there’s a 95 percent chance the documents are genuine. So that’s what we’ll assume.


To say that Bush squeaked by on his National Guard requirements doesn’t mean that he served his country in any meaningful way during the Vietnam War. The Republican National Committee and the Bush White House have been struggling mightily to change the subject from Bush’s truancy to the disrespect Bush’s critics are showing for the National Guard, from which the Army and Air Force currently have 100,000 troops mobilized. The Guard has already sent more than 60,000 troops to Iraq, and many more will follow. It’s a serious fighting force worthy of gratitude and respect. “I would be careful not to denigrate the Guard,” Bush warned Tim Russert in his Feb. 8 Meet the Press interview.


It’s fine to go after me, which I expect the other side will do. I wouldn’t denigrate service to the Guard, though, and the reason I wouldn’t is because there are a lot of really fine people who have served in the National Guard and who are serving in the National Guard today in Iraq.

But what really denigrates the National Guard of 2004 is to compare it to the National Guard of the early 1970s, when it was a haven for people who wanted to avoid the Vietnam draft. Not the cushiest haven, perhaps—not as good as divinity school, for instance—but a haven nonetheless. Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen confessed on Feb. 10 that, like Bush, he joined the Guard to stay out of Vietnam.


[B]ack then the Guard was where you went if you did not want to fight. That was the case with me. I opposed the war in Vietnam and had no desire to fight it. … I did my basic and advanced training (combat engineer) and returned to my unit. I was supposed to attend weekly drills and summer camp, but I found them inconvenient. I “moved” to California and then “moved” back to New York, establishing a confusing paper trail that led, really, nowhere. For two years or so, I played a perfectly legal form of hooky. To show you what a mess the Guard was at the time, I even got paid for all the meetings I missed. … The National Guard and the Reserves were something of a joke. Everyone knew it. Books have been written about it.


Cohen’s hooky was not, in fact, legal, but it wasn’t something you had to worry much about being punished for. During those waning days of the draft (and the war), National Guard officers weren’t eager to baby-sit draft-dodgers, so the ones who agitated to leave often got their wish. Out of a total combined force of roughly half a million, the Guard sent 8,728 troops to Vietnam during the entire war, of whom 83 died. These deaths were tragic, but they weren’t large in number. To put it crudely, the mortality rate for National Guardsmen during the Vietnam War was lower than the mortality rate for rock-throwing antiwar protesters and bystanders in the Prentice Hall parking lot at Kent State on May 4, 1970, when Ohio National Guardsmen killed four of them.


It does the current National Guard no disservice to say that the Guard of that earlier era was not exactly Charlie Company. But it does John Kerry a serious disservice to deny that President Bush evaded the draft during the Vietnam War.

Bush-National Guard Time Line

 May 1972
 May-November 1972
Bush in Alabama working on the Senate campaign of family friend Winton Blount. *
SOURCE: various newspaper accounts and biographiesMay 24
applies for equivalent training at 9921st Air Reserve Squadron at Alabama’s Maxwell Air Force Base.
SOURCE: Boston Globe, May 23, 2003May 26
Lt. Col. Reese H. Bricken
approves Bush’s transfer to the 9921st squadron.
June 1972
 Summer 1972
Bush attends GOP convention in Miami with George H.W. Bush.
SOURCE: Bill Minutaglio, First Son, p. 144
June 17: Watergate break-in
July 1972
August 1972
 Bush fails to take his annual physical and is ultimately removed from flying status.
September 1972
 Sept. 5
Bush again requests a temporary transferto Alabama
, this time to serve in September, October, and November with Montgomery’s 187th Tactical Recon Group. 
October 1972
 Oct. 7-8
Bush is supposed to report for duty in Alabama on these dates but doesn’t show up.

Boston Globe, Feb. 11, 2004Oct. 8
Bush’s grandfather, former Sen. Prescott Bush, dies of cancer, and George W. serves as a pallbearer at the funeral in Greenwich, Conn.

Bill Minutaglio, First Son, p. 145
This may explain why he didn’t show up for duty Oct. 7-8.Oct. 28-29
According to documents released by the White House yesterday, these two days of Guard duty represent
Bush’s first four “points earned” since April 1972—that is, since before he moved to Alabama. The documents do not specify where he performed this duty.
November 1972
  After Blount loses his bid for the Senate, Bush moves back to Houston.Nov. 4-5
Bush is supposed to report for duty in Alabama on these dates but doesn’t show up.

Boston Globe, Feb. 11, 2004
Nov. 7: Nixon re-elected
Nov. 11-14
Eight points earned *
December 1972
 Christmas 1972
While visiting his parents in Washington, D.C., Bush goes out drinking with his 15-year-old brother Marvin. On the way home, George W. hits a garbage can with the car. George W. confronts an angry George H.W. by saying: “I hear you’re looking for me. You wanna go mano a mano right here?”
SOURCE:U.S. News & World Report, Nov. 1, 1999
Dec. 18-30: “Christmas bombing” of North Vietnam
January 1973
 George W. starts working at PULL, a mentoring program for kids in inner-city Houston.
various newspaper accounts and biographiesJan. 4-6
Six points earnedJan. 6
Bush’s teeth are examined by a dentist at the Alabama National Guard base.Jan. 8-10
Six points earned
Jan. 22: Roe v. Wade legalizes abortion
Jan. 27: Vietnam cease-fire
Jan. 30: U.S. military draft ends
February 1973
March 1973
March 29: Last U.S. combat troops leave Vietnam
April 1973
 April 7-8
Four points earned
May 1973
 May 1-3
Three points earnedMay 2
In his annual evaluation, Bush’s commanding officers at Houston’s Ellington Air Force Base write that “
Lt. Bush has not been observed at this unit during the period of this report.”May 8-10
Three points earned
May 18: Senate Watergate committee hearings begin
May 19-20
Four points earnedMay 22-24
Three points earnedMay 29-31
Three points earned
June 1973
 June 5-7
Three points earnedJune 23-24
Four points earned 
July 1973
 July 2-3
Two points earnedJuly 5
One point earnedJuly 9-12
Four points earnedJuly 16-19
Eight points earnedJuly 21-22
Four points earnedJuly 23-27
Five points earnedJuly 30
One point earned 
August 1973
September 1973
 Bush starts his first year at Harvard Business School.Sept. 5
requests his discharge from the Guard. 
October 1973
 Oct. 1
Bush officially
discharged from the Guard eight months before his six-year commitment is over.
Oct. 20: Nixon fires Watergate prosecutor Archibald Cox


Correction, Feb. 12, 2004: An earlier version of this column questioned the accuracy of this claim, given that Nov. 11 was Veterans Day, which is always celebrated on that specific date (in tribute to the 1918 Armistice, which the holiday originally commemorated). “National Guard units never drill on Veterans Day,” Chatterbox noted.

But from 1971 through 1977, Veterans Day was moved to the last Monday in October. The states objected, and it was moved back to Nov. 11 starting in 1978. Consequently, Nov. 11, 1972, wouldn’t have been celebrated as Veterans Day at whatever National Guard base Bush was on that day, and drills would have proceeded as usual. ( Return to corrected item.)

Correction, Feb. 16, 2004: The article originally misspelled the first name of the Senate candidate for whom George W. Bush worked in Alabama. His name is Winton, not Winston, Blount. (Return to the corrected item.)