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Air Force Chief Defends Way Iraq Incident Handled : Military: He metes out career-ending punishment to seven officers involved in downing of helicopters that killed 26. He says the system worked properly.

August 16, 1995|ROBERT L. JACKSON and RICHARD A. SERRANO | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — The Air Force chief of staff handed out career-ending punishments Tuesday to seven Air Force officers who had escaped sanctions from the military justice system for their roles in the accidental destruction of two U.S. Army helicopters over Iraq last year.

But in meting out the formal administrative discipline, Gen. Ronald R. Fogleman defended that system against criticism that it had left them untouched even though 26 lives had been lost.

"The military justice system worked as it was supposed to," Fogleman insisted. "I do not recommend any changes."

The system was chiefly designed to determine criminal conduct, he said, and there is no evidence of such behavior in this instance. But in videotaped remarks to be distributed throughout the service, Fogleman said he was holding the officers accountable to higher standards than avoidance of criminality.

"These people failed to meet Air Force standards in leadership, judgment and job knowledge," he said. Their performance, while not criminal, "contributed to the accidental death of 26 persons."

Fogleman's unprecedented action of grounding five officers who were trained to fly, and writing critical evaluations of two non-flying generals comes after expressions of outrage from surviving family members, members of Congress and even some senior military officials over the absence of any disciplinary actions taken by military courts.

However, Maj. Gen. Nolan Sklute, the staff judge advocate of the Air Force, told reporters that public outrage had not led to the disciplinary steps.

"You bet we were concerned about the feelings of family members," Sklute said. "But this did not drive Gen. Fogleman's actions against the officers involved."

Sklute, who holds the Air Force's top legal post, called Fogleman's action "extraordinary--I am unaware it has ever happened before." He said the public should keep in mind that "we're talking about good officers who have devoted their lives to their country. We're not talking about criminals."

Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R--Garden Grove), who chaired a congressional hearing on the tragedy earlier this month, commended Fogleman for his decision Tuesday, saying it "restores my confidence in Air Force leadership."

Dornan, chairman of the House national security subcommittee on military personnel, said that "accountability sometimes means that mistakes are career-ending." But he added that "nothing can overcome the tragedy for the families of the victims."

He said his subcommittee will continue to look into the accident, which killed 15 Americans and 11 foreign officials.

There was no immediate reaction from the disciplined officers, although some are expected to retire as a result. Fogleman was additionally disturbed that several of the men, despite reprimands months ago, had received promotions, awards or choice assignments from their superiors in the past year, Sklute said.

Only one officer, Capt. Jim Wang, was tried by the military, and he was acquitted. Wang and two others disciplined, Capt. Joseph Halcli and 1st Lt. Ricky Wilson, were members of an AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) radar surveillance crew that allegedly misidentified the Army helicopters as Iraqi aircraft in the so-called "no fly" zone on April 14, 1994.

Charges against four others were dismissed before trial.

The two highest-ranking officers to be disciplined are Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Pilkington, former commander of the operation to protect Kurdish refugees in northern Iraq and now commander of the 86th Airlift Wing at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, and Brig. Gen. Curtis Emery, who as a colonel commanded the air component of the operation. Both will effectively be frozen in rank.

The two other officers being grounded for three years are Lt. Col. Randy May, now commander of an F-15 squadron in Germany, and Capt. Eric Wickson, now a flight instructor. The two fired missiles that blasted the U.S. UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters out of the sky.

David Brahms, a retired Marine Corps brigadier general who once was that service's highest ranking lawyer, said in an interview that the Pentagon was forced into a position of re-examining the case because of the intense media pressure and public outcry.

"It got a little hot in the kitchen," said Brahms, now in private practice in Carlsbad, Calif. "Even senior officers at the Pentagon began to wonder what the hell was going on here."

He said the final straw came with Wang's acquittal. "The one thing big government responds to is public embarrassment," he said. "That's the real point of vulnerability."

What is also unusual in this case, he said, is that the Air Force publicly announced the discipline. Often, Brahms said, military careers just quietly come to an end.

"You don't always have to post someone's bloody head on the gate outside the city," he said. "Careers often end without such a drastic and public reaction."

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