Carroll victim's mother wonders how pilots erred

April 16, 1994|By Scott Higham | Scott Higham,Sun Staff Writer Sun staff writer John B. O'Donnell contributed to this article.

The Black Hawk helicopter crew chief from Carroll County faced his share of foes.

In the Persian Gulf, Spc. Jeffrey Colbert, 22, flew dozens of missions in enemy terrority, dodging Iraqi tanks and anti-aircraft missiles. But in the end, it was a pair of U.S. warplanes that shot down his copter, killing Specialist Colbert and 25 others Thursday in what's cruelly called "friendly fire."

"That's the hardest part for me," his mother, Arnita Colbert-Sowers, 44, said from her Taneytown home last night. "I can't believe it happened the way it happened. If they told me it was a mechanical failure, or if he was shot down by the enemy, or it was something beyond their control . . .

"But to blow our own helicopters out of the sky?" she said, her voice cracking with emotion. "I can't understand. I just can't understand why they did this."

The Pentagon is saying little about what went wrong in the skies over northern Iraq or who was actually killed in the mishap. The military has released the names of just two of the 15 Americans and has not confirmed that Specialist Colbert was aboard one of two U.S. Black Hawks gunned down by two U.S. F-15C fighter jets.

The Pentagon said yesterday that Barbara Schell, a decorated U.S. diplomat who served in the Mideast, and 2nd Lt. Laura Ashley Piper, 25, of Venice, Fla., were among those confirmed dead.

Mrs. Colbert-Sowers said military officers came to her doorstep at 2:30 Thursday morning.

"They said, 'We regret to inform you that your son's helicopter was shot down and there are believed to be no survivors,' " she said.

Little information has trickled into her Taneytown home since.

Her daughter-in-law called from Germany to say she had been told Specialist Colbert's helicopter was shot down by fighter jets and he had been killed. Mrs. Colbert-Sowers said she didn't find out the jets were flown by U.S. pilots until she saw a televised news report Thursday afternoon.

"That's when it became very difficult," she said. "There are so many check systems in those helicopters. There were AWACS [radar aircraft] in the area. There's no way this was an accident. It couldn't be an accident. If the pilots were stressed out, they shouldn't be flying."

Ever since he was a child, Jeffrey Colbert wanted to fly.

He was raised in Taneytown. His parents divorced. His mother's job as a personnel manager for the Air Force took the family around the country -- to Wyoming, New Hampshire and Virginia.

When he was a teen, his mother took him to Langley Air Force Base. The two would lie on the ground near the runway and watch F-15 jets roar off into the sky -- the same type of plane that would later claim Specialist Colbert's life.

"He was thrilled by the planes," Mrs. Colbert-Sowers said. "He always wanted to fly."

In high school, Specialist Colbert joined the ROTC. He got a part-time job at McDonald's and spent his spare time at dances and basketball and football games, and drawing and painting pictures.

He married his girlfriend in his senior year at Middletown High School near Frederick and joined the Army two months after his June 1989 graduation. Before leaving on one of his overseas assignments, Specialist Colbert and his wife, Laura, stopped to say farewell to their high school social studies teacher.

"I was very flattered," said Dottie Engle, a teacher at Middletown High. "They were a special couple."

Once in the military, Specialist Colbert landed his dream job as a member of the Army's 101st Airborne at Fort Campbell, Ky. His job as crew chief placed him in control of some of the military's most sophisticated aircraft -- the Black Hawk helicopters.

When war broke out in the Middle East in 1991, Specialist Colbert's unit went to the Persian Gulf and flew dozens of missions. Each time, his copter came home. After the war, he came back to Fort Campbell and then was transferred to Germany.

"That's what makes this so difficult," said his father, Wilson "Butch" Colbert, 45, a dairy plant worker in Frederick. "He spent nine months in the gulf war and never got so much as a cut on his finger. We never dreamed anything like this would happen."

Last year, Specialist Colbert moved his wife and his daughters, Amber, 5, and Beth, 4, to a military base in Germany. One of his assignments: flying relief missions to the Kurds in northern Iraq.

Mrs. Colbert-Sowers said she is not sure she wants to know everything about her son's final flight: "I don't want to know the names of the those pilots. They walked away from it, and they shot down innocent people who were on a peaceful mission. Jeffrey knew what F-15s look like. These pilots should have known what an American helicopter looks like."

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