One of the persistent riddles surrounding President Bush's disappearance
from the Texas Air National Guard during 1972 and 1973 is the question of
why he walked away. Bush was a fully trained pilot who had undergone a
rigorous two-year flight training program that cost the Pentagon nearly $1
million. And he has told reporters how important it was to follow in his
father's footsteps and to become a fighter pilot. Yet in April 1972,
George W. Bush climbed out of a military cockpit for the last time. He
still had two more years to serve, but Bush's own discharge papers suggest
he may have walked away from the Guard for good.

It is, of course, possible that Bush had simply had enough of the Guard
and, with the war in Vietnam beginning to wind down, decided that he would
rather do other things. In 1972 he asked to be transferred to an Alabama
unit so he could work on a Senate campaign for a friend of his father's.
But some skeptics have speculated that Bush might have dropped out to
avoid being tested for drugs. Which is where Air Force Regulation 160-23,
also known as the Medical Service Drug Abuse Testing Program, comes in.
The new drug-testing effort was officially launched by the Air Force on
April 21, 1972, following a Jan. 11, 1972, directive issued by the
Department of Defense. That initiative, in response to increased drug use
among soldiers in Vietnam, instructed the military branches to "establish
the requirement for a systematic drug abuse testing program of all
military personnel on active duty, effective 1 July 1972."

It's true that in 1972 Bush was not on "active" duty: His Texas Guard unit
was never mobilized. But according to Maj. Jeff Washburn, the chief of the
National Guard's substance abuse program, a random drug-testing program
was born out of that regulation and administered to guardsmen such as
Bush. The random tests were unrelated to the scheduled annual physical
exams, such as the one that Bush failed to take in 1972, a failure that
resulted in his grounding.

The 1972 drug-testing program took months, and in some cases years, to
implement at Guard units across the country. And the percentage of
guardsmen tested then was much lower than today's 40 percent rate. But as
of April 1972, Air National guardsmen knew random drug testing was going
to be implemented.

During the 2000 campaign, when Bush's spokesman was asked about the
possibility of Bush facing a drug test back in 1972, the spokesman told
the Times of London that Bush "was not aware of any [military] changes
that required a drug test." Still, at the time when Bush, perhaps for the
first time in his life, faced the prospect of a random drug test, his
military records show he virtually disappeared, failing for at least one
year to report for Guard duty. White House officials insist that if Bush
missed any weekend Guard drills in 1972, he made up for them during the
summer of 1973. If this is true, he would have been vulnerable to random
drug tests during his makeup days. But again, Bush's own discharge papers
fail to conclusively back up his claim that he performed Guard service in
1973.

"Nobody ever saw him" serving in 1973, notes author James Moore, whose
upcoming book, Bush's War for Re-election," will detail Bush's military
record. "Not a single soul has come forward to say, 'I remember the summer
of '73 when I did Guard training with George Bush, the future president of
the United States.'"

Moore notes that Bush's discharge papers make no reference to service in
1973. The last entry in Bush's papers are for April 1972. Also, if Bush
had served in 1973, there would have to be an Officer Effectiveness Rating
for that year in his military file. There is not. Nonetheless, in late
1973 Bush received an honorable discharge in order to attend Harvard
Business School.

During the early stages of his 2000 campaign for president, Bush was
dogged by questions of whether he ever used cocaine or any other illegal
substance when he was younger. Bush refused to fully answer the question,
but in 1999 he did issue a blanket denial insisting he had not used any
illegal drugs during the previous 25 years, or since 1974. Bush refused to
specify what "mistakes" he had made before 1974.

Perhaps realizing that explanation pointed reporters toward possible drug
use during his time as a guardsman, Bush insisted he hadn't taken any
drugs while serving in the Texas Air National Guard, between 1968 and
1974. "I never would have done anything to jeopardize myself. I got
airborne and I got on the ground very successfully," he told reporters on
Aug. 19, 1999. But today we know that for his last 18 months in the Guard,
from April 72 to late '73, Bush didn't have to get airborne, because he
simply quit flying. Moreover, if Bush in fact took no drugs at all after
1968, that would mean his drug use, if any, stopped at age 22 -- an
unusual age to swear off recreational substances for someone with the
partying reputation Bush had at that time.

Unanswered questions continue to swirl around Bush's Guard service in part
because he refuses to release the full contents of his military records.


Author: Eric Bohlert, Senior Writer
Source: Salon
Contact: salon@salonmagazine.com
Website: http://www.salon.com/
Pubdate: Friday, February 6, 2004