WASHINGTON – As the White House struggles to document President Bush's attendance during a National Guard stint in Alabama, conspiracy theories about his military record have gained currency on the Internet. Some are pretty wild – and flat-out false, insist Guardsmen who served with Bush.
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One website that's growing in popularity, www.awolbush.com, alleges Bush not only shirked his duties at the Alabama base but also his home base in Texas, where it says he sought safe refuge from the Vietnam war in a so-called champagne unit for sons of the political elite. One article it links to suggests widely published photos of Lt. George W. Bush in the cockpit of his F-102 Delta Dagger were staged, and that he never actually flew the supersonic jet fighter.
Another piece rumors that he did fly, only to crash one day after drinking, which is the real reason the Guard grounded him; while yet another speculates he was suspended from flying after skipping a required annual physical to avoid a drug test.
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Is any of it true? Not a word, say former Texas Air National Guard pilots who flew formation with Bush during training missions and flight crew who strapped him into his cockpit before flights.
"It's a load of [equine excrement]," said one.
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Still, most were at a loss to explain gaps in Bush's pay record while in Alabama, where he transferred to a non-flying unit for about six months in 1972 to work on the political campaign of a family friend. One offered that Guardsmen who performed "equivalent duty" outside their primary base typically weren't paid for those drills, but still earned points or credits toward retirement.
Putting other rumors to rest was easier for the former airmen, though all confess to being staunch Republican friends and supporters of Bush.
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"I don't know about Alabama, because I wasn't there," said former Staff Sgt. Dan Liles, who was in Bush's Texas unit. "But I know he was at every meeting at Ellington, because I used to strap him in his F-102 and send him off."
Both men were assigned to the 147th Fighter Interceptor Group at Ellington Air Force Base (now Ellington Field) in Houston.
"I was the guy who did the safety walk around, put him up the ladder, made sure he was strapped in," Liles said in an exclusive WorldNetDaily interview. "And I'd always make sure he'd pull his ejection pin, because he'd forget that sometimes. You have to pull the pin out so you can eject. I'd say, 'Lieutenant, show me your pin.' I remember it very clearly."
Liles, who served from 1968 to 1974, says his recollection of Bush is less clear from the point the young officer transferred to Alabama in 1972. Bush, who also started his service in 1968, cleared out of Ellington Field on May 15, 1972.
Bush's commanders at Ellington have said they couldn't recall him coming back from Alabama at all. (In fact, an evaluation report says Bush wasn't observed there from May 1, 1972, to April 30, 1973.)
But his old roommate and fellow pilot – ret. Maj. Dean A. Roome – does recall Bush returning to the base, though he can't narrow down the month.
"I do remember him coming back and being out there awhile and pulling some duty," he told WorldNetDaily. "I can't remember talking to him about Alabama. He did his annual training to get in his points for the year, but as a non-flier."
Pressed for details, Roome was less certain.
"I kind of think he worked around the ops counter to help the supervisor of flying out," he said. "He definitely would have worked in operations, because he was assigned to operations."
The White House, which admits Bush stopped flying after Aug. 1, 1972, when he was suspended, says he performed "odds and ends" to finish out his duty with the Texas unit. There are no records indicating his commanders assigned him another job, however.
He got an early discharge in October 1973 to attend Harvard Business School. Liles and others also got out early.
Even so, Bush still could have been called up to active duty and forced to serve out those remaining six months, say unit contemporaries, although that wasn't likely. The Vietnam War was winding down as he was getting out.
Not only did he routinely go up in the birds in the early 1970s to help guard the Gulf coast, he participated in NORAD training exercises in Canada, says Roome, who flew several missions with Bush.
"He and I went up as a two ship (team) to North Bay, Ontario, from Ellington. We went up the central United States," he told WorldNetDaily. "He led the first leg, and I led the second. Our second leg was low ceilings at night. We were in formation, and we landed and spent a week up there flying with the Canadians as part of a NORAD exercise" involving possible nuclear attack by Soviet bombers.
Roome says he frequently was paired with Bush.
"We flew a lot of night missions. We flew in weather together," he said. "Our stock-and-trade was formation (flying). We deployed in elements of two, and we'd have to target in the stratosphere, where we had to snap up to (the target) up above 40,000 feet, or we might have one in the weeds, where we'd have to go down and shadow (it)."
As a wingman, Bush tucked in closely and flew smoothly, he says.
"He was one of my favorite people to ride formation with, because he was smooth. He was a very competent pilot," Roome said. "You sort of bet your life on each other in some of those formation missions, and to me it was always a pleasure to fly with George. He was good."
Bush, who logged more than 625 hours in the cockpit, ranked in the top 10 percent of his squadron, according to his performance evaluations.
"Lieutenant Bush is an outstanding young pilot and officer and is a credit to his unit," Lt. Col. Bobby Hodges wrote on May 27, 1971. "This officer is rated in the upper 10 percent of his contemporaries."
Another, written by Maj. William Harris on May 26, 1972, was just as glowing: "Lieutenant Bush is an exceptional fighter interceptor pilot and officer."
Liles, a rock-ribbed Republican who voted for Bush and plans to vote for him again, wonders why previous Bush campaigns didn't trumpet his exemplary flying record.
"I was surprised when he ran for president that his flying record didn't come out," he said, "because it was pretty good."
The 147th has been dubbed the "champagne unit" by critics because many sons of powerful Texans got assigned there during the Vietnam War, including the late Gov. John Connally's son and both of Sen. Lloyd Bentsen's. Bush's father was a U.S. congressman from Houston at the time. The politically connected James R. Bath, who has Middle Eastern ties, also served in the unit as a pilot. He and Bush went into the oil business together after their Guard duty. Bath has also done business with Lan Bentsen. The late Gov. Connally, moreover, had invested in Bath's aircraft brokerage firm.
While there's no direct evidence Bush's father pulled strings to get him in the unit, a Bush family friend – the late oilman Sidney Adger – allegedly asked the Texas lieutenant governor in 1968 to put in a good word with the Texas Air Guard commander for the younger Bush. And Bush's flight instructor, Col. Maurice Udell, recently admitted Bush was given a special look because his father was a fighter pilot in World War II.
Roome says he can't say for sure political pressure wasn't applied in Austin or Washington, but he didn't see any pressure at the local level.
"I never even heard from his daddy when I roomed with George. I talked to his mama (Barbara) three or four times, but not his daddy," he said. "But they never came by. And his daddy never called the guard there."
Roome, whose family was not politically connected (his father got his start as a roughneck), says the Guard unit wasn't just a place to park rich scions. He said it accepted applicants from all walks of life.
"We didn't have any pull, and I didn't have any problem getting in the Guard," he said, disputing claims of a long wait list that favored the privileged.
However, Liles, who operates a hotel near NASA, says his father, who owned a fishing camp on Lake Houston, did pull some strings to get him in the unit.
"I just barely got in that unit. I was really lucky because I was just about to be drafted," he said. "My daddy knew this guy, and the guy went down there and got me in."
And there appears to have been a double standard applied to Bush.
The Air Force required Roome, for one, to get a waiver for a $25 speeding ticket when he enlisted. But Bush, who like Roome drove a sports car, had two speeding tickets, two collisions and two misdemeanors on his record when he enlisted, and yet he was not required to get any waiver at all.
"I might have had more speeding tickets," Roome offered, sheepishly.
Bush's low score on his pilot aptitude test didn't raise any red flags, either.
"I don't think I scored much better, and anyway, he passed," Roome said. "It's either pass or fail in the military."
Liles, who also doubts "any rules were bent" for Bush, says the young Ivy League officer never acted like he was better than anyone else in the squadron.
"He was one of the few officers out there who would let you walk along beside him. Most officers, you'd have to walk five feet behind them out on the flight line," Liles said. "But Bush wasn't like that. He was probably the nicest guy out there."
Even if Bush did get in because of his name, he sure didn't ask for an easy, safe assignment, points out a childhood friend who served in an administrative capacity at the same unit. Flying the F-102, a one-seater jet, was no cakewalk. In fact, it was downright dangerous.
"I was glad to serve, but I just carried a clipboard around; and I tell you, George had a much riskier occupation there in the Guard than I did," said David Perry, who played junior-high school football with Bush at a private academy in Houston.
The supersonic Convair F-102 Delta Dagger
He says the F-102, weighing in at more than 15 tons at takeoff, was a "flying rock." And it carried just two hour's worth of fuel, with no chance for midair refueling, which meant pilots had to get up and back down relatively quickly or risk running out of fuel.
"That's a risk-taker right there, just going up in that flying rock all the time," said Perry, a staff sergeant who served from 1968 to 1974. "I admire him just for that."
"You risked your life going on any mission in that airplane," he said. "It had some engine problems. It had a gear, called a bull gear, that came apart, and that happened a couple of times to our unit. You lose your fuel control, your hydraulics, your electronics, and it flames out and you're basically a glider, because you can't restart it."
Liles, who worked on the flight line, says he had to ground Bush one night after discovering hydraulic fluid leaking from his plane.
There was also a malfunction in the F-102's ejection system that could cause a pilot's chest to be crushed when the seat and parachute were deployed, noted Roome.
Even so, the unit's pilots all avoided Vietnam and combat, right? Actually that's not true either, Roome asserts.
"They're saying we're all a bunch of privileged draft dodgers, and that we got in there to get out of Vietnam," he said. "But that's not the case. In our unit, we had an average of two people overseas in the Vietnam theater continuously from 1968 to 1970."
He says he and other Guard pilots did combat support missions as part of a program codenamed "Palace Alert Southeast Asia."
"If you look closely at the shoulder patches on the uniforms of some of the pilots photographed with George, you can see the Vietnam service patches," said Roome, who served at Ellington from 1967 to 1987.
He recalls Bush and another lieutenant volunteering for the program.
"When I left for it, I told him he ought to look into it, and George was interested in it, because he and (ret. Lt. Col. Fred) Bradley went and saw the colonel and inquired about it," Roome said.
But they were too late. The program was winding down and not accepting any more volunteers, and Bush didn't have enough flight time to qualify anyway. By July 1970, the overseas F-102 program had been canceled altogether, Roome says.
While his squadron in the early 1970s lost some F-102 jets due to crashes, "George was never involved in any incident or accident," Roome asserted.
In one fatal accident, Lt. Graham Galloway "lost the horizon and just sliced down into the Gulf" during a low-altitude night intercept mission over the sea. A rescue mission turned up only a wing section of his F-102.
Another F-102 flamed-out on takeoff due to engine troubles. The pilot ejected safely.
Liles says Bush, like other pilots, was "apprehensive" about going up in the F-102.
"They're just not that great of a plane, and every pilot I ever sent off was very apprehensive about going up, and Bush was the same way," he said. "But he did it."
As for drinking, many of the pilots in the unit, including Bush, would hit the officers club for beer or bourbon after pulling drills.
A favorite drinking game in the bar was the "dead-bug game."
"The dead-bug game was when somebody would yell out, 'Dead bug!' and everybody had to hit the ground and get on their back with their hands and feet flying in the air like a June bug, and the last guy down had to buy the bar," Roome explained. "Another rule was if you wore your hat in the bar, you had to buy the bar."
While Bush joined in, he was not known as a heavy drinker, Roome says.
"I don't remember seeing George drink very much," Roome said, and he never saw him drink before a drill. (Liles, though, recalls numerous times he and other weekend warriors showed up with "bad hangovers.")
"He was real serious and got to work on time," Roome recalled. "But he was also a lot of fun to be around."
Roome says Bush could often be seen near the runway tossing a football with an Air Force pilot who had played college ball.
"They'd go out and throw footballs on the ramp after the drill was over," he said.
"That's a big stretch," said Perry, who echoes the White House line that Bush skipped his flight physical because the Alabama assignment didn't require flying.
But after the Guard stripped him of his flying status on Aug. 1, 1972 – two years short of his full Guard commitment – Bush never flew again, even when he returned to Houston.
"He flew for four-plus years and his duty was winding down, and he was going on the Alabama deal, and that's six months that were gone there, and he wasn't going to be a pilot for the rest of his life, so he just figured it was time to wind down," Perry explained.
Also, Roome says Bush would have had to requalify on the F-102 after the six-month lull in Alabama, and he probably didn't feel it was worth the extra training, even though the government had invested hundreds of thousands of dollars to train him.
Roome told USA Today in 2002 that the last two years of Bush's Guard service were erratic, and that he was disappointed Bush gave up on flying. He seemed to have lost his enthusiasm for it.
"I think he digressed after awhile," he said. "In the first half, he was gung-ho. Where George failed was to fulfill his obligation as a pilot. It was an irrational time in his life."
Bush hasn't denied using illegal drugs before 1974 – in fact, he's described the late '60s, early '70s as his "wild, exotic days" – but Roome doubts he ever got high during Guard training, though he says he wouldn't know for sure since Bush often split off from the gang at the base and partied with friends in southwest Houston where he grew up.
Interestingly, Maj. James Bath also was suspended from flying in 1972 – one month after Bush, who would become his oil partner not long after they stopped flying. Reason: "Failure to accomplish annual medical examination," according to a report then by Maj. Gen. Fancis S. Greenlief of the National Guard Bureau here.
Bath, who invested $50,000 in Bush's Arbusto firm, became a front man for
Saudi investors, including Osama bin Laden's brother, and at one time last
decade came under federal investigation for allegedly conspiring to secretly
funnel Saudi dollars as part of a Saudi scheme to influence U.S. policy.
Among other investments, the fighter pilot bought up airport-related
property in Houston for his Saudi clients, securing a 5 percent cut for
himself. He also owns a fuel station at Ellington Field, which has been
accused of overcharging military aircraft, including Air Force One, millions
"The media and Democrats are riding a dead horse on this one," Liles, 60, said confidently.
He speculates that Bush initially was excused from duty there to work on his new civilian job nearby, and made up his credits later, as many airline pilots assigned to Ellington had done – which might explain a gap in his pay records from April 16, 1972, to Oct. 28, 1972, and the flurry of payments that followed over the next several months.
Bush insists he reported for duty at the Dannelly Air National Guard Base in Montgomery, although he cannot recall exactly what he did or to whom he reported. The unit commander can't recall Bush reporting to the base.
And there's no paper evidence that he ever reported for duty, not even among the 400 pages of documents the White House released last week.
Roome says any timecards or roll call records with Bush's name on them would not have been kept long and would not likely be archived. They were not part of the records released by the White House, which said the document dump constituted all the Guard records stored on Bush.
A retired Alabama Air National Guard officer says he remembers Bush showing up for each drill period from May 1972 to October 1972. Ret. Lt. Col. John "Bill" Calhoun, a Republican, says Bush read training manuals in his office, where he served as the unit's flight safety officer. He also says they ate lunch together on the base.
Only, records released by the White House contradict Calhoun's account. They don't show Bush getting paid for any drills until October. And he didn't even get authorization to report to Dannelly until September. The White House was at a loss to reconcile the discrepancy.
Roome says it's possible Bush, then 26, didn't get paid for the non-flying "equivalent duty" he allegedly performed from May to October 1972 in Alabama, and only got service points. Records do show Bush getting credit for unspecified service performed in Alabama.
As a part-time Guard pilot, Bush was required to attend a UTA, or uniform training assembly, once a month for a weekend, plus 36 AFTPs, or additional flying training periods. In addition, he had to do two weeks of summer field training. There were also alert orders that lasted one to three days.
Going absent without leave is a serious offense in the military.
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