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Two U.S. Pilots Apologize to Families of Canadian Troops

Pair also defend their actions in errant Afghanistan bombing that killed 4 soldiers.

January 24, 2003|From Associated Press

BARKSDALE AIR FORCE BASE, La. — Two U.S. pilots who mistakenly bombed Canadian troops in Afghanistan last year apologized to the families of the dead and wounded Thursday as a hearing that could lead to their court-martial drew to a close.

The men expressed anguish over the accident but also defended their actions on the night of April 17, when the bomb killed four Canadian soldiers and wounded eight others near Kandahar.

Both men said they believed they were under enemy fire and had never been told allies might be holding exercises in the area.

Maj. Harry Schmidt, who dropped the 500-pound laser-guided bomb, called the accident a tragedy committed in the "fog of war."

"I was called upon to make a perfect decision in a rapidly unfolding combat environment," Schmidt said. "I had to make that decision with what I now know, with the acuity of 20/20 hindsight, was imperfect information."

Maj. William Umbach, the mission commander, began his statement by reading the names of the dead and wounded. "Since the 17th of April, not a day has passed that I have not thought of that night," he said.

"Major Schmidt and I were doing our best to protect ourselves in a situation where we honestly believed we were under attack."

After the hearing, relatives of the victims met with reporters.

"I think Mr. Umbach felt very sincere but Mr. Schmidt was trying to defend himself again. I had a hard time with that," said Claire Leger, the mother of Sgt. Marc Leger, 29, one of those killed.

She said the end of the hearing has not comforted her. "I came here with an open mind. I learned that I still have a broken heart," she said.

Marley Leger, Leger's widow, tearfully added: "I would just like to say to Major Umbach and Major Schmidt: thank you. I have heard your apologies, and they are accepted."

The defense completed its case in less than a day, though the pilots' attorneys aggressively cross-examined witnesses throughout the hearing.

Both sides still have arguments and documents to submit, and it could be weeks before the hearing officer, Col. Patrick Rosenow, makes his recommendation on whether the two U.S. pilots should be court-martialed.

Schmidt and Umbach are charged with involuntary manslaughter, dereliction of duty and aggravated assault. They could get up to 64 years in a military prison if convicted.

Schmidt and Umbach were each flying F-16s when they spotted the ground fire and Schmidt rolled in to attack.

The Air Force called more than a dozen witnesses over eight days, suggesting the pilots could have flown away but instead recklessly disobeyed orders by putting themselves in danger and ignoring briefings describing the location of allied troops.

Defense attorneys argued the pilots thought they were under enemy attack and that they were never told allies might be in the area conducting exercises that night. They also suggested that Air Force-issued amphetamines may have clouded the pilots' judgment.

The defense called no witnesses on the final day of the hearing.

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