A Tale of Two AWOLs: Dubya & I
"I'm the kinda man likes to get away, like to start dreamin' about tomorrow today" --Marshall Tucker Band: Heard It In A Love Song
Dubya and I were reluctant warriors once. Thirty five years ago we were both stuck in Texas at the height of the Vietnam War, he in the Texas Air National Guardat Ellington AFB in Houston, and I at Lackland AFB in San Antonio. Where we each went--when we fled Texas on our respective jaunts--took us as far apart in America as two people could possibly be.
Dubya and I both "lit out for the territories," as that Civil War deserter, Mark Twain airily described his own flight from an unnecessary war. Dubya headed east towards Alabama, (perhaps inspiring that fictional character Forrest Gump), and I headed north to Canada in a stolen car. Somewhere in Texas our paths may have crossed (we were both there four years). We may have exchanged a salute at some Air Force function. Maybe we flirted with the same Trinity College coeds. Maybe the future "war president" passed me in his little red convertible while I hitch-hiked across the state. I crossed the Texas north to south and east to west on two occasions between my unlawful A.W.O.L --"Away without official leave"--and his flight much later.
But military officers and enlisted men seldom mix. The levels of human society, like fossil beds from different epochs, appear inches apart in the bedrock of American society, but the reality is impossibly distant, separated by eons of bloodlines. "He was born at the intersection of two elites," wrote Michael Kingsley of George W. Bush: "The eastern WASP establishment and the Texas oiligarchy." If we had perchance met, Dubya and I, it was a brief but unmemorable moment. The fate we both shared in common was flight, a youthful yearning for horizons unfettered by rules and restrictions and the wide open road.
Three days and fifteen hundred miles later, I was back exactly where I started: the gatehouse at Lackland air base. I had returned to "face the proverbial music." For my actions I would spend 35 days in the medium security stockade there at Lackland and receive three years probation as a first-time offender. By George, I felt relieved, felt I had gotten off lightly.
But George Dubya, fortunate son, headed east around 1972, disappeared for almost six months, and never did face the music. The Alabama air national guard commander said he never saw Lt. Bush. Desertion, dereliction of duty, is defined by being AWOL longer than 31 days. I suppose a future president enjoys certain youthful privileges that others do not, enlisted men like the unfortunate deserter sentenced to one year, but why one military person should be exonerated and another not, seems unfair, seems un-American.
"Deserters are punished, regardless of what their arguments are or their excuses," said the unfortunate enlisted man's commander in Iraq. No word what that Alabama commander said about the young Dubya. Arguments and excuses carry far more weight when attached to great wealth or power. Swift boats sweep the favored sons to safety, while the harsh storms of military justice drown dissenters as punitive examples.
With the help of high Texas officials, it was easy and convenient for young Dubya to vault over scores of other applicants to get into the Texas ANG, into the "Champagne Unit." The grandsons of US Senators and the offspring of CIA insiders exist on a different level than fossils like you and I. George, pampered and indulged offspring of affluence and power, like the pre-anointed successor kings of Europe, was more monarch than commoner and probably knew it even then.
But flying is dangerous work. The F-102 war plane (pictured) that Lt. Bush flew a few times a month was hardly a gentle and forgiving Cessna but literally a flying bomb strapped between a young man's legs. No shame in washing out. But for some reason, Dubya took off and never flew again.
In 1972, I left the Air Force, having served without further incident. Honorably discharged, I received the rank of Staff Sergeant (E-5), and have made my way by the imperfect code of ethics that my experiences have provided me. The road not taken was the road I often took. Light years later, I regret some choices I've made, but not that one. A soldier serves his soul first: the moral equation, and then his masters. I doubt Mark Twain ever looked back with regret, from a moral standpoint, that he had not fought in the Civil War.
But a precedent was set that day in Texas, when Dubya and I "lit out for the territories." Therefore, I suggest that each officer or enlisted man, stateside or in Iraq, follow the same example set by our Commander-in-Chief. Run away for six months or a year. Run away to Rio, Maui or Miami; you'll feel better for it. Run away. Work on your tan or--as George reportedly did--work for a man running a political campaign.
Leave the killing and maiming to others; you have better things to do. Like loving and living. After six months or a year, return for that honorable discharge. What was good for the goose is good for the gander. Who knows, maybe one day you too might become president. Just don't forget to pack your family connections.