Two members of the Air National Guard unit that President George W. Bush allegedly served with as a young Guard flyer in 1972 had been told to expect him late in that year and were on the lookout for him. He never showed, however; of that both Bob Mintz and Paul Bishop are certain.
The question of Bush's presence in 1972 at Dannelly Air National Guard base in Montgomery, Alabama -- or the lack of it -- has become an issue in the 2004 presidential campaign. And that issue, which picked up steam last week, continues to rage.
Recalls Memphian Mintz, now 62: "I remember that I heard someone was coming to drill with us from Texas. And it was implied that it was somebody with political influence. I was a young bachelor then. I was looking for somebody to prowl around with." But, says Mintz, that "somebody" -- better known to the world now as the president of the United States -- never showed up at Dannelly in 1972. Nor in 1973, nor at any time that Mintz, a FedEx pilot now and an Eastern Airlines pilot then, when he was a reserve first lieutenant at Dannelly, can remember.
"And I was looking for him," repeated Mintz, who said that he assumed that Bush "changed his mind and went somewhere else" to do his substitute drill. It was not "somewhere else," however, but the 187th Air National Guard Tactical squadron at Dannelly to which the young Texas flyer had requested transfer from his regular Texas unit -- the reason being Bush's wish to work in Alabama on the ultimately unsuccessful U.S. Senate campaign of family friend Winton "Red" Blount.
It is the 187th, Mintz's unit, which was cited, during the 2000 presidential campaign, as the place where Bush completed his military obligation. And it is the 187th that the White House continues to contend that Bush belonged to -- as recently as last week, when presidential spokesman Scott McClellan released payroll records and, later, evidence suggesting that Bush's dental records might be on file at Dannelly.
Late last weekend, the White House made available what it said was the entirety of Bush's service record. Even so, the mystery of the young lieutenant's whereabouts in late 1972 remains.
"There's no way I wouldn't have noticed a strange rooster in the henhouse, especially since we were looking for him," insists Mintz, who has begun poring over documents relating to the matter that are now making their way around the Internet. One of these is a piece of correspondence addressed to the 187th's commanding officer, then Lt. Col. William Turnipseed, concerning Bush's redeployment.
Mintz remembers a good deal of base scuttlebutt at the time about the letter, which clearly identifies Bush as the transferring party. "It couldn't be anybody else. No one ever did that again, as far as I know." In any case, he is certain that nobody else in that time frame, 1972-73, requested such a transfer into Dannelly.
Mintz, who at one time was a registered Republican and in recent years has cast votes in presidential elections for independent Ross Perot and Democrat Al Gore, confesses to "a negative reaction" to what he sees as out-and-out dissembling on President Bush's part. "You don't do that as an officer, you don't do that as a pilot, you don't do it as an important person, and you don't do it as a citizen. This guy's got a lot of nerve."
Though some accounts reckon the total personnel component of the 187th as consisting of several hundred, the actual flying squadron -- that to which Bush was reassigned -- numbered only "25 to 30 pilots," Mintz says. "There's no doubt. I would have heard of him, seen him, whatever."
Even if Bush, who was trained on a slightly different aircraft than the F4 Phantom jets flown by the squadron, opted not to fly with the unit, he would have had to encounter the rest of the flying personnel at some point, in nonflying formations or drills. "And if he did any flying at all, on whatever kind of craft, that would have involved a great number of supportive personnel. It takes a lot of people to get a plane into the air. But nobody I can think of remembers him.
"I talked to one of my buddies the other day and asked if he could remember Bush at drill at any time, and he said, 'Naw, ol' George wasn't there. And he wasn't at the Pit, either.'"
The "Pit" was the Snake Pit, a nearby bistro where the squadron's pilots would gather for frequent after-hours revelry. And the buddy was Bishop, then a lieutenant at Dannelly and now a pilot for Kalitta, a charter airline that in recent months has been flying war materiel into the Iraq Theater of Operations.
"I never saw hide nor hair of Mr. Bush," confirms Bishop. "In fact," he quips, mindful of the current political frame of reference, "I saw more of Al Sharpton at the base than I did of George W. Bush."
In Air National Guard circles, Bishop, who now lives in Goldsboro, N.C., is something of a legendary figure. Known to his mates as "Papa Whiskey" (for "P.W.") Bishop, he is a veteran of Gulf War I, a conflict in which he was the ranking reservist. During the current conflict, on behalf of Kalitta, Bishop has flown frequent supply missions into military facilities at Kuwait.
Some years ago, he flew a Kalitta aircraft, painted over with Air Force One markings, in the movie Air Force One starring Harrison Ford. Bishop did the rolls, tumbles, and other stunt maneuvers that looked in the movie like stressful motions afflicting the hijacked and embattled plane.
Bishop voted for Bush in 2000 and believes that the Iraq war has served some useful purposes -- citing, as the White House does, disarmament actions since pursued by Libyan president Moammar Khadaffi -- but he is disgruntled both about aspects of the war and about what he sees as Bush's lack of truthfulness about his military record.
"I think a commander in chief who sends his men off to war ought to be a veteran who has seen the sting of battle," Bishop says. "In Iraq, we have a bunch of great soldiers but they are not policemen. I don't think he [the president] was well advised. Right now it's costing us an American life a day. I'm not a peacenik, but what really bothers me is that of the 500 or so that we've lost almost 80 of them were reservists. We've got an overextended Guard and reserve."
Part of the problem, Bishop thinks, is a disconnect resulting from the president's own inexperience with combat operations. And he is well beyond annoyed at the White House's persistent claims that Bush did indeed serve time at Dannelly. Bishop didn't pay much attention to the claim when candidate Bush first offered it in 2000. But he did after the second Iraq war started and the issue came front and center:
"It bothered me that he wouldn't fess up and say, Okay, guys, I cut out when the rest of you did your time. He shouldn't have tried to dance around the subject. I take great exception to that. I spent 39 years defending my country."
Like his old comrade Mintz, Bishop, now 65, was a pilot for Eastern Airlines during their reserve service in 1972 at Dannelly. Mintz then lived in Montgomery; Bishop commuted from Atlanta, a two-hour drive away. Mintz and Bishop retired from the Guard with the ranks of lieutenant colonel and colonel, respectively.
Both men knew John "Bill" Calhoun, the Atlanta businessman who was flight safety officer for the 187th in 1972 and who subsequently retired as a lieutenant colonel. Calhoun created something of a sensation late last week when he came forward at the apparent prompting of the administration to claim that he did in fact remember Lt. Bush, that the young officer had met with him during drill weekends, largely spending his time reading safety manuals in the 187th's safety office.
Even in media venues sympathetic to the president, doubt was cast almost immediately on aspects of Calhoun's statement -- particularly his claim that Lt. Bush was at the 187th during spring and early summer of 1972, periods when the White House itself does not claim the young lieutenant had yet arrived at Dannelly.
Mintz and Bishop are both skeptical, as well.
"I'm not saying it wasn't possible, but I can't imagine Bill not introducing him around," Mintz says. "Unless he [Bush] was an introvert back then, which I don't think he was, he'd have spent some time out in the mainstream, in the dining hall or wherever. He'd have spent some time with us. Unless he was trying to avoid publicity. But he wasn't well known at all then. It all seems a bit unusual."
Bishop was even more explicit: "I'm glad he [Calhoun] remembered being with Lt. Bush and Lt. Bush's eating sandwiches and looking at manuals. It seems a little strange that one man saw an individual, and all the rest of them did not. Because it was such a small organization. Usually, we all had lunch together.
"Maybe we're all getting old and senile," Bishop says with obvious sarcasm. "I don't want to second-guess Mr. Calhoun's memory and I would hate to impugn the integrity of a fellow officer, but I know the rest of us didn't see Lt. Bush." As Bishop (corroborated by Mintz) described the physical environment, the safety office where the meetings between Major Calhoun and Lt. Bush allegedly took place was on the second floor of the unit's hangar, a relatively small structure itself. It was a very close-quarters situation. "It would have been "virtually impossible," says Bishop, for an officer to go in and out of the safety office for eight hours a month several months in a row and be unseen by anybody except then-Major Calhoun.
As Bishop notes, "Fighter pilots, and that's what we were, have situational awareness. They know everything about their environment -- whether it's an enemy plane creeping up or a stranger in their hangar."
In any case, says Bishop, "If what he [Calhoun] says is true, there would be documentation of the fact in point summaries and pay documents."
And that's another mystery.
Yet another veteran of the 187th is Wayne Rambo of Montgomery, Alabama, who as a lieutenant served as the unit's chief administrative officer until April of 1972. That was a few months prior to Bush's alleged service, which Rambo, who continued to drill with the 187th, also cannot remember.
Rambo was, however, able to shed some light on the Guard practice, then and now, of assigning annual service "points" to members, based on their record of attendance and participation. The bare minimum number is 50, and reservists meeting standard are said to have had "a good year," Rambo says. Less than that amounts to an "unsatisfactory" year -- one calling for penalties assessed against the reservist's retirement fund and, more immediately, for disciplinary or other corrective action. Such deficits can be written off only on the basis of a "commander's call," Rambo says -- and only then because of certifiable illness or some other clearly plausible reason.
"The 50-point minimum has always been taken very seriously, especially for pilots," says Rambo. "The reason is that it takes a lot of taxpayer money to train a pilot, and you don't want to see it wasted."
For whatever reason, the elusive Lt. Bush was awarded 41 actual points for his service in both Texas and Alabama during 1972, though he apparently was given 15 "gratuitous" points -- presumably by his original Texas command -- enough to bring him up from substandard. That would have been a decided violation of the norm, according to Rambo, who stresses that the awarding of gratuitous points was clearly meant only as a reward to reservists for meeting their bottom line.
"You had to get to 50 to get the gratuitous points, which applied toward your retirement benefits," the former chief administrative officer recalls. "If you were 49, you stayed at 49; if you were 50, you got up to 65."
Bishop raises yet another issue about Bush's Guard tenure -- the cancellation after 1972 of the final year of his six-year obligation -- ostensibly to pursue a post-graduate business degree at Harvard.
That didn't sit well with the veteran pilot. "When you accept a flying slot with the Air National Guard, you're obligated for six years," Bishop says. "Even if you grant him credit for that missing year in Alabama which none of us remember, he still failed to serve his full commitment. Even graduate school, for which he was supposedly released, is attended during the week usually. It wouldn't have conflicted with drill weekends, whether he was in Connecticut or Massachusetts or wherever. There would have been no need for an early release."
Bishop pauses. "Maybe they do things differently in Texas. I don't want to malign the commander in chief, but this is an issue of duty, honor, country. You must have integrity."
Bishop, especially, is bitter about the fate of Eastern Airlines, which went bankrupt during the administration of President George H.W. Bush, the current incumbent's father. "I watched my company dissolve under his policies. They let the airline fall victim to a hostile takeover," Bishop says. Both Bushes were "children of privilege," unlike himself and Mintz.
"Our fathers were poor dirt farmers. We would not have been given the same considerations he and his father were," says Bishop, who maintains that, just as the junior Bush used family and political influence to jump himself ahead of 500 other flight training applicants, the senior Bush "apparently" did something similar when he became a naval aviator during World War Two. "I applaud him for volunteering, but he should have waited his turn like everybody else."
But, says Bishop, "At least I can give him credit for serving his country." That is more, he suggested, than can be granted the younger Bush.
Would he consider voting for the president's reelection? "Naw, this goes to an integrity issue. I like either [John] Kerry or [John] Edwards better." And who would Mintz be voting for? "Not for any Texas politicians" was the Memphian's sardonic answer.