Two U.S. pilots apologize for friendly fire deaths

Hearing into bombing of Canadian troops ends

January 24, 2003|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

BARKSDALE AIR FORCE BASE, La. - Two pilots from the Illinois Air National ended a hearing into a fatal friendly fire incident with emotional apologies yesterday to the families of the Canadian soldiers they bombed in Afghanistan.

The apologies came at the close of a nine-day hearing. At least several weeks will pass before the next step - a recommendation on whether courts-martial are in order.

"Since the 17th of April, not a day has passed that I have not thought of that night, in the sky, in the darkness, and all that has happened since," said the flight leader, Maj. Bill Umbach, 43.

Umbach ended his brief and poignant statement saying, "If I could turn back time, I would, but since I cannot I want you to know that I am truly sorry."

Then it was the turn of his wingman, Maj. Harry Schmidt, 37 - the pilot who dropped the bomb.

At some length, and in technical detail, Schmidt defended his actions. When he reached the end of his statement, his voice quavered as he read these words: "I think about the men who were killed and the men who were injured. As a family man myself with a wife and two young boys, I can only imagine how difficult it is for they and their families to grapple with the fact these men volunteered to serve their country - and were killed in a wartime accident. I sincerely want them to know that my heart goes out to them and that I am truly sorry for their loss."

A recommendation on whether the pilots should face courts-martial will come from Air Force Col. Patrick Rosenow, a military judge. "They're weighty matters, and I'll take as much time as it needs," he said.

Neither Schmidt nor Umbach formally testified in his own defense. Instead, they made their remarks as unsworn statements.

Because neither officer took an oath before speaking, the rules barred the four Air Force lawyers serving on the government side of the case from cross-examining the men.

On the other hand, the unsworn statements may lack the weight of sworn testimony. Col. Craig Smith is a military lawyer who flew in from Washington for the hearing to explain to reporters the fine shadings of the military justice system.

Asked yesterday about an unsworn statement's worth, Smith said, "The investigating officer will give it the weight that he feels is appropriate."

Schmidt and Umbach live near Springfield, Ill., and fly Air Guard F-16s out of Springfield's Capital Airport. In March, their squadron deployed from Springfield to Kuwait. On the night of April 17, Umbach led a two-plane mission to Afghanistan.

Near Kandahar, the pilots flew over a firing range where Canadian soldiers were shooting machine guns and anti-tank weapons. The pilots thought the shots were aimed at them. Schmidt pointed his F-16's nose at the gunfire flashes and dropped a 500-pound bomb.

The bomb killed four Canadians, wounded eight and triggered public uproar in Canada.

The government argued that Schmidt had acted rashly and that Umbach had failed to control his wingman. The pilots' lawyers argued that the men had never been told of the Canadian exercise and had done what any reasonable fighter pilot would have done.

Hanging over the hearing was the question of the amphetamines that the pilots had taken on the 10-hour flight to ward off fatigue. The defense lawyers had hinted broadly last month at a defense arguing that the drugs had warped the pilots' judgment. But for all of the prehearing hype, the amphetamines were mentioned only in passing.

The commander of the Eighth Air Force will decide whether to order courts-martial for the pilots. Each faces four counts of manslaughter, eight counts of assault and one count of dereliction of duty.

Conviction on all counts could mean prison terms of 64 years.

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