How Well Did He Serve?

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What Did Bush Have to Do to Fulfill His Guard Commitment?
Requirements for service have tightened in the past 20 years, but in those days, the Air Guard made it hard to fail. In Bush's era, a Guardsman was supposed to earn 50 points each year to meet his commitment and avoid, at least in theory, the risk of facing induction into the active-duty force. Getting to 50 was relatively easy if you just showed up. And if you missed your drills, you were allowed to make up points in other ways.

But the Texas Air Guard seemed to make it even easier. For example, several members of the Dallas Cowboys belonged to another unit of the Texas Guard, and each was cut plenty of slack every fall during football season. Henry Simon, a Fort Worth, Texas, lawyer who toiled as a clerk in the Texas Guard's Grand Prairie office during the 1960s, said airmen were given lots of chances to perform "equivalent service" to make up for missed drills. "I don't think there was ever an objective standard of what equivalent service was. It might be something like going to the noon meeting of the town council and accepting a proclamation praising the fine work of the Texas Air National Guard," Simon told TIME. "We'd fill out a form detailing what [the person] did, and he'd get credit for the drill."

When Bush decided to go to work for Blount, he was obliged under Guard rules to request an official transfer to a different Guard unit. He applied in May 1972 to a tiny postal unit in Montgomery and was accepted. There is no paper evidence that he ever reported for duty. Two months later, the Air Force overturned that transfer, and so Bush, in September, requested reassignment to the 187th Tactical Reconnaissance Group at Dannelly Field, about 15 minutes from downtown Montgomery. The unit flew planes but not the kind Bush could fly.

So Did Bush Report for Duty in Alabama or Not?
Depends on whom you believe. During his Meet the Press appearance, Bush twice told Russert that he reported for duty in Alabama. But for most of last week (and for much of the past four years), it has been difficult to find anyone who recalls seeing Bush at Dannelly Field. (At one point in 2000, 10 Vietnam veterans offered a $1,000 reward to anyone who could prove he saw Bush on duty during 1972.) Even Bush had trouble explaining his job at Dannelly, saying he did "administrative work." John B. Calhoun, an Atlanta resident who served for 28 years in the Air Force and the Alabama Guard, told TIME he clearly remembers Bush reporting for duty on weekends starting in the summer of 1972, apparently before Bush officially requested reassignment there. Calhoun explained that Bush signed into his office and mainly read training manuals and safety magazines, signing out at the end of each drilling day. Bush kept a low profile, Calhoun said, and sometimes ate lunch with Calhoun in the snack bar.

But there are some discrepancies in Calhoun's account: he claimed Bush turned up more often than was indicated in Bush's official pay records for the period. And many other veterans of the 187th do not recall seeing Bush on base. Paul Bishop, a retired Air Force colonel who says he never missed a weekend drill in 27 years with the 187th, told TIME the physical layout of the unit's hangar made it "virtually impossible" for Bush to have met with Calhoun and for none of the unit's 800 other reservists to have seen him. "Fighter pilots, and that's what we are," says Bishop, "have situational awareness. They know everything about their environment, whether it's an enemy plane creeping up or a stranger in their hangar."

This much is known: for the first three years while he was in Texas, Bush had no trouble racking up hundreds of points each year, far in excess of what was required. He logged more than 600 hours of flying time and received glowing evaluations from his superiors. But in 1972, when he moved to Alabama, his points plunged. He earned only 41 points but was awarded the standard 15 "gratuitous" points from Texas Air Guard Major Rufus Martin for being a member in good standing—just enough to meet his obligation.

Why Did He Miss The Physical?
No question so unsettles some former Guardsmen as much as this: If Bush did report, as he contends, why did he let his medical certification lapse around the same time—a full two years before his Guard commitment was up? Four years ago, the Bush campaign said Bush didn't undergo the physical because his family doctor was back in Texas. That explanation doesn't wash; only flight surgeons can perform Air Force exams, and there were plenty of those in Alabama.

The official explanation has changed: the White House now says Bush didn't need to take the medical exam because he was no longer flying. But even if Bush wasn't planning a career in aviation, that explanation is difficult for other pilots to accept. Pilots routinely sacrifice everything to keep their "medical cert" current; the military is rife with stories of cheating by pilots to pass their physicals. And the government, which spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to train and keep its pilots flying, has never looked kindly on highly trained personnel, particularly pilots, standing down on their own. "There are certain things I expect from my pilots," said Major General Paul Weaver, who retired as head of the Air National Guard in 2002. "He should have kept current with his physicals." Some Guard veterans have speculated that Bush may have been dodging random drug tests, which were instituted in some military units as early as 1971. But there is no evidence to support that; in fact, the dentist who worked on Bush's teeth and who later became the commander of the base medical unit, told TIME that the Alabama Guard did not conduct random drug tests until the 1980s.

White House officials, surprised by what they call "the hysteria" over Bush's war record, concede that this has not been their finest hour. "We were a little rusty on this," said an adviser. Said another: "[The White House] swung at a pitch in the dirt."

But the White House has been off its game for weeks, and the hardballs just keep coming. Last week, as Wesley Clark endorsed John Kerry for the Democratic nomination, the retired four-star general said that "questioning our leaders, especially in time of war, is one of the highest forms of patriotism." That suggests a brutal campaign to come about the war that is still going on—especially since the two sides haven't stopped arguing about the one that ended more than three decades ago.

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