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Larry Bustle raised the flag during the opening of Bennett Park. File photo.
East County Wednesday, May 9, 2012 10 years ago

Observed: In defense of Larry Bustle

by: Michael Eng Executive Editor

It must have been a really slow news day for Fox 13 investigative “reporter” Doug Smith.

Last week, Smith and the news channel ran a nearly six-minute “gotcha” story about Manatee County District 1 Commissioner Larry Bustle and the discount he receives through the Disabled Veterans’ Property Tax Discount, an amendment Florida voters passed in 2006.

In the hours before that night’s newscast, Fox 13 promoted the piece heavily, giving the impression Bustle was somehow illegally gaming the system and living the high life in his million-dollar mansion on the Manatee River.

In the piece, which online carries the headline, “Unfair tax break has some up in arms,” Smith questioned the morality of Bustle’s discount — a savings of about $7,900 in 2011. He then got a secondary interview with fellow Commissioner Robin DiSabatino, who said she “wouldn’t be able to live with herself” if she took the discount.

Smith didn’t stop there and even used part of the piece to question the validity of Bustle’s disability (for which he earned a Purple Heart). According to Smith, DiSabatino “had never noticed Bustle’s disabilities.”

But the last time I checked, DiSabatino is neither a doctor nor a military veteran.

Here’s the truth about Bustle’s discount: He fits the stringent criteria for the Disabled Veterans’ Property Tax Discount (see box) and is doing nothing illegal in taking said discount. The amendment was passed by Florida voters — with the understanding that it would be open to veterans such as Bustle.

So, what business does a broadcast journalist or fellow commissioner have in condemning Bustle for taking it?

Short answer: They don’t.

And about those disabilities — they’re there. Oh, they’re there. Here’s the story of Bustle’s service to our country. You decide whether it’s worth the savings he has enjoyed through the tax discount.

Even today, more than four decades later, Bustle knows the difference between his life and death was as simple as a tiny selector knob in the hands of a fellow Air Force airman.

Bustle, a Manatee County native, had been appointed to the U.S. Naval Academy by former U.S. Rep. James Haley. Following the Naval Academy, Bustle then enrolled in the Air Force Academy in 1957 to complete pilot training.

Eleven years later, on Feb. 15, 1968, the F-4 Phantom fighter pilot found himself in Da Nang, Vietnam. From that date until the end of his tour on Sept. 11, 1968, Bustle flew 130 combat missions.

But, it was No. 68 that changed his life forever.

Bustle took the skies in an F-4D Phantom II, a two-person plane, with another soldier seated behind him. About 90 miles north of the demilitarized zone on the coast of North Vietnam, Bustle heard a loud bang, and the cockpit began filling with smoke.

“The airplane was on fire in the back, and my backseater ejected,” Bustle remembers.

The backseater’s ejection selector knob had the option to eject both seats, and had that knob been turned a different way, Bustle likely wouldn’t have made it out alive.

Years later, Bustle learned from a prisoner of war who was returned to the United States that his backseater suffered a compound fracture to his leg. The enemy had taken him to a cave, where he later died.

Despite the smoke-filled cockpit, Bustle stayed with the fighter jet, coaxing it over the Gulf of Tonkin. When he got about 5 miles offshore, he ejected.

“I was going really fast,” Bustle remembers. “I really didn’t have any concept of speed at that time; I was just trying to get the heck out of North Vietnam.”

Bustle’s arms and legs flailed as if without bones as the wind tore into his body. It pulled both of his shoulders loose and broke both of his knees.

About 45 minutes later, a Jolly Green Giant rescue helicopter located Bustle. He was first taken back to Da Nang and later transported to Japan.

“They said I was never going to fly again,” Bustle remembers. “I said, ‘We’ll see about that.’”

Bustle rehabbed himself back into shape to reclaim his flying status. He later served as a test pilot for the Air Force at Eglin Air Force Base and then held several senior command positions with the military. After 27 years of service, he retired from his post at the Pentagon in 1984 — as a colonel.

In addition to the Purple Heart, Bustle earned the Silver Star, the Distinguished Flying Cross, nine Air Medals and more for his service.

In 1995, Bustle and his wife, Edie, moved back to Bustle’s hometown. He and his two brothers had purchased in 1987 a parcel of land along the Manatee River, which they subdivided into three buildable lots. And, like any home in Manatee County, the value of Bustle’s riverfront home has fluctuated according to what the market has dictated.

Today, Bustle says he still struggles from the injuries he sustained on combat mission No. 68.

“My rotator cuffs are in bad shape,” he says. “There’s not much in the way of strength of range of motion. Changing a light bulb above my head is a tough proposition.

“I had both my knees replaced in 2006,” Bustle says. “But, I hide it pretty good.”

And, what about that discount?

“I’d gladly trade it for good shoulders and good knees,” he says.

Below is a sample of the feedback Larry Bustle received following Fox 13’s story.

Shame, shame, shame on you, commissioners Joe McClash and Robin DiSabatino, for your very unpopular stance in the press this week regarding Commissioner Larry Bustle’s well-deserved property tax break.
It is an embarrassment to the citizens of Manatee County that you question the integrity of this military veteran, a hero to many, who has paid a high price in service to the United States, a man who bears the pain and scars of broken bones, a man who spent many months in full-body brace after being shot down from the skies by our enemies, and a man who today continues a life of service to taxpayers.
John and Louise Cumming

I’m sorry about the recent, shameless, political attack on you for exercising a completely legitimate right veterans like you deserve. Every one of your critics would have certainly done the same if they were able. I just couldn’t believe the brazen grandstanding and was disgusted.
I look forward to supporting you in your re-election bid.
Wade Thompson

Thank you for your service to our nation. Nothing will ever repay your service and sacrifice.
Michael P. Howe, executive director
Sarasota/Manatee MPO

1. At least 65 years old
2. A Florida resident when entering the military
3. Permanently disabled from combat-related injuries
4. Honorably discharged

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