- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 10, 2004

President Bush’s military service is being unjustly vilified. I feel a sense of anger and frustration when I hear that instead of volunteering for Vietnam, Mr. Bush “hid out” flying fighter/interceptor jets in the Air National Guard (ANG) for four years.

As a former Air Force pilot with 6,000 hours of flying time, including more than 3,000 hours in jet fighters, I know that whenever you strapped yourself into a jet fighter and took off, you were in harm’s way. Your life was on the line. As fighter pilots, we did not feel we were in harm’s way. Statistics proved us wrong.

During my first four years of military service as both a student and an instructor pilot in fighter aircraft, I experienced many close shaves and witnessed dozens of jet fighter pilots killed in my flying training wing due to air accidents. The next two years, I was on exchange duty with a Navy squadron of about 24 pilots. Two other instructor pilots checked into the squadron the same week as I did — Navy Lt. Bill Charles and Marine Lt. Sam Murphy. Within eight months both Lt. Charles and Lt. Murphy, along with their pilots undergoing checkout, died in air accidents.

My 1952 West Point class sent approximately 100 graduates to the Air Force jet pilot training program. We experienced five fatalities (5 percent) in the first 20 months due to air crashes. By 1964 our numbers fell to 70 due to fatalities and resignations. From then until 1968, the year Lt. Bush joined the Air National Guard, we lost 10 more Air Force classmates, a 14 percent fatality rate. One was due to hostile action; eight were due to accidents. In total, we lost 18 classmates (18 percent) during our flying careers.

In contrast, of our 397 West Point classmates commissioned in the Army, 11 were killed in action or died in training accidents during their military careers, which included Korea and Vietnam. This is a fatality rate of 2.77 percent, versus the 18 percent fatality rate of the class of 1952 flyers in the Air Force.

Additionally, during the entire Vietnam conflict, Pentagon records show 3,403,000 military personnel served in Southeast Asia. The United States suffered 58,205 fatalities, a rate of 1.71 percent. Fatality rates varied substantially from unit to unit; nevertheless, over 98 percent of those serving in that conflict returned home.

Comparing these data, it is obvious that Lt. Bush, as a jet fighter/interceptor pilot in the Air National Guard, was more than twice as exposed to fatal danger than he would have been if he had taken his chances on an average tour in Vietnam. Most of his first two Air National Guard years were on active duty for training with the Air Force, undergoing basic training, flight school, survival training, combat-crew training, etc. Because the draft was for two years, he was not avoiding hazardous military duty being an Air National Guard pilot.

During the Vietnam era, guardsmen were required to accumulate 50 points to meet their yearly obligations. After training, Lt. Bush kept flying, racking up hundreds of hours in F-102 jets performing his squadron mission. According to his military records released this year, he earned 253 points in his first year, 340 points the second year, 137 points the third year and 112 points in his fourth year of duty. In other words, Lt. Bush showed up a lot, earning more than four times the required duty points in his first four years.

In Lt. Bush’s fifth year — which included parts of 1972 and 1973 — the Vietnam War was winding down due to President Nixon’s Vietnamization program. Many pilots had difficulty obtaining flying slots. According to Col. William Campenni (Ret.), a former fighter/interceptor pilot with Lt. Bush in the ANG, there was then “an enormous glut of pilots.” At that time, I was a B-52 Wing Commander and recall this Air Force-wide pilot surplus developing. When Lt. Bush requested a transfer to the Alabama Air National Guard for employment reasons, his superior officers granted this routine request. “In fact, you were helping them solve their [glut] problem,” said Col. Campenni.

Since Lt. Bush’s Alabama Air National Guard unit did not have F-102s, he stopped flying. From May 1972 to May 1973, he earned 56 points — more than enough to meet his annual requirement. Since he would not be flying, there was obviously no need to take an annual flight physical, which some accuse him of avoiding. Then, from May through July 1973, Lt. Bush accumulated 56 points, enough to meet his minimumrequirementsfor 1973?74, before requesting and receiving permission to attend Harvard Business School. It was not unusual for such requests to be granted. He received an honorable discharge after serving five years, four months and five days of his original six-year commitment — although he had accumulated enough points to cover six years of service.

One final thought regarding fatalities in the current war in Iraq. Although our war casualties are always horrific, they are a product of war and must be kept in perspective. Do we eliminate our police forces because a valiant police officer might sacrifice his life? Clearly our answer is “No.” For a war that has lasted about eighteen months, our fatality rate fortunately is very modest compared to past conflicts. See the graph above, which is derived from the Encyclopedia Britannica Almanac.

Brig. Gen. Charles D. Youree, Jr., USAF (Ret.) is former Strategic Air Command chief project officer for the B-1 bomber.

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