Missing in Action
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
Published: September 8, 2004
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President Bush claims that in the fall of 1972, he fulfilled his Air
National Guard duties at a base in Alabama. But Bob Mintz was there -
and he is sure Mr. Bush wasn't.
Plenty of other officers have said they also don't recall that Mr. Bush
ever showed up for drills at the base. What's different about Mr. Mintz
is that he remembers actively looking for Mr. Bush and never finding
Mr. Mintz says he had heard that Mr. Bush - described as a young Texas
pilot with political influence - had transferred to the base. He heard
that Mr. Bush was also a bachelor, so he was looking forward to partying
together. He's confident that he'd remember if Mr. Bush had shown up.
"I'm sure I would have seen him," Mr. Mintz said yesterday. "It's a
small unit, and you couldn't go in or out without being seen. It was too
close a space." There were only 25 to 30 pilots there, and Mr. Bush - a
U.N. ambassador's son who had dated Tricia Nixon - would have been
I've steered clear until now of how Mr. Bush evaded service in Vietnam
because I thought other issues were more important. But if Bush
supporters attack John Kerry for his conduct after he volunteered for
dangerous duty in Vietnam, it's only fair to scrutinize Mr. Bush's
It's not a pretty sight. Mr. Bush was saved from active duty, and
perhaps Vietnam, only after the speaker of the Texas House intervened
for him because of his family's influence.
Mr. Bush signed up in May 1968 for a six-year commitment, justifying the
$1 million investment in training him as a pilot. But after less than
two years, Mr. Bush abruptly stopped flying, didn't show up for his
physical and asked to transfer to Alabama. He never again flew a
Mr. Bush insists that after moving to Alabama in 1972, he served out his
obligation at Dannelly Air National Guard Base in Montgomery (although
he says he doesn't remember what he did there). The only officer there
who recalls Mr. Bush was produced by the White House - he remembers Mr.
Bush vividly, but at times when even Mr. Bush acknowledges he wasn't
In contrast, Mr. Mintz is a compelling witness. Describing himself as "a
very strong military man," he served in the military from 1959 to 1984.
A commercial pilot, he is now a Democrat but was a Republican for most
of his life, and he is not a Bush-hater. When I asked him whether the
National Guard controversy raises questions about Mr. Bush's
credibility, Mr. Mintz said only, "That's up to the American people to
In his first interview with a national news organization, Mr. Mintz
recalled why he remembered Mr. Bush as a no-show: "Young bachelors were
kind of sparse. For that reason, I was looking for someone to haul
around with." Why speak out now? He said, "After a lot of
soul-searching, I just feel it's my duty to stand up and do the right
Another particularly credible witness is Leonard Walls, a retired Air
Force colonel who was then a full-time pilot instructor at the base. "I
was there pretty much every day," he said, adding: "I never saw him, and
I was there continually from July 1972 to July 1974." Mr. Walls, who
describes himself as nonpolitical, added, "If he had been there more
than once, I would have seen him."
The sheer volume of missing documents, and missing recollections,
strongly suggests to me that Mr. Bush blew off his Guard obligations.
It's not fair to say Mr. Bush deserted. My sense is that he (like some
others at the time) neglected his National Guard obligations, did the
bare minimum to avoid serious trouble and was finally let off by
commanders who considered him a headache but felt it wasn't worth the
hassle to punish him.
"The record clearly and convincingly proves he did not fulfill the
obligations he incurred when he enlisted in the Air National Guard,"
writes Gerald Lechliter, a retired Army colonel who has made the most
meticulous examination I've seen of Mr. Bush's records (I've posted the
full 32-page analysis here). Mr. Lechliter adds that Mr. Bush received
unauthorized or fraudulent payments that breached National Guard rules,
according to the documents that the White House itself released.
Does this disqualify Mr. Bush from being commander in chief? No. But it
should disqualify the Bush campaign from sliming the military service of
a rival who still carries shrapnel from Vietnam in his thigh.