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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

'Friendly Fire' Put in Docket

U.S. seeks to prosecute two of its pilots in bombing that killed four Canadians in Afghan war. At home, there's a sense they're 'fall guys.'

September 24, 2002|STEPHANIE SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The two pilots were alone in the dark battling fatigue, battling fear, scouting an enemy that seemed to mass and melt away in the shadows of the hostile land beneath.

Wedged into the cockpits of their F-16s, they raced through a moonless midnight, a routine overnight patrol southwest of Kandahar. They swallowed "Go Pills," stimulants prescribed by the Air Force to keep them alert. On they flew, on and on, for hours, on and on, alone.

Then, from below: A flash.

The arc of tracer fire. Balls of flame that looked to be coming right at them.

Maj. Harry Schmidt called mission controllers cruising the region in a radar plane to report surface-to-air fire. He asked permission to strafe the ground with his cannon. "Stand by," the controller told him. "Hold fire."

Flash. Flash. Schmidt reduced speed and swept lower. He squinted through his night-vision goggles.

"I've got some men on a road and it looks like a piece of artillery firing at us," he reported, according to transcripts released by an inquiry board. "I am rolling in, in self-defense."

He readied his 500-pound laser-guided bomb. "Bombs away," he announced, and dropped it, right on target. At that very moment, a ground commander radioed the radar plane: "Kandahar has friendlies.... Get [the F-16s] out of there."

As he pulled up and soared away, Schmidt radioed the pilot in the other fighter jet: "I hope that was the right thing to do."

The bomb Schmidt dropped killed four Canadian soldiers and wounded eight as they engaged in live-fire training on Afghanistan's Tarnak Farms range on April 18. A military inquiry has recommended charging Schmidt with involuntary manslaughter, aggravated assault and dereliction of duty. If convicted, he could face up to 64 years in prison.

The pilot in the companion F-16, Maj. William Umbach, has been accused of the same criminal offenses.

Though he did not drop the bomb, Umbach was serving as flight commander, in charge of the mission. He too could face 64 years.

It is the first time the U.S. military has recommended criminal charges for wartime "friendly fire." In taking that step, authorities said the pilots acted recklessly and violated rules governing use of force in Operation Enduring Freedom. Critics, however, have suggested the Air Force caved to political and diplomatic pressure from incensed Canadians.

The decision to prosecute has roiled the pilots' hometowns of Sherman and Petersburg--small rural communities in central Illinois decked out in American flags. In more than two dozen interviews there last week, the outrage was unanimous.

"They should leave those pilots alone," said Angela Marvel, 36, indignant as she shopped for children's clothes. "It was an accident. Accidents happen all the time."

"They're over there flying for our country. They're fighting our war.... And now, they're the fall guys," said John Russo, 71, commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars post in nearby Springfield.

"When you're traveling 6 miles per minute in a fighter and you look down and see firing, you don't have a lot of time to make the right decision," said state Rep. Raymond Poe, a Republican. "Everyone around here feels, if we were up there, we probably would have done the same thing."

Schmidt and Umbach served with the Illinois Air National Guard's 183rd Fighter Wing, based in Springfield.

Schmidt, 37, a celebrated Top Gun pilot, was a full-time guardsman, the pride of his squadron. In fact, the Springfield fighter wing had courted him for months, eager to land a pilot described by both his peers and his superiors as "well above average."

A former instructor at the Navy Fighter Weapons School, he had more than 3,200 hours of military flying time.

Umbach, 43, a commercial airline pilot, was a traditional part-time guardsman, training on weekends. Logging 3,000 hours of military flying time over two decades, he had earned a rating as one of the Air Force's most experienced pilots. Shaken by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he volunteered for deployment overseas and had been flying sorties nearly every other day for a month before the bombing.

Holding court over a 7-Up at the Springfield VFW, Army veteran Jerry Helfrich called the pilots' prosecution "a travesty."

Through thick cigarette smoke, his buddies grunted assent. After all, they pointed out, friendly fire has torn up battlefields in every major conflict--and it has always been considered a tragedy, not a crime.

Confederate Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson was fatally wounded by one of his own men during the Civil War. U.S. bombers in World War II accidentally killed the American general in charge of Army ground forces--and 110 of his soldiers--as they prepared for the D-Day invasion.

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