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On a night flight over Afghanistan, Illinois National Guard pilot Harry Schmidt dropped a bomb that killed four Canadian soldiers. Afterwards, he was vilified as a trigger-happy monster and stripped of his wings. Now he’s telling his side of the story-and arguing that he, too, is a casualty of that terrible night.
The pilot stands quietly in the doorway in his jeans and sweatshirt and neat but grown-out buzzcut. He offers to put on some coffee and extends a hand to welcome you inside and you offer your own hand in return. It’s then when you hesitate, if only for a moment, because you realize that, as friendly as this all seems, this is the same hand that gripped the controls that night; the thumb is the one that pushed the “pickle button,” the name for the trigger that launched a 500-pound laser-guided warhead into a group of friendly soldiers in Afghanistan, leaving them either moaning in pain or dead in a bloody heap. It occurs to you that you are shaking the hand that, for a brief moment, was perhaps the most notorious in the country, the one that killed four Canadian soldiers and injured eight others, ripping open an international wound that has yet to heal; the hand that, in some people’s minds, makes him a monster.
But you return the grip and you go inside the lovely home in Springfield because in war and death nothing is simple and because the pilot has agreed to tell why he did it and why he has fought so hard to defend himself, down to his latest battle-for flight pay he says the government promised him. Most of all, Maj. Harry Schmidt wants to explain the thing that has aggravated and pained the victims’ families since that night: why he has never apologized. Why, even when he had the chance to comfort the heartbroken mothers whose sons he killed, he clung to a stony, cold defense of his actions.
He believes he knows the answer now to that question, and wants you to know, too. But first there are some other things you need to know: about him, about that moonless night and the months that followed, about how he, too, has come to feel he’s a victim-of a military he says was willing to sacrifice his name, his honor, to protect itself.
Because it is only when you understand those things, he says, that you will understand the reason he has not been able to express the sadness he-along with his friends and family-insists he feels. Only then can you know the truth about the pilot who now flies only in his nightmares, the man who wants you to know he is not a monster.
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He was a hotshot, at least as far as credentials were concerned. After growing up in St. Louis, where he starred in soccer at St. John Vianney High School, he won acceptance to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, the country’s premier navy institution. After graduating, not only was he eventually invited to attend the navy’s Top Gun school in San Diego; he returned as an instructor at that famed institution. Same thing in the air force, where he taught at its version of Top Gun. “He was obviously very talented,” says a longtime friend who attended the Naval Academy with Schmidt and flew with him in San Diego. “He’s smart; he’s disciplined. He was an excellent pilot.”
But in the days after the April 17, 2002, incident, Schmidt’s background served as an indictment, not a defense. In op-ed pieces, in columns, in letters to the editor and news stories-particularly those coming out of Canada-people seized on the Top Gun stereotype, calling Schmidt everything from a “jet jockey” who was “out for blood” to a “remorseless prick.”
Plenty of pilots-especially Top Gun pilots-reinforce the image. In and around the school (now located near Reno, Nevada), they stride the streets like gods-tanned, fit, young, cocky-trophies for the pilot groupies who like to frequent the off-base bars with dreams of landing a fighter pilot with officer upside and Tom Cruise pecs.
Schmidt’s wife, Lisa, whom he married in 1996, insists he was never like that. If he had been, she says, they never would have met and certainly wouldn’t have married. It took him months of dating before he would even acknowledge what he really did. Eventually, she cornered him: “So what exactly do you do?” she demanded. “I’m a Top Gun instructor,” he admitted. By the time he was deployed to Afghanistan in March of 2002, he was the father of two, a 36-year-old homeowner living an unremarkable life.
Not that Schmidt wasn’t confident. You don’t rise to the top of a cutthroat food chain by being timid. Harry Schmidt was not timid. That became clear during one of his first training missions. A flight instructor had ordered him to bank his aircraft and put his wing next to a nearby jet. Schmidt aggressively swooped over, aligning his wing perfectly, demonstrating not only a precise control of the craft but also a boldness born of an audacious belief in his own ability. The next day, the instructor jokingly warned another teacher to be careful flying with Schmidt. “He’s a psycho,” the instructor said. The name stuck and became his call sign. For years, he wore it as a badge of honor. Until that night. Then, particularly after the Canadian press found out, he wished they had called him anything else.
He flew with the navy, then for a time with the air force. But he and his wife tired of the constant moving that is the bane of all military families. The Illinois National Guard was a perfect fit, offering him a full-time position in mission planning. The Springfield base brought him and Lisa closer to his parents in St. Louis and her relatives in Wisconsin. Before a week had passed in his new home, however, new orders landed on his desk. He was headed to the Persian Gulf, to active duty, to the night it all happened.
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