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Published: Saturday, 2/14/2004

Exploding the AWOL myth

DEMOCRATS, through overreach, overkill, and character assassination, are in the process of converting what should be a political ace into a joker.

As a swift boat commander in Vietnam, Lt. j.g. John F. Kerry behaved admirably and heroically. He was awarded the Bronze Star and the Silver Star, and received three Purple Hearts for wounds sustained in combat.

Lieutenant Kerry's military record compares favorably with that of President Bush, who served honorably in the Texas Air National Guard, but who never heard a shot fired in anger.

But Democrats combine deserved praise for Mr. Kerry with unfair and dishonest denigration of Mr. Bush.

Filmmaker Michael Moore has called Mr. Bush a "deserter." The Democratic National Chair<0x00AD>man, Terry McAuliffe, has said Mr. Bush was AWOL (absent without leave) from the Texas Air National Guard.

These charges were investigated, and found baseless, in 2000 by the Associated Press, the New York Times, and the Washington Post. But Democrats are unwilling to let facts get in the way of a good smear.

Mr. Bush joined the Texas Air National Guard on May 28, 1968, upon graduation from Yale. He trained as a fighter pilot, serving a total of 21 months on active duty - just a little less than the typical draftee, and substantially more than the typical guardsman or reservist of the time - before receiving an honorable discharge in October, 1973.

There was a waiting list for the Air Guard, and it is probable that Mr. Bush wouldn't have gotten a slot if his father hadn't been a congressman at the time, though there is no evidence the elder Bush exerted any influence on behalf of his son.

If Mr. Bush were seeking simply to avoid service in Vietnam, it is doubtful he would have chosen to become a fighter pilot, a dangerous activity. It is especially unlikely in view of the fact that at the time Mr. Bush joined the 147th Fighter Interceptor Group, it had pilots in Vietnam. Mr. Bush said in his autobiography that he and a squadron mate volunteered for the Palace Alert program, which sent National Guard pilots to Vietnam, but were rejected because they had too few flying hours.

We have only Mr. Bush's word that he volunteered for Vietnam. But retired Col. Maury Udell, who trained him to fly the F-102 Delta Dagger, told the AP he had no doubt Mr. Bush was willing to go to Vietnam.

"He was a war-type guy," Mr. Udell was quoted in an AP dispatch July 3, 2000. "George got really good at air-to-air combat."

The AWOL smear stems from the period September to December 1972, when Mr. Bush was temporarily assigned to a non-flying billet in the Alabama Air National Guard while he was managing the U.S. Senate campaign of Winton Blount. He missed some scheduled drills, but made them up later, as regulations permit, and which was common practice then and now.

The Boston Globe claimed to be unable to find evidence that Mr. Bush had attended any drills in this period, but Mr. Bush's military records indicate he did four days of active duty ending Nov. 29 and eight days ending Dec. 14, the New York Times reported.

After returning to Houston, Mr. Bush attended drills with his old unit in January, April, and May, the Times reported. "Another document showed that Mr. Bush served at various times from May 29, 1973, through July 30, 1973, a period of time questioned by the Globe," the Times said.

So the AWOL myth stems from some bad reporting by the Boston Globe. But even the Globe acknowledged that "in the 22-month period between the end of his flight training and his move to Alabama, Mr. Bush logged numerous hours of duty, well above the minimum requirements for so-called 'weekend warriors.'‚óŹ"

The truth about the AWOL myth has been known for nearly four years. That some Democrats - knowing it is a lie - are resurrecting it says more about their lack of character than it does about Mr. Bush's service.

Jack Kelly, a former Marine, was deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force during the Reagan administration. E-mail: jkelly@post-gazette.com



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