Pa. Guard pilots cleared in `friendly fire' incident

10 Marines died, 4 hurt when A-10 jets and Iraqis struck U.S. force last year

March 31, 2004|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The two pilots from a Pennsylvania Air National Guard squadron who were involved in the Iraq war's deadliest "friendly fire" incident last year are highly decorated combat pilots who followed all procedures, a top state Guard officer says.

But relatives of the Marines killed in the incident near Nasiriyah complain that key questions remain unanswered. They note the missing cockpit videos, which would show what the pilots were shooting at. Investigators said the lack of videotapes hampered their inquiry.

"These pilots were fully trained and highly experienced," said Col. Gregory Marston, vice commander of the 111th Fighter Wing, which includes the 103rd Fighter Squadron, the unit of the two who inadvertently bombed and strafed the Marines on March 23, 2003. "These are some of our best pilots."

On Monday, the U.S. Central Command exonerated the two pilots, who have not been identified. Both pilots are back in the United States and still flying with their unit, based in Willow Grove, Pa., near Philadelphia. They will not be made available for interviews, Marston said.

"We're trying to protect them," he said, stressing that the investigation had cleared the pilots. "Obviously, it's been tough for these two. It's a tragic incident."

The Central Command placed sole blame on an unidentified Marine captain who called in the two Air Force A-10 attack jets without realizing that dozens of Marines were in the area.

Because the Marines were attacked by both friendly and enemy fire, the exact source of their wounds could not be determined, investigators said.

Ten Marines were killed and three others wounded, the investigative report found. One other Marine was wounded solely by friendly fire, the report said.

Relatives have questioned whether the Air Force pilots were adequately trained to recognize a Marine armored vehicle. Some noted that the pilots made a dozen attack runs and failed to see the emergency flares set off by the Marines as they tried to halt the withering fire.

"I think a more thorough investigation should be done," said Larry Hutchings of Boiling Springs, S.C., whose 20-year-old son Nolen was among the Marines killed.

The pilots, who used binoculars, said they could pinpoint only white pickup trucks and not the Marines' armored vehicles, two of which were attacked by the jets, according to the investigative report.

"That doesn't sound right," Hutchings said in an interview. "A Marine [amphibious assault vehicle] doesn't look like a pickup."

David Nixon, whose son, Pat, was killed, raised the issue of the missing videotapes during an interview this week with CBS.

"There's something going on here," Nixon said, "and I demand to know what happened to my son."

Some Marine officers have complained privately that the Air Force pilots should bear some of the blame.

Marston said Pennsylvania Air National Guard officials have reviewed the investigative report with the squadron's 30 pilots but that none of the officials saw a need to modify training or tighten procedures.

The two pilots, majors with 12 years' and 16 years' experience in the A-10 Warthog, a slow-flying tank-killer, were "highly decorated" in combat, Marston said.

Investigators said the Marine captain gave the pilots blanket approval to attack an area on the outskirts of Nasiriyah. The Marine captain faces possible disciplinary or administrative action.

Marston said the pilots were "miles" from the Marines when they began their bombing and strafing runs, and not as close and "low" as some Marines reported after the incident. The report said the pilots circled at 15,000 feet before descending and beginning their attack.

"People on the ground were shooting" at the two pilots, Marston said. "They staged this at the prescribed altitude and the prescribed distance from the target."

Marston said he doubted that the pilots had flown directly over the Marines, because "that's not how they train."

The squadron, he said, trains regularly with all the military services at practice ranges. Pilots are taught to distinguish between friendly and enemy armor, he said.

"Most of our time has been spent with Army units," Marston acknowledged. "We normally don't do as much with the Marines."

Marston said he could not recall the last time the squadron trained with Marine units.

The pilots could see the white pickup trucks near Nasiriyah because the vehicles stood out against the desert background, said Marston, unlike the Marines' green armored vehicles, which the pilots said they did not see.

Marston said the pilots followed procedures and turned in their cockpit videotapes. But when the investigation was announced five days later, the tapes were missing.

One pilot said he turned his videotape over to officials and later could not find it, according to the investigative report. The other pilot said he turned his in, then asked to review it and taped over it during another flight, the report said.

"I'm told the normal procedures for the tapes were followed by the pilots," Marston said.

But when asked whether squadron officials should have retained the pilots' tapes in case of a friendly fire investigation, Marston said: "I think that's what's supposed to happen."

Still, he said, it was "a couple of days before [officials] knew" there would be an investigation.

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