President Bush claims that in the fall of 1972, he fulfilled his Air National Guard duties at a base in Alabama. But Bob Mintz was there - and he is sure Mr. Bush wasn't.
Plenty of other officers have said they also don't recall that Mr. Bush ever showed up for drills at the base. What's different about Mr. Mintz is that he remembers actively looking for Mr. Bush and never finding him.
Mr. Mintz says he had heard that Mr. Bush - described as a young Texas pilot with political influence - had transferred to the base. He heard that Mr. Bush was also a bachelor, so he was looking forward to partying together. He's confident that he'd remember if Mr. Bush had shown up.
"I'm sure I would have seen him," Mr. Mintz said yesterday. "It's a small unit, and you couldn't go in or out without being seen. It was too close a space." There were only 25 to 30 pilots there, and Mr. Bush - a U.N. ambassador's son who had dated Tricia Nixon - would have been particularly memorable.
I've steered clear until now of how Mr. Bush evaded service in Vietnam because I thought other issues were more important. But if Bush supporters attack John Kerry for his conduct after he volunteered for dangerous duty in Vietnam, it's only fair to scrutinize Mr. Bush's behavior.
It's not a pretty sight. Mr. Bush was saved from active duty, and perhaps Vietnam, only after the speaker of the Texas House intervened for him because of his family's influence.
Mr. Bush signed up in May 1968 for a six-year commitment, justifying the $1 million investment in training him as a pilot. But after less than two years, Mr. Bush abruptly stopped flying, didn't show up for his physical and asked to transfer to Alabama. He never again flew a military plane.
Mr. Bush insists that after moving to Alabama in 1972, he served out his obligation at Dannelly Air National Guard Base in Montgomery (although he says he doesn't remember what he did there). The only officer there who recalls Mr. Bush was produced by the White House - he remembers Mr. Bush vividly, but at times when even Mr. Bush acknowledges he wasn't there.
In contrast, Mr. Mintz is a compelling witness. Describing himself as "a very strong military man," he served in the military from 1959 to 1984. A commercial pilot, he is now a Democrat but was a Republican for most of his life, and he is not a Bush-hater. When I asked him whether the National Guard controversy raises questions about Mr. Bush's credibility, Mr. Mintz said only, "That's up to the American people to decide."
In his first interview with a national news organization, Mr. Mintz recalled why he remembered Mr. Bush as a no-show: "Young bachelors were kind of sparse. For that reason, I was looking for someone to haul around with." Why speak out now? He said, "After a lot of soul-searching, I just feel it's my duty to stand up and do the right thing."
Another particularly credible witness is Leonard Walls, a retired Air Force colonel who was then a full-time pilot instructor at the base. "I was there pretty much every day," he said, adding: "I never saw him, and I was there continually from July 1972 to July 1974." Mr. Walls, who describes himself as nonpolitical, added, "If he had been there more than once, I would have seen him."
The sheer volume of missing documents, and missing recollections, strongly suggests to me that Mr. Bush blew off his Guard obligations. It's not fair to say Mr. Bush deserted. My sense is that he (like some others at the time) neglected his National Guard obligations, did the bare minimum to avoid serious trouble and was finally let off by commanders who considered him a headache but felt it wasn't worth the hassle to punish him.
"The record clearly and convincingly proves he did not fulfill the obligations he incurred when he enlisted in the Air National Guard," writes Gerald Lechliter, a retired Army colonel who has made the most meticulous examination I've seen of Mr. Bush's records (I've posted the full 32-page analysis here). Mr. Lechliter adds that Mr. Bush received unauthorized or fraudulent payments that breached National Guard rules, according to the documents that the White House itself released.
Does this disqualify Mr. Bush from being commander in chief? No. But it should disqualify the Bush campaign from sliming the military service of a rival who still carries shrapnel from Vietnam in his thigh.