U.S. pilot believes he's taking the fall
Date: Thursday, September 26 2002
Topic: International News
'Many are responsible' for bombing that killed four Canadian soldiers
Southam Newspapers; The Ottawa Citizen
Thursday, September 26, 2002
The American pilot who dropped a bomb that killed four Canadians in Afghanistan has launched a grassroots legal defence fund campaign, saying he and his fellow accused pilot have been "strategically targeted" to take the blame for a tragedy that involved many people.
"If we continue to second -guess and prosecute our soldiers for actions taken in the fog of war, then who will be there to fight our next battle?" Maj. Harry Schmidt and his wife, Lisa, said in a letter made public Wednesday. "This is a very dangerous precedent to set for our military."
The letter, the first public statements by the pilot since the April 17th bombing, also called for prayers for the Canadian victims and their families, and for the families of Schmidt and his flight leader, Maj. William Umbach, and for a fair and just proceeding.
Although Schmidt's lawyer said the letter, sent by e-mail to friends and family, was not meant for public consumption, about 40 friends and neighbours of the family distributed a signed copy of it to homes in Springfield, Ill., launching a grassroots campaign for support.
The letter asks recipients to circulate it to anyone who might be supportive.
The group signed a flyer in support of the Schmidts, asking for defence fund contributions and providing bells to people, asking them to hang them on their doorknobs to show support.
"Ring the Bells of Justice For Our Pilots!" the flyer said.
Schmidt and Umbach, members of the Springfield-based 183rd fighter Wing of the Illinois Air National Guard, face multiple charges of involuntary manslaughter, assault and dereliction of duty that could put them in prison for more than 60 years.
"How do you tell a child your daddy is going away to prison for 60 years for trying to defend his country ?" asks John Russo, 71-year-old Korean war veteran who started one of two legal defence funds.
That's the way Schmidt and his wife portrayed his position as well in the one-page letter, which estimates the cost of legal defence well in excess of $100,000.
"Harry dropped a bomb on the threat in Self-Defence which stopped the machine from firing but killed 4 Canadian soldiers and wounded 8 others," the letter said.
"Many people are responsible for the tragedy as the chain of events unfolded. However, Harry and his flight lead have been 'strategically' targeted by higher authorities as the sole cause of the accident."
Marley Leger, wife of 29-year-old Sgt. Marc Leger, who was killed by the April 17th bombing, declined to comment on the contents of the letter, but added: "He has the right to defend himself."
Leger Lives in Edmonton
Shane Diaczuk, spokesman for Defence Minister John McCallum, declined direct comment on the letter. He said the minister had been pleased with the board of inquiry holding the two pilots accountable.
"We see it as an American issue, one of American military justice," Diaczuk said. "That's entirely within the jurisdiction of the United States."
Canadian and American boards of inquiry found that Schmidt dropped the 250-kilogram bomb just as he was being warned that the groundfire he had seen was not enemy but from "friendlies." The friendlies were Canadians on an exercise near Kandahar, about which they had given the Americans a week's notice.
"We don't want to be judge and jury on this thing," said Russo, a Korean war veteran whose defence fund has attracted $13,000 in donations over two weeks.
"We don't know what happened but the way it's coming down is that these guys are going to be fall guys."
The Schmidts' letter described the past few months as very trying and difficult.
"Harry deployed to Kuwait in March of this year in support of both operation Southern Watch in Iraq and Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan," it said. "Fighting in one combat Area of Responsibility is stress enough for most -- imagine fighting in two simultaneously."
It urges supporters to lobby politicians. Illinois Governor George Ryan last week urged support for the pilots' legal defence fund "in the interest of justice and fairness."
The Schmidts' letter says the air force provided him with a junior military counsel while the prosecution is "a senior colonel with unlimited resources -- not quite the equal match you would hope for in a fight for your freedom and livelihood."
The Schmidts have hired private counsel, Charles Gittins.
© Copyright 2002 Edmonton Journal