Controversy Surrounds President Bush's National Guard Stint

This is a partial transcript of The Big Story With John Gibson, Feb. 11, 2004, that has been edited for clarity.

JOHN GIBSON, HOST: Hi, everybody. Enemies of President Bush aiming to shoot down his military record, rehashing a controversy that's been around for years. And the White House responds, as you heard, calling it a smear campaign by critics "trolling for trash"...  

We haven't heard from anybody yet who served with Lieutenant George Bush in Alabama, but our next guest was a member of his squadron in the Texas National Guard, retired U.S. Air Force Colonel William Campenni (search) served with Lieutenant Bush from 1970 to 1971. Colonel, today's big question, what is the truth about the president's National Guard duty?

COL. WILLIAM CAMPENNI, U.S. AIR FORCE (RET.): Well, that is a big question. What do you mean by what is the truth?

GIBSON: Well, did he serve it as far as you know?

CAMPENNI: He certainly did serve. He served proudly like all the rest of us did.

GIBSON: Well, there's a lot of controversy about where was he, was he in the right place at the right time. Tell me about the time you served with him.

CAMPENNI: Well, I overlapped in the period 1970 through '71 when I was down there assigned to the unit, checking out the F-102.

GIBSON: You are talking about Texas?

CAMPENNI: In Texas, that's right. And the president had checked out some time earlier than that. He was a line operational pilot. We were in the student side of the house there. And there were several times during the time down there when we were on the same mission, when Lieutenant Bush would be flying as target for some of our intercept training. And, of course, then he had other duties. Often he would be flying at different times than the student flight would. But, yes, he was there. We weren't social friends, but many a time in the squadron lounge we would say hello before we went out to fly.

GIBSON: Do you know anything about this period where he was detached to a Guard unit in Alabama?

CAMPENNI: Well, I know from the news about his attachment. I also knew from my times in the unit. I also was a full time member of that unit a year later in '73, '74. So I know all the players and all the people.

GIBSON: You said in your letter in "The Washington Times" today that he did not shirk his duty in Alabama. Do you know that for a fact?

CAMPENNI: Yes, I do know that for a fact and you people should, too. You were seeing the records yesterday. They're very straightforward. They are pay records. You don't get paid if you are not there, if you are not doing the job.

GIBSON: What explains then this period where he was paid for six days from — you know, in the spring to the fall. That seems like a long period to only have put in six days.

CAMPENNI: And it might have been because he was temporarily assigned. He was off to his home parent unit there. This happens quite often in the Guard. It happens now in the Guard. It happened then in the Guard. I myself in job transfers have gone through periods when I had to sit down for a while and just do some administrative details while the paperwork was getting through, as I transferred between units or because my job took me away from my duties for a while.

GIBSON: Would it be unusual that you could be detached to another unit, in this case an Alabama Guard unit, and nobody quite remembers you there?

CAMPENNI: No, not at all. Later on, I was a commander. And we would have people assigned to us for the same reasons that Lieutenant Bush would be assigned there. They temporarily have to leave their home unit to maintain some of their currency or to maintain their affiliation with the Guard. They temporarily do what we would call pull drills with another unit. Often I had people on my staff like that. Sometimes I was not even aware they were there because the paperwork hadn't even followed through yet. Other times they were there. Like in one case I had a pilot from the Idaho Guard just like President Bush was from the Texas Guard. I could not check him out in our airplane, a different airplane. I just used him for some administrative details until he was finished his assignment down there.

GIBSON: Colonel, how unusual is it that a Guard member would be able to do what the president did and that would is get an early excusal from his Guard service in order to go to, in his case, I think it was Harvard Business School?

CAMPENNI: That's quite common, even in current times when we do have an obligation. In 1972 and 1973, it was even more common because at that time with the Vietnamization of the war and the winding down of the war there was a glut of pilots. Many of my active duty pilot friends were being put in what was called a rated supplement slot, that is, there were no cockpits for them to be in. They would get off their Vietnam tours or any other tour and they would be put in a desk job. It was not a high moral time for pilots at that time.

GIBSON: All right, Colonel, before I run out of time, do you detect in this controversy about President Bush anything that looks to you like casting aspersions on Guard duty, National Guard duty?

CAMPENNI: Oh, that's right fraught through the whole problem. And that's why I got a little bit upset about it. They were casting aspersions on my service, on Lieutenant Bush's service. We went out there and did some risky things flying that F-102. And to have people say we were slacking really gets my goat there. And I don't like it and I thought it was time somebody spoke out about it.

GIBSON: Retired U.S. Air Force Colonel William Campenni. Colonel Campenni, thanks very much. Appreciate you coming on today.

CAMPENNI: Thank you, John.

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