Did Bush drop out of the National Guard to avoid drug testing?

The young pilot walked away from his commitment in 1972 -- the same year the U.S. military implemented random drug tests.

Topics: George W. Bush, U.S. Military,

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.

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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.

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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