Did George W. Bush go AWOL during his time in the National Guard?

April 11, 2003

Dear Cecil:

Since you've already covered the Bush family's relationship to the Nazis (thank you), I thought maybe you'd also cover another timely topic. I've heard many times and in many places (but none mainstream that I can think of): that George W. Bush was AWOL for at least a year from the National Guard during Vietnam, after "jumping the line" to get a slot in the guard in the first place. For some reason (I'm not sure why), I have trust in the Straight Dope. Can you tell me/us if the person sending others to war in Iraq was really derelict in his military duties? How serious an offense would that behavior have been considered, generally, during the Vietnam war? Lastly, if George was actually AWOL, and that would have been the equivalent of a felony for most people, why haven't we been hearing about this issue?

Dear Kerry:

Yeah, the mainstream media have really kept a lid on this one. We wouldn't know anything about Bush going AWOL if it hadn't been for that obscure underground newspaper the Boston Globe, which broke the story nationally in May 2000. But you're right that coverage has been pretty thin. A few months after the 2000 election, former Bill Clinton adviser Paul Begala said he'd done a Nexis search and found 13,641 stories about Clinton's alleged draft dodging versus 49 about George W. Bush's military record.

Why the disparity? We'll get to that. First the basics: Yes, it's true, Bush didn't report to his guard unit for an extended period — 17 months, by one account. It wasn't considered that serious an offense at the time, and if circumstances were different now I'd be inclined to write it off as youthful irresponsibility. However, given the none-too-subtle suggestion by the Bush administration that opponents of our Iraqi excursion lack martial valor, I have to say: You guys should talk.

Here's the story as generally agreed upon: In January 1968, with the Vietnam war in full swing, Bush was due to graduate from Yale. Knowing he'd soon be eligible for the draft, he took an air force officers' test hoping to secure a billet with the Texas Air National Guard, which would allow him to do his military service at home. Bush didn't do particularly well on the test — on the pilot aptitude section, he scored in the 25th percentile, the lowest possible passing grade. But Bush's father, George H.W., was then a U.S. congressman from Houston, and strings were pulled. The younger Bush vaulted to the head of a long waiting list — a year and a half long, by some estimates — and in May of '68 he was inducted into the guard.

By all accounts Bush was an excellent pilot, but after a while his enthusiasm seems to have cooled. In 1972, four years into his six-year guard commitment, he was asked to work for the campaign of Bush family friend Winton Blount, who was running for the U.S. Senate in Alabama. In May Bush requested a transfer to an Alabama Air National Guard unit with no planes and minimal duties. Bush's immediate superiors approved the transfer, but higher-ups said no. The matter was delayed for months.

In August Bush missed his annual flight physical and was grounded. (Some have speculated that he was worried about failing a drug test — the Pentagon had instituted random screening in April.) In September he was ordered to report to a different unit of the Alabama guard, the 187th Tactical Reconnaissance Group in Montgomery. Bush says he did so, but his nominal superiors say they never saw the guy, there's no documentation he ever showed up, and not one of the six or seven hundred soldiers then in the unit has stepped forward to corroborate Bush's story.

After the November election Bush returned to Texas, but apparently didn't notify his old Texas guard unit for quite a while, if ever. The Boston Globe initially reported that he started putting in some serious duty time in May, June, and July of 1973 to make up for what he'd missed. But according to a later piece in the New Republic, there's no evidence Bush did even that. Whatever the case, even though his superiors knew he'd blown off his duties, they never disciplined him. (No one's ever been shot at dawn for missing a weekend guard drill, but policy at the time was to put shirkers on active duty.) Indeed, when Bush decided to go to business school at Harvard in the fall of 1973, he requested and got an honorable discharge — eight months before his service was scheduled to end.

Bush's enemies say all this proves he was a cowardly deserter. Nonsense. He was a pampered rich kid who took advantage. Why wasn't he called on it in a serious way during the 2000 election? Probably because Democrats figured they'd get Clinton's draft-dodging thing thrown back at them. Not that it matters. If history judges Bush harshly — and it probably will — it won't be for screwing up as a young smart aleck, but for getting us into this damn fool war.

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