In recent days, a one-year gap in President Bush's Texas Air National Guard service during the height of the Vietnam War has been raised by Democrats.
While none of the presidential candidates has directly criticized Bush's service, some Democrats, including Democratic National Committee Chairman Terence R. McAuliffe, have accused the president of shirking his military duties in 1972, when Bush transferred to an Alabama unit. McAuliffe on Sunday called Bush "AWOL," or "absent without leave," during that period.
Terry Holt, spokesman for the Bush campaign, accused McAuliffe of trying to "perpetuate a completely false and bogus assertion." Holt said, "The president was never AWOL."
Questions about Bush's Guard service first surfaced during the 2000 presidential race, when he ran against Vice President Al Gore, a Vietnam veteran. A review of Bush's military records shows that Bush enjoyed preferential treatment as the son of a then-congressman, when he walked into a Texas Guard unit in Houston two weeks before his 1968 graduation from Yale and was moved to the top of a long waiting list.
It was an era when service in the Guard was a coveted assignment, often associated with efforts to avoid active duty in Vietnam. Bush was accepted for pilot training after having scored only 25 percent on the pilot's aptitude test, the lowest acceptable grade.
In 2000, the Boston Globe examined a period from May 1972 to May 1973 and found no record that Bush performed any Guard duties, either in Alabama or Houston, although he was still enlisted.
According to military records obtained by The Washington Post, Bush first requested and received permission in May 1972 to be transferred to the Alabama National Guard so he could work on a U.S. Senate campaign. After he was in Alabama, he received notice from the Guard personnel center that he was "ineligible" for the Air Reserve Squadron he requested.
In August 1972, Bush was suspended from flying because he failed to complete an annual medical exam. A month later, Bush requested to be assigned to a different unit in Alabama and was approved. Although he was required to attend periodic drills in Alabama, there is no official record in his file that he did.
According to the records, Bush had been instructed to report to William Turnipseed, an officer in the Montgomery unit. "Had he reported in, I would have had some recall and I do not," Turnipseed, a retired brigadier general, told the Globe in 2000. "I had been in Texas, done my flight training there. If we had a first lieutenant from Texas, I would have remembered."
White House communications director Dan Bartlett said yesterday that although no official record has been found, "obviously, you don't get an honorable discharge unless you receive the required points for annual service." He said Bush "specifically remembers" performing some of his duties in Alabama. Bartlett also provided a news clipping from 2000 quoting friends of Bush's from the Alabama Senate campaign saying they recalled Bush leaving for Guard duty on occasion.
Bush said in 2000 that he did "show up for drills. I made most monthly meetings, and when I missed them I made them up."
Reached in Montgomery yesterday, Turnipseed stood by his contention that Bush never reported to him. But Turnipseed added that he could not recall if he, himself, was on the base much at that time.
Bush returned to Houston after the election, and again his service is vague in the records. His officers at Ellington Air Force Base wrote in May 1973 that Bush could not be given his annual evaluation, because he "has not been observed" in Houston between April 1972 and the following May. Ultimately, another officer states in a subsequent document that a report for that one-year period was unavailable for "administrative reasons."
The records indicate that Bush surfaced at the end of May 1973 and fulfilled point requirements 10 times between May 31 and July 30. In September 1973, Bush requested an early discharge to attend Harvard business school; in October he received an honorable discharge.
The issue of military service has been out front this year, with two decorated veterans -- Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.) and retired Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark -- in the race and with Republicans questioning the Democrats' commitment to national security.
During the New Hampshire campaign last month, documentary filmmaker Michael Moore -- a Clark supporter -- referred to Bush as a "deserter" at a rally of 1,000 people outside Concord. Two days later in Iowa, former senator Max Cleland (Ga.), who lost three limbs during the Vietnam War, told voters that Kerry is "the one guy who can call his hand on the hypocrisy of a bunch of people that never went to war."
Kerry said yesterday that he had not decided whether to make Bush's service an issue in the general election. Asked whether he has suggested that surrogates pursue this line of attack, he said: "I have not suggested to any of them that they do so, and I spoke out against the use of the word deserter, which I thought was inappropriate, wrong and over the top."
Staff writer Ceci Connolly, traveling with Kerry, and researchers Don Puhlman and Lucy Shackelford in Washington contributed to this report.