The deluge of letters and e-mail prompted by last week’s column demands another look: Did George Bush go AWOL?

Reacting to my recital of evidence that Lt. Bush didn’t show up for a big chunk of his National Guard duty in Alabama and Texas, from May 1972 to May 1973, outraged readers pounced.

He received an honorable discharge, they argued. Plus, Alabama’s Gen. William Turnipseed backed off his claim of never having seen Bush on base. And the White House finally released records that prove he served his time. Would I make a retraction? The answer is: No, no and no.

The honorable discharge proves nothing. Radio talk-show host Don Imus told listeners about getting in trouble, including punching a sergeant, while in the Marines. His superiors told him they’d give him an honorable discharge on one condition – that he promise not to re-enlist. Sometimes, Imus points out, honorable discharges are given just to get rid of people.

In fact, according to Separation and Retirement Procedures for today’s Air National Guard, those eligible for honorable discharge include people who fail to comply with requirements for a medical examination; who abuse drugs; who have unsatisfactory participation; or whom the service is unable to locate. Nobody knows under what rubric Lt. Bush was discharged.

Yes, Gen. Turnipseed, commander of the Alabama Air National Guard when Bush was assigned there – who originally said he never saw Bush report for duty – now adds that he was traveling and not around much at the time. But that doesn’t mean anything. One man’s absence doesn’t prove another’s presence.

Remember: To date, despite the offer of a reward, not one guardsman has come forward to say he served with George Bush in Alabama. And the White House can’t name one, either. Perhaps because there aren’t any.

On “Meet the Press,” President Bush promised to release his entire military files. This week, the White House reneged. Instead, they released only selected pay stubs and the record of a dental exam which, they say, prove Bush served his time in Alabama. Not on your life. Far from resolving the issue, they just add to the confusion.

Here’s what the White House documents show. First, that Bush was not paid at all from April 1972 till October 1972. Which means even the White House admits he did not report for duty in Alabama, as required, for at least six months. Second, that Bush was paid for nine appearances, a total of 25 days, between October 1972 and April 1973, but they don’t say where. Third, that Bush received a dental exam at Dannelly Air National Guard Base in Montgomery on Jan. 6, 1973.

That’s it. The sole piece of evidence that Bush ever showed up at a National Guard base in Alabama: He went to the dentist. Once. Whoop-de-do!

Documents released by the White House still shed no light on why Bush did not take his annual physical, as required, in August 1972. But they also raise a more serious question.

Pay stubs show Bush on duty the weekend of May 1-3, 1973, at Ellington Air Force Base in Houston. Yet that very same weekend, on May 2, his two superior officers at Ellington signed a report saying they could not complete his annual evaluation because “Lt. Bush has not been observed at this unit during the period of report.”

Who’s lying?

George Bush himself left no doubt why he joined the National Guard: to get out of Vietnam. In May 1984, he told the Houston Chronicle: “I was not prepared to shoot my eardrum out with a shotgun in order to get a deferment. Nor was I willing to go to Canada. So I chose to better myself by learning how to fly airplanes.”

So Bush, a son of privilege, used his congressman father’s connections to get into the Guard. After learning to fly, he used his father’s political connections to get assigned to a Republican Senate campaign in Alabama. Then he used his father’s connections to get out of the Guard five months early, so he could attend Harvard Business School.

And now President Bush has the audacity to suggest that anyone who questions his military record is denigrating the National Guard. No, Mr. President, the person denigrating the National Guard is not the one asking the questions. It’s the one who says he did his duty, but didn’t.

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