Prosecution of AF pilot is criticized

November 08, 1994|By Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- For Lt. Col. Randy W. May, a career U.S. Air Force pilot who in the flicker of a moment made a tragic mistake and shot down a U.S. helicopter over Iraq last spring, the legal case that opened yesterday in Germany could mean dismissal from the service and 26 years in prison.

For American servicemen and women around the globe, the case also carries profound consequences.

Colonel May, a decorated Air Force flier with almost 20 years of duty to his country, is charged with 26 counts of negligent homicide for mistakenly blasting one of two helicopters in the no-fly zone over Iraq earlier this year. Twenty-six civilians were killed.

Public outrage was intense. The Pentagon vowed to bring those responsible to justice, arguing that such strong measures were necessary to uphold the high standards of military professionalism.

With the armed forces continuing to shrink, competition for military jobs is fierce. Like many private businesses, the Pentagon is seeking to show that it has no room for incompetence and will no longer tolerate those who blunder, no matter how innocently.

But many in the military believe Colonel May is being overzealously prosecuted by a Pentagon eager to boost its public image. They worry that that if the military continues to take such unprecedented hard lines against friendly-fire mistakes, troops will be reluctant to take risks or act aggressively in combat situations for fear of being second-guessed. Their hesitation, in turn, could lead to loss of life from enemy fire.

"Combat fighter pilots are a very close group," said John Norton of Las Vegas, a retired Army pilot from the Vietnam War era who is trying to raise a legal defense fund for Colonel May. "And if you see somebody get creamed for a mistake such as his, you're going to be hesitant in everything you do in the future."

Mark McMonagle, a former Army soldier imprisoned for more than three years for mistakenly shooting a civilian during the 1989 invasion of Panama, said military leaders are eager to pass the buck.

"When someone makes a mistake any more, they put it on the lowest ranking guy," Mr. McMonagle said. "Someone has to be the scapegoat. They know the American public will be outraged over what happened, so they just throw it on somebody else. It shows they are cowards."

Retired Gen. David Brahms, once the Marine Corps' top attorney, said the harsh penalty that Colonel May is facing is indicative of a new "zero defect mentality" in the military.

As the armed services grow smaller, he said, Pentagon leaders expect the caliber of its members to rise. They also are pushing a public persona of being tougher on soldiers who trip up.

Instead, he said, mid-level military commanders, concerned with their own career advancement, are less willing to defend subordinates and that, in turn, creates a "chilling effect" upon the rank-and-file.

"More and more you see that every minor mistake tends to be magnified and memorialized," he said. "People who make mistakes in today's army don't stay around."

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