'Friendly fire': A question of how you fix it

April 25, 1994|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,Sun Staff Writer

In the desert darkness of the Persian Gulf, Army Lt. Col. Ralph Hayles fired the missiles that obliterated two armored vehicles, killing two young American soldiers. But don't ask him how he feels about this incident they call "friendly fire." Don't ask him that question.

"The question is not, 'How do you feel?' The question is, 'How do you fix it?' " says Mr. Hayles, whose tragic error on the eve of the Desert Storm ground war in 1991 cost him the command of an elite Apache helicopter unit and exposed his private pain to public scrutiny.

Since two Air Force pilots mistakenly shot down two U.S. Black Hawk helicopters April 15, killing all 26 aboard, the telephone in Mr. Hayles' San Antonio home has been ringing. The callers ask the retired lieutenant colonel to relive his own fatal mistake, and by way of example, illustrate the personal pain of what has become a very public tragedy.

His feelings -- which he steadfastly refuses to discuss -- are not the issue, the 44-year-old father of two says.

"You lock a million dollar missile on a target and it just disintegrates and people don't have a chance. We don't have the electronic equipment to stop that," said Mr. Hayles, who now conducts leadership training for corporate executives. "As long as the government keeps us talking about the empathy and the sorrow, they've got us off the central issue."

In an era in which the United States' war machine is so sophisticated that it rarely misses, Mr. Hayles said U.S. aircraft should be outfitted with special devices that automatically identify vehicles as friend or foe. In the recent incident over northern Iraq, the Black Hawks didn't answer an electronic inquiry from the F-15 pilots, asking them to identify themselves as friend or foe. An investigation will determine if the failure to respond was a mechanical glitch or human error.

Although incidents of "friendly fire" date to the Revolutionary War (George Washington wrote about such cases from his own experience), it's only been since the Persian Gulf conflict that the Army has tried to systematically account for such incidents, said Col. David M. Sa'adah, a member of a special panel formed in the wake of Desert Storm to develop countermeasures to friendly fire.

In the past, a witness to a casualty had the option of reporting it as "hostile" or "not hostile," he said. Now that report form includes the phrase "friendly fire," said Colonel Sa'adah, a physician who has researched the history of friendly fire.

Of all the military branches, the Army suffered the greatest losses to friendly fire in the Persian Gulf: 21 killed and 65 wounded. The military total was 35 dead and 72 wounded.

While military committees are at work to try to reduce the incidence of friendly fire, the emotional pitfalls of the phenomenon have been much less studied. There are no special counseling programs for service members involved in the incidents, according to spokesmen for the armed services. Those who want help may be referred to a psychologist, chaplain or social worker, said Lt. Col. Michael R. Gannon, an Air Force spokesman.

In Chicago, where he counsels veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome, Dr. Howard J. Lipke said servicemen involved in friendly fire incidents have a tougher time talking about their experiences. They worry about the reaction of their fellow veterans.

"It's one of the last things anybody ever talks about. You deal with a lot of issues before that," said Dr. Lipke, who counseled his first Vietnam War veteran in 1972.

Daniel T. Merlis, director of the war stress recovery program at the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Baltimore, understands the reluctance.

The unthinkable

"When you think about friendly fire, there's nothing friendly about it," said Mr. Merlis. "When you kill your own you have done the unthinkable. The closer they are to your own, the more unthinkable."

But he added: "These situations are usually very complex. You've got enormously powerful weapons systems that respond commands instantaneously. And the deployment of the weapons systems are dependent upon information [systems] that are subject to breakdown. And the humans involved in deployment are extraordinarily stressed."

Dr. Steve Silver has seen the effects of friendly fire, both from the cabin of a Phantom jet fighter and an office at a veterans hospital. A psychologist and Vietnam War veteran, Dr. Silver oversees a post-traumatic stress program at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Coatesville, Pa.

"When you're in the military, especially in combat, you're a member of a family," he said. "I don't know these F-15 [pilots]. I'm sure they are having a lot of trouble holding meals down now. I'm sure they are tearing themselves inside out trying to figure out what they did wrong . . . ."

15% of casualties

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