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Bush's loss of flying status should have spurred probe

President Bush's August 1972 suspension from flight status in the Texas Air National Guard -- triggered by his failure to take a required annual flight physical -- should have prompted an investigation by his commander, a written acknowledgement by Bush, and perhaps a written report to senior Air Force officials, according to Air Force regulations in effect at the time.

 

Bush, who was a fighter-interceptor pilot assigned to the Texas Air National Guard, last flew in April 1972 -- just before the missed physical and 30 months before his flight commitment ended. He also did not attend National Guard training for several months that year and was permitted to cut short his military commitment a year later in 1973.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan, for the second day in a row, refused yesterday to answer questions about Bush's failure to take the physical and appeared to retreat from Bush's promise Sunday to make public all of his military records. Asked at a midday press briefing if all of Bush's records would be released, McClellan said, "We'd have to see if there is any new information in that."

Late yesterday, assistant White House press secretary Erin Healy said the White House does not have records about the flight physical. "At this point, we've shared everything we have," Healy said. A spokesman for the National Guard Bureau said if there are records about any inquiry into Bush's flight status, they would most likely be in Bush's personnel file, stored in a military records facility in Colorado.

For military aviators, the annual flight physical is a line they must cross to retain coveted flying status. Flight surgeons who conduct the examinations have the power to remove pilots from flying duty.

The new questions about Bush's service arose a day after the White House disclosed attendance and payroll records that appeared to show that Bush sporadically attended Guard drills between May 1972 and May 1973 -- even though his superiors at the time said that Bush did not appear at their units in that period.

Two retired National Guard generals, in interviews yesterday, said they were surprised that Bush -- or any military pilot -- would forgo a required annual flight physical and take no apparent steps to rectify the problem and return to flying. "There is no excuse for that. Aviators just don't miss their flight physicals," said Major General Paul A. Weaver Jr., who retired in 2002 as the Pentagon's director of the Air National Guard, in an interview.

Brigadier General David L. McGinnis, a former top aide to the assistant secretary of Defense for Reserve Affairs, said in an interview that Bush's failure to remain on flying status amounts to a violation of the signed pledge by Bush that he would fly for at least five years after he completed flight school in November 1969.

"Failure to take your flight physical is like a failure to show up for duty. It is an obligation you can't blow off," McGinnis said.

Bush joined the Texas Air Guard in May 1968 after intercession by friends of his father, who was then a Houston congressman. He was quickly commissioned, spent a year in flight school in Georgia and then six months learning to fly an F-102 fighter-interceptor at Ellington Air Force Base in Houston. From June 1970 until April 1972, he flew frequently.

His last flight physical was in May 1971.

The following April, just before his next physical was due, Bush moved temporarily to Alabama to work on a Republican US Senate race, and was given permission to attend Guard drills at a Montgomery Air Guard base. But he did not appear for his May 1972 physical, and he performed no duty at all until late October 1972, according to Guard records that became public this week.

A Sept. 29, 1972, order sent to Bush by the National Guard Bureau, the defense department agency which oversees the Guard, noted that Bush had been verbally suspended from flying on Aug. 1. The written order made it official: "Reason for suspension: Failure to accomplish annual medical examination."

The order required Bush to acknowledge the suspension in writing and also said: "The local commander who has authority to convene a Flying Evaluation Board will direct an investigation as to why the individual failed to accomplish the medical examination." After that, the commander had two options -- to convene the Evaluation Board to review Bush's suspension or forward a detailed report on his case up the chain of command.

Either way, officials said yesterday, there should have been a record of the investigation.

The issue of Bush's suspension has been clouded in mystery since it first arose during the 2000 campaign. Dan Bartlett, a Bush campaign aide who is now White House communications director, said then that Bush didn't take the physical because his family physician was in Houston and he was in Alabama. But the examination is supposed to be done by a flight surgeon, and could have been done at the base in Montgomery.

It is unclear whether Bush's commander, Lieutenant Colonel Jerry B. Killian, ordered any inquiry, as required.

Weaver said it is entirely possible that Killian -- who, according to Bush's biography was also a friend -- concluded that Bush had lost interest in flying, at a time when Weaver said there were numerous active duty pilots with combat experience eager to get flying billets in Guard units.

Weaver, after looking over Bush's light duty load between May 1972 and May 1973, said he doubted that Bush would have been proficient enough to return to the F-102 cockpit. "I would not have let him near the airplane," Weaver said. If there was evidence that Bush's interest in the Guard had waned, Weaver said, then it would have been acceptable for Bush's commanders to "cut their losses" and grant him an early release rather than retain a guard pilot who could no longer fly.

McGinnis said he, too, thought it possible that Bush's superiors considered him a liability, so they decided "to get him off the books, make his father happy, and hope no one would notice."

But McGinnis said there should have been an investigation and a report. "If it didn't happen, that shows how far they were willing to stretch the rules to accommodate" then-Lieutenant Bush.

In an interview Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press," Bush put no limitations on what information would be released to the public. On several occasions, Bush offered broad assurances that he was willing to open his entire military record, as Senator John McCain and retired General Wesley K. Clark had done previously. Asked by the show's host, Tim Russert, if he would authorize the release of "everything to settle this," Bush's response was emphatic: "Yes, absolutely."

At yesterday's press briefing, McClellan accused those who continue to question the president's National Guard service of "gutter politics" and "trolling for trash" in a political campaign season.

Asked if the same was true in 1992 when Bush's father criticized Governor Bill Clinton for not releasing his military records, stoking the controversy around Clinton's active avoidance of the Vietnam War draft by calling him "Slick Willie," McLellan replied, "I think that you expect the garbage can to be thrown at you in the 11th hour of a campaign, but not nine months before Election Day."

The sensitivity of questions about the president's military service was on display on Capitol Hill yesterday. In an unusually rancorous response, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell took Ohio Democratic Representative Sherrod Brown to task at a House International Relations Committee hearing for saying that Bush "may have been AWOL."

"Mr. Brown, I won't dignify your comments about the president, because you don't know what you're talking about," the former Joint Chiefs chairman and Vietnam veteran said. "If you want to have a political fight on this matter, that is very controversial, and I think is being dealt with by the White House, fine. But let's not go there."

Sacha Pfeiffer, Bryan Bender, and Michael Rezendes of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

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