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Why Single Out Just One? : The strange case of U.S. Air Force Capt. James Wang

June 04, 1995

Why is Capt. James Wang, a 29-year-old U.S. Air Force Academy graduate, the sole airman facing a court martial for a series of ghastly blunders that led to the worst friendly fire incident in recent military history? Wang was supervising three crew members aboard an Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) radar plane on April 14, 1994, when two Air Force F-15 pilots mistakenly shot down two Army Blackhawk helicopters over a no-flight zone in northern Iraq.

The circumstances that led up to the tragedy have never been fully explained, even to the families of victims. Three Californians were killed: Warrant Officer Erik S. Mounsey, 28, of Los Angeles; Col. Jerald L. Thompson, 48, of Oakland, and Chief Warrant Officer Michael A. Hall, 27, of Windsor. The rules of engagement under which the pilots shot down the helicopters have been classified. But the Air Force Times reported that the Pentagon's 21-volume investigation detailed mistakes by virtually all, from the operation commander to the pilots.

Nevertheless all except Wang have been exonerated. Charges against one pilot, Lt. Col. Randy May, were dismissed, while the other pilot, Capt. Eric Wickson, was granted immunity. The court-martial proceeding against Wang began last Thursday. He is charged with dereliction of duty for allegedly failing to supervise his radar controllers, failing to maintain a "current and accurate" radar picture of his area of responsibility and failing to make sure the pilots knew there were Army helicopters in the area.

The AWACS spotted the U.S. Blackhawk helicopters as they were ferrying American and allied military officers into the no-fly zone. The helicopters lost contact with the AWACS and disappeared off the AWACS screen. Then the F-15's entered the area. The pilots visually identified the Blackhawks as two Hind helicopters, the Soviet craft used by Iraqi forces. The two models do not resemble each other.

In July Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, the chairman of the joints chiefs of staff, said that the deaths resulted from a "shocking number of instances where individuals failed to do their jobs properly." So, to repeat the key question, why is Wang being singled out?

Is he the military's scapegoat? Or was this tragedy the result of systemic problems? Congress needs to open an independent investigation into this very troubling case.

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