This week, President Bush and Sen. John Kerry addressed the annual conference of the National Guard Association. Neither man talked about Bush's service in the Guard, and the officers in attendance made clear that they wanted to hear about Iraq, not Vietnam. But one issue leads to the other. Bush's abuse of the Guard in Iraq is what makes his abuse of the Guard during Vietnam an important consideration in this election.
Bush joined the Texas Air National Guard on May 27, 1968. The move was well-chosen and well-timed. Only four Air National Guard squadrons were sent to Vietnam, and none was sent after Bush enlisted. All he had to do was fulfill a "statement of understanding" in which he promised to attend 24 days of weekend duty and 15 days of active duty each year.
He failed to do so. Four years into his six-year commitment, Bush "changed his mind" and decided "he preferred to be in politics." That description doesn't come from some phony memo. It comes from retired Col. Rufus Martin, Bush's then-personnel officer, in an interview with the Washington Post. Bush got permission to go to Alabama to help a family friend run for the Senate. A Boston Globe review of Bush's Guard records confirms that he "performed no service for one six-month period in 1972 and for another period of almost three months in 1973." The Globe's investigative team, echoing investigators from other publications, reports that "no one has come forward with any credible recollection of having witnessed Bush performing guard service in Alabama or after he returned to Houston in 1973."
U.S. News & World Report notes that the "military service obligation" Bush signed in 1968 required him to attend 44 inactive-duty training drills every fiscal year for six years. He did not fulfill that requirement. Furthermore, when Bush took off for Harvard Business School in 1973, he signed a form pledging "to locate and be assigned to another Reserve forces unit or mobilization augmentation position." He never did so.
In fairness to Bush, Vietnam was a lousy war. And lots of guys who joined the Guard in those days lost interest in their duties once the penalty they feared—assignment to active duty in Vietnam—expired with the war. Maybe we should cut Bush some slack. But before we do, let's look at how much slack he's cutting the folks who serve in the Guard today.
The Guard's primary purpose has traditionally been homeland security. "When you become a member of the Guard, you serve where you live," says the Guard's recruitment Web site. "You can join a unit right in your hometown or wherever you want to live." According to the site, "Initially, soldiers can serve for as little as three years," and since "you'll normally train part-time … you can go to college or work full-time." There's just one hitch: "During national emergencies, however, the President reserves the right to mobilize the National Guard, putting them in federal duty status."
That's the language Bush has invoked to mobilize half the Guard's 450,000 troops. On Sept. 14, 2001, he proclaimed that "a national emergency exists by reason of the terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center … and the Pentagon, and the continuing and immediate threat of further attacks on the United States." He authorized the Secretary of Defense to put the Guard and Reserves on active duty "to respond to the continuing and immediate threat of further terrorist attacks on the United States." Based on this authorization, the Army has sent thousands of guardsmen overseas and has instituted a "stop-loss" policy that prevents them from being released when their active duty commitments expire.
But these Guard troops aren't being sent to fight the people who attacked the United States in September 2001. They're being sent to—and locked in—Iraq. Some 40,000 members of the Guard are in Iraq today—six times the number of guardsmen sent to Vietnam. Already, more Guard troops have died in Iraq than in Vietnam.
What does Iraq have to do with the "national emergency" declared by Bush in 2001? Nothing. The 9/11 commission found "no evidence" of "a collaborative operational relationship" between Iraq and al-Qaida. Four days ago, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell reaffirmed, "I have no indication that there was a direct connection between the terrorists who perpetrated these crimes against us on the 11th of September, 2001, and the Iraqi regime."
In short, Bush has pulled Guard troops away from their homeland security duties to fight and die in a war unrelated to the service for which they enlisted. A guardsman who did less than he signed up for is coercing other guardsmen to do more than they signed up for.
One guardsman is doing something about it. After serving nine years in the Marines and the Army, including combat duty in Iraq, he enlisted last fall in the Guard. The bait he swallowed was the "Try One" program, which supposedly lets veterans sample a year of Guard service before making a longer commitment. Two months ago, invoking its "stop-loss" policy, the Army called up the guardsman's unit for duty in Iraq and changed his one-year commitment to three years. He sued to void the policy, noting that its application to Iraq "bears no relation to the threat of terrorism against the United States."
Most Guard officers, however, refuse to admit that their institution is being abused. They gave Bush standing ovations on Tuesday when he told them that "you're fighting terrorist enemies in Iraq" and that the war was "necessary to defend America."
Kerry brought them a different message. "Far too many of you have been on the ground for far too long, much longer than was expected or promised," he reminded them Thursday. "Many of you are our first responders here at home: fire fighters, police officers, and emergency medical technicians. To take you out of your communities is to take down our critical first line of defense. That's no way to protect America."
What response did Kerry get? Silence.
Those brave, loyal, hoodwinked guardsmen. They think Bush is one of them. They don't understand that the only presidential candidate who's done the job they're doing now—risking life and shedding blood—is the guy on the other side.
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