Harry Schmidt’s War

In the fog of war high over Afghanistan, an Illinois National Guard pilot dropped a bomb that killed four Canadian soldiers engaged in live-fire exercises. Since then he has been vilified and stripped of his wings. Now he’s telling his side of the story.

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Eight seconds later come the words that will change the lives of Schmidt, Umbach, the Canadian soldiers and their loved ones, and touch off an international incident: “Be advised Kandahar has friendlies,” Bossman tells the pilots. “You are to get Coffee 51 [Umbach] out of there as soon as possible.”

Thirteen seconds later, from Schmidt’s own mouth, comes the one-word confirmation that his aim has been true.

“Shack,” he says-a direct hit.

The order comes from Bossman to “disengage friendlies Kandahar.”

By now, three minutes after “Bombs away,” uncertainty has crept into the voices of both Schmidt and Umbach.

“Shit,” Umbach says.

Schmidt: “They were definitely shooting at you.”

At one point, Schmidt asks if the area he bombed had been a restricted zone, meaning it was off-limits to the pilots: “Yeah, Bossman, uh-there was no [restricted zone] effective in that area tonight as far as our brief was concerned, you concur?”

Bossman: “Bossman concurs.” (This response was blanked out in the official transcript. A spokesman for Canada’s Department of National Defense would say it was left out as part of an agreement with the United States. Schmidt’s lawyer cites that as further evidence that the U.S. military was trying to deflect blame from communications problems onto Schmidt.)

Schmidt: “I hope that was the right thing to do.”

Umbach: “Me, too.”

* * *

When he emerged from his plane at the end of the mission and saw his commanding officer waiting with a stricken face, Schmidt knew that it wasn’t. “It was 4 a.m.,” he recalls. “He met me by himself. As soon as I saw him I knew something really bad had happened. Your wing commander doesn’t come out to meet you in the middle of the night after a flight.”

“Who was it?” Schmidt recalls asking.

“Canadian Special Forces.”

“Did anybody die?”

“Yeah, four.”

In that moment, Schmidt says, he felt lightheaded. His knees buckled. “You know that moment in Hollywood films where the world starts spinning?” he says. “Well, it happened just like that. I couldn’t stand up anymore.”

He had to be helped into the barracks. By then, neither Schmidt nor Umbach had slept for a day and a half. “C’mon, let’s come on in and talk about it,” Schmidt remembers his commander saying. When they watched the videotapes and heard the audio taken from the cockpit recorder, Schmidt threw up. Umbach said, “We observed fire from the surface, right next to where we were flying. It appeared to be coming directly at us. . . . I tried in my mind to find any reason or any possibility that it could be friendlies.”

At some point, Schmidt remembers someone saying they had to read him his rights. Read him his rights? What for? he asked. If this was going to become a criminal matter he wanted a lawyer. Schmidt says he was told it wasn’t a criminal matter. They were just trying to figure out what had happened. Schmidt hesitated. Then he said, “OK.” And the pilot, coming down off his go pill, began to talk.

* * *

His wife got the call in the dead of night. “I pretty much knew it would be Harry,” Lisa Schmidt says. No one else would call then. But she didn’t recognize his voice. “There was a pause,” she recalls. “Then, the first thing he said was, ‘Honey, I’m OK. But I had a terrible accident.’” She sat up. “I was flying a mission, a night mission. I can’t tell you anything about it.” He told her four people were killed; eight were injured. The people weren’t the enemy, he said.

The wife heard herself repeating, “Oh, gosh.” “They’re going to investigate,” Schmidt told her. “If any reporters come to the door, don’t answer.” She sat in the dark while their two children slumbered. “We had only been in the house for six weeks,” she says.

* * *

The story exploded onto the front page of every major U.S. and Canadian daily newspaper and led network and cable broadcasts, though at first the pilots were not identified by name. The Canadian government howled. Not only were the four men who died the first Canadian fatalities in combat since the Korean War 50 years earlier, but President Bush, struggling to build a coalition and in desperate need of Canadian support, failed to mention the deaths in several televised public appearances. Canada’s military leaders had no such reticence about weighing in. “Canada should be outraged,” Col. John Fletcher told the Canadian newspaper the Ottawa Citizen two days after the accident. “It was very unprofessional what the United States did.” Cpl. Brian Decaire, who took shrapnel to his hand and jaw in the incident, told the National Post four days after the accident, “It’s a shitty thing that happened and a dumb mistake by that pilot. I hope [he is] hurting now.”

* * *

Within days, word leaked that the men involved belonged to the Illinois National Guard’s 183rd. “Reporters started to buzz around,” Lisa Schmidt says. An editorial from the pilots’ hometown paper, Springfield’s State Journal-Register, rose to their defense. “As the numerous deaths in this conflict prove, war is hell,” it said. “It’s time to get some perspective on this matter, and time for some people to remind themselves who the real enemy is.”

Then, in early June, after Schmidt had returned home, a leak to the media “outed” him and Umbach. The Schmidt house was transformed into a media ground zero-satellite trucks, reporters on the lawn, people stealing looks through the windows, banging on the door, amd ringing the doorbells. When reporters couldn’t get access to the Schmidts, they started pestering neighbors, going from door to door, calling at all hours. The Ottawa Citizen photographed Harry coming out of his West Side Christian Church.

“It was constant mayhem,” Lisa Schmidt recalls. No longer able to take her children to the playground, she played with them in the basement of their home. The FBI was called in after a death threat. One of their sons struggled with emotional problems, brought on by the stress of the attention. At one point, Lisa saw a specialist for stomach problems. “Do you have any problems with stress in your life?” he asked. She could only chuckle. “My husband is the pilot,” she said. She didn’t have to say which pilot.

* * *

The government charged Schmidt and Umbach, who’s now 45, with four counts of involuntary manslaughter, eight counts of aggravated assault, and one count of dereliction of duty. If convicted, the men faced a maximum penalty of 64 years each in military prison.

In January 2003, at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, the two pilots faced an Article 32 hearing, a sort of mini trial to determine whether they should face a court-martial.

In a hearing that unfolded over several days, air force prosecutors tried to show that Schmidt had acted rashly, ignoring orders to hold fire, and then used self-defense as an excuse. Umbach contributed to the accident, the prosecutors said, by not exercising his authority as the lead pilot on the mission. To this day, Colonel Odom, the lead prosecutor, says he thinks that Schmidt acted recklessly and that the evidence proved it. “He failed to do his duty,” Odom says. “He had an obligation to fly his jet as a wingman in accordance with the rules of engagement. . . . He failed to do that.” The evidence, according to Odom, showed a lack of defensive radio calls, a lack of defensive maneuvering on Schmidt’s part, and an overaggressiveness from the moment Schmidt saw the shooting on the ground.

“Are mistakes made in combat?” Odom asks. “Absolutely. But it keeps going back to . . . they weren’t shooting at him; they weren’t the enemy. . . . He was warned three times to hold his fire.” Above all, Odom says, Schmidt’s actions weren’t consistent with self-defense.

Schmidt clung to his belief that he and Umbach were under fire, that his aggressive actions that night were aimed at saving their lives. He and Umbach asserted that they were never warned about friendly forces conducting a live-fire exercise. Schmidt blamed the resulting deaths on the “fog of war.”

In a recent phone interview, Schmidt’s lawyer, Charles W. Gittins of Middletown, Virginia, argued that despite the military’s insistence that Schmidt and Umbach should have left the area and re-evaluated the situation, the Standing Rules of Engagement for U.S. Forces make no mention of such a requirement. Gittins says the same rules spell out options for proper use of self-defense, namely: deterring an attacker, neutralizing the attacker, or destroying the threat.

As part of their defense, the pilots’ past records of success were entered into evidence at the hearing, as well as endorsements from colleagues. “Major Schmidt is highly proficient, well-trained and well respected,” Col. Robert Murphy, of the Illinois Air National Guard, said in a written statement. “I have never had any question about his flight discipline, airmanship or judgment. He is well thought of by his peers and squadron mates.” A 1998 fitness report signed by air force trainers called Schmidt “exceptional . . . the best tactician I have ever seen . . . superb aviator, a strong leader, and a standout naval officer.”

At the close of the Article 32 hearing, the men rose to make a statement before the court, knowing that the victims’ families were watching on closed-circuit TV in a separate building. Umbach went first. He read the names of the dead and injured soldiers. Then he spoke directly to the families: “Know that my family and I hold you all in our hearts. I pray that God will help you in your anguish. 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.”

When Schmidt’s turn came, the grieving families expected a similar outpouring. Instead, Schmidt gave what some relatives of the victims considered a cold, unemotional recitation of the facts, defending his actions that night. At one point, he did offer an apology of sorts. “I sincerely want them to know that my heart goes out to them and that I am truly sorry for their loss,” he said, standing next to the witness table in his dress blue air force uniform. But even Schmidt acknowledges that his statement rang hollow.

“Major Umbach, I felt, was very sincere,” Claire Léger, the mother of one of the dead Canadians, told reporters that day. “Major Schmidt-I have to say, I felt he was offering a defense of himself first. I know his job is on the line, but those are our sons’ lives on the line. Sorry.”

* * *

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