DALLAS — The flap over President Bush's military service in the Texas Air National Guard really comes down to what he says he did from May 1972 to May 1973 and evidence and recollection from that time. Now, the military officer at the center of the row regrets he ever got involved.
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Much of the controversy stems from an article in the "Boston Globe" during the 2000 election when the commander of the Alabama unit of the Air National Guard, Brigadier General William Turnipseed, said he doesn't remember seeing Bush at Air Guard meetings in Alabama at that time.
But, in an NBC News interview this week, the general expressed surprise that his remarks caused such consternation. "George Bush wasn't even famous back then, so why would I notice this outsider showing up at a couple of meetings. I just wouldn't."
The known facts
To really understand the controversy, it's necessary to go back to the beginning and examine who all the players are and how the Air National Guard worked at that time.
George W. Bush was sworn into the Texas Air National Guard on May 27, 1968 during the height of the Vietnam War. He went through all of the basic and advanced flight training and received a commission as a second lieutenant. He then went about his business as a private citizen attending monthly and any other special "camps" for training.In 1972, then-citizen Bush got a job working on a U.S. Senate campaign in Alabama and he looked into attending Guard meetings with a unit in Montgomery, Ala.
A Lt. Colonel Lott sent Bush a letter informing him when the meetings were scheduled for the Alabama unit in October and November.
The current controversy was ignited by comments from Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe, who charged Bush was absent without leave or AWOL from the Alabama Air National Guard during those 2 months in 1972.
The issue has been resurrected as it now appears the president will probably be running against war-hero Senator John Kerry, if he wins the Democratic nomination.
Brig. Gen. ‘recall’ in 2004
Brigadier Gen. Turnipseed, 75 and retired in Montgomery, Ala., says he's sorry he ever said he would have "had some recall" of Bush had he attended a meeting of the Alabama Air Guard unit.
"I don't remember whether he came or not. Our unit had about 900- 1,000 men and he could have attended many meetings without me ever knowing it," Turnipseed said this week.
As for Bush being AWOL, Turnipseed said, "No way. He was never assigned to our unit so he couldn't be AWOL. Like so many Guard and Reserve soldiers during the Vietnam War, they moved around and temporarily attended meetings with other units but Bush never left his original unit in Texas.”
Turnipseed has said all along there would be no mention of the president in the Alabama unit since Bush was paid out of Texas.
When asked about Bush’s pay record, Turnipseed said the paymaster in Alabama would note Bush attended a meeting and send the information onto Texas on what he described as an "IBM 105" card where it would be recorded and sent onto payroll in Colorado.
Bush was accused by Democrats of skipping meetings because there was no written record of him attending those meetings in October and November in Alabama.
On Tuesday, the White House released payroll records that showed the president received credit for attending meetings in October and November 1972.
The records don't indicate where he attended those meetings but he was living in Alabama at the time.
As for Turnipseed, he says the crux is that it is really difficult to remember what happened more than 30 years ago.
Jim Cummins is the NBC News Dallas Bureau Chief