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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That night. April 17, 2002. The moment his life crashed and burned. The day for which the pilot, now 39, is still atoning, even though he and many others don’t believe he was at fault.

He pours a fresh cup of coffee. He leans forward on the couch. He gazes for a moment out the window of the new house he and his wife had built on the edge of The Rail Golf Club, a lovely neighborhood where deer graze at night and American flags flutter above manicured lawns. He wants to get this right, so he speaks carefully, precisely. He knows that many people support him. In the first weeks after the incident, Illinois governor George Ryan, for instance, held a fundraiser on behalf of him and the other flier involved, his fellow Illinois National Guard pilot William Umbach. In Schmidt’s neighborhood, families hung red “bells of justice” on their doorknobs-a sort of yellow ribbon tribute-to show their support. The bells still hang on many doors.

But Schmidt also knows that many of the victims’ families remain bitter. Some despise him. They sneer at his efforts to win back his flight pay. And they deplore his seeming lack of remorse. “I’m still very angry,” says Claire Léger, whose son Marc died that night. Her voice trembles as she speaks over the phone from her home in Stittsville, Ontario. “It’s taken a chunk right out of me.”

Schmidt also knows that the military he served for 17 exemplary years, the military he believed in, devoted himself to, counted as the most noble, honorable, of institutions-has dismissed him as being little better than a traitor. It stripped him of his wings. It did something almost unheard of in friendly-fire incidents by charging him with criminal acts. Finally, when all but one of the charges were dropped, it issued a letter of reprimand that was startlingly harsh and personal.

“You acted shamefully on 17 April 2002,” wrote Lt. Gen. Bruce Carlson, the judge in the case. “Your willful misconduct directly caused the most egregious consequences imaginable. . . . By your gross poor judgment, you ignored your training . . . and the result was tragic. . . . You had the right to remain silent, but not the right to lie. In short, the final casualty of the engagement over Kandahar . . . was your integrity.”

“No one can imagine how hurtful those words were,” says Schmidt’s mother, Joan. Like her son, like many people, she believes the harsh tone of that letter was motivated by politics, the result of international pressure. The letter was designed, she believes, to shift blame onto her son and away from the U.S. military’s command and control. It was aimed at appeasing Canadians who were outraged that it took two days to get a response from President Bush, who needed Canada to join the coalition he was trying to build in preparation for invading Iraq. Her reaction, however, is still a mother’s. “I could not believe the viciousness of those words,” she says. “If I could talk to [Carlson] I would tell him that you have taken a patriot who has served his country, and you have betrayed him. I would tell that man that hell is waiting for him.”

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And so, the pilot talks about that night. “I was the wingman,” he says. “I was not in charge of making decisions. It was ‘Shut up, hang on, and say, Yes, sir.’ I was the lowest person on the totem pole. I was, in effect, along for the ride.” That’s the first thing to know, he says.

The second is that for a pilot, a night flight like the one on which he and Umbach roared away begins many hours before the cockpit closes and the blue flame belches and you go barreling down the runway at 200 miles per hour. (Umbach and his lawyer did not return calls seeking comment on this story.) For starters, you squeeze into your bulky flight suit hours earlier in the day. You avoid certain foods because while you can urinate into bags, you can’t relieve your bowels. You watch “threat slides” designed to brief you on the possible dangers you’ll be facing-like the fate met a few weeks earlier by a Navy SEAL who was caught, tortured, and shot by men suspected of being members of al Qaeda. “Something to think about when considering whether to eject,” Schmidt says.

Among the most troubling considerations in the briefings leading up to that flight was the risk of encountering new surface-to-air missiles called Ringbacks that were being used by the Taliban to target coalition aircraft. “Ringbacks,” according to the briefings, “are 122-mm multiple-rocket launchers modified for use as surface-to-air missiles . . . [with a] maximum altitude of 56,000 feet.” Pilots flying in Afghanistan were warned that they might face those weapons in “ambush tactics.” At any time. Any place.

“The one thing we weren’t warned about was that there would be [friendly] live-fire exercises near Kandahar that night,” Schmidt says. “Nobody told us.” Indeed, everyone, including the military, acknowledges the lack of that crucial information.

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