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U.S. Pilot Won't Face Trial Over 'Friendly Fire'

Air Force major who killed four Canadian troops in a bombing in Afghanistan opts for a nonjudicial hearing. He will not go to prison.

June 25, 2004|Mark Mazzetti | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — A U.S. Air Force F-16 pilot who in 2002 mistakenly dropped a 500-pound bomb on a group of Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan, killing four, will not face court-martial, the military said Thursday.

Maj. Harry Schmidt, a decorated pilot and former instructor at the Navy's "Top Gun" fighter pilot school, has agreed to a nonjudicial hearing over the incident, the deadliest involving Canadian troops in a combat zone since the Korean War.

By avoiding court-martial, Schmidt no longer faces imprisonment. The so-called Article 15 hearing on a dereliction-of-duty charge carries a range of possible penalties, including no punishment, the loss of a month's pay of approximately $5,600, 30 days confinement to quarters or a combination of those.

A year ago, when he faced a more serious charge of involuntary manslaughter, Schmidt turned down the Air Force's offer of an Article 15 hearing, saying he wanted to clear his name in a court-martial proceeding. The Air Force later dropped the manslaughter charge.

On Wednesday, Schmidt notified his commander, Lt. Gen. Bruce Carlson of the 8th Air Force, that he had changed his mind and wanted to agree to the Article 15 hearing.

"We just assume he wished not to run the risk of a court-martial conviction and the criminal outcome associated with it," said Col. Alvina Mitchell, an Air Force spokeswoman.

Schmidt's lawyer, Charles W. Gittins, said: "There's a big downside for everyone in a trial. There was the opportunity for the military to lose real big. There was the opportunity for Maj. Schmidt to lose real big."

The incident, which occurred April 17, 2002, near the southern Afghanistan city of Kandahar, drove a wedge between Canadian politicians and their American counterparts and elicited an apology from President Bush.

According to separate Canadian and American military inquiries, Schmidt and his wingman, Maj. William Umbach, were flying over Tarnak Farms, a former Al Qaeda training camp near the U.S.-led coalition base south of Kandahar.

The pilots, spotting cannon flashes from a live-fire exercise being conducted by the Canadians, thought they were drawing hostile surface-to-air missile fire and requested permission from a nearby surveillance plane to return fire.

The surveillance commander told them to hold off. Instead, Schmidt invoked his right to self-defense and dropped the laser-guided bomb.

Alice Leger, grandmother of Sgt. Marc Leger, one of the four Canadians killed, said Schmidt should be punished, although she said she thought the killings were an accident.

"We are not going to get our boys back, but he still has a family," Leger told the Toronto Globe and Mail. "It must be hard for them too."

Schmidt and Umbach blamed amphetamines they were given by the military to help them stay awake, as well as the "fog of war," for the incident. Umbach has already been reprimanded for "leadership failures."

Times staff writer John Hendren contributed to this report.

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