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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.

(page 5 of 5)

After the hearing, Schmidt retreated to his suburban home while the military tried to figure out what to do with him. Eventually, prosecutors and Schmidt’s attorney reached an agreement that would spare him jail time. (Umbach, meanwhile, had received a letter of reprimand and retired.) Instead, in a hearing before a presiding officer in July 2004, Schmidt was found guilty of dereliction of duty, fined a month’s pay, and issued a letter of reprimand. He insists that the agreement allowed him to continue collecting a pilot’s salary, despite losing his wings with the military.

Schmidt assumed that his letter of reprimand, written by Lt. Gen. Bruce Carlson, who was overseeing the proceedings, would be mostly a formality. He realized how wrong he was when it arrived by fax at his home. Beep-the paper started to roll. Schmidt was sitting at his desk. The letter ripped into him, questioning his integrity, his judgment, and his honor. And, because it had been posted on the Internet, he was publicly humiliated as well. “I do not believe you acted in defense of Maj. Umbach or yourself,” Carlson wrote. “Through your arrogance, you undermined one of the most sophisticated weapons systems in the world. . . . The victims of your callous misbehavior were from one of our staunch allies . . . and were your comrades in arms.” On and on it raged, seething with words such as “shameful,” “arrogant,” “lack of flight discipline,” and “rash.” Above all, Carlson took dead aim at Schmidt’s statement at the end of the hearing. “I was astounded that you portrayed yourself as a victim of the disciplinary process without expressing heartfelt remorse over the deaths and injuries you caused.”

Schmidt and his wife sat in stunned silence. “I cried for a day and a half,” she says. “I could not speak. I looked over at Harry. He was just sitting there . . . just broken.” One line was particularly lacerating: “You had the right to remain silent, but not the right to lie.” Lisa Schmidt says, “I asked Harry, ‘What did you lie about?’” He just shook his head and said disgustedly, “It’s bullshit. I’m glad it’s over.”

But it wasn’t. He plunged into a deep depression. “I was a mess,” he says. For a time, he considered suing the air force over releasing the reprimand to the public. (The air force says Schmidt waived his right to privacy.)

What’s more, Schmidt and his attorney say, they thought they had an oral agreement under which Schmidt would work in a nonflying position for the Illinois National Guard but be paid at a pilot’s level and given a $25,000 bonus he had already earned. But the National Guard denied knowledge of any flight-pay agreement, and Odom, the air force prosecutor, insists there was no such stipulation. “There is not one word in any of those documents about flight pay,” Odom says. “He probably wishes some language was in there. But it does not exist.”

* * *

To Schmidt, that was the final betrayal, and it sent him tumbling even deeper into despair. By now, nightmares filled with bombs and cockpits and blood and explosions tortured him at night. He spent his days fighting for the pay he thought he was rightfully owed. Lisa Schmidt says her husband became withdrawn and dejected. “At times I was very afraid,” she says. “I was afraid he was going to kill himself. I was afraid someone was going to kill him.”

He still went to work. But now that he was grounded, the Illinois National Guard had nothing for him to do-or wouldn’t give him anything to do. For the first week, he sat at a table and worked on small assignments. When his shift was over he went home. For the next three months, Schmidt sat at a desk in the copier room, doing nothing.

One day a pilot happened by. “What are you doing?” he asked.

Schmidt shrugged. “This is where I sit.”

“You look like you’re in detention,” the pilot said.

“I feel like it,” Schmidt answered.

Lisa Schmidt scolded her husband. “You get an office. You get a private space with a computer and a telephone and a stapler,” she told him. “And ask for something to do.”

He did, and gradually began getting assignments, but his mood continued to sink. One night, he lay in bed, practically paralyzed with depression. “He was ashen white,” Lisa Schmidt says. “When he spoke his breath reeked. He was lying there, just so beaten down. I have never seen him like that, ever. It was like he could barely lift his head off the pillow.”

Gradually, Schmidt pulled out of the nosedive, a revival he credits to his wife and his pastor. His wife, for instance, pushed him to contact Governor Rod Blagojevich, whose interest sparked a review of the flight pay issue by Brig. Gen. Randal Thomas, the adjutant general of the Illinois National Guard. (At press time, Thomas was still reviewing the issue.) Schmidt’s pastor, “a wealth of support and compassion,” he says, has helped him deal with bitter feelings.

Finally, Schmidt says, in recent weeks he has begun to confront the question that has haunted the victims’ relatives-and him-ever since that dark night three years ago: Does he really feel remorse? Does he really care? And if so, why was he so unemotional, and so reluctant to apologize, when he had the chance that day at the hearing?

By Schmidt’s account, he has been sick about what happened from the first. “Not a day goes by that I don’t think of those families,” he says. When he looks back now, he believes that he did not show emotion because he could not see past the fight he felt he was in-for his life, his family, his honor. He still finds it hard not to get defensive when he discusses the case. That day, when he stood up to make his statement in his blue uniform, he says, he felt he finally had his moment to speak his mind-to say how, despite his remorse over what had happened, he, too, had been wronged. He knows now that he blew it. And he says he’s sorry. “It was the right thing to do,” he says of his defense of himself, “at the absolute wrong time.”

And yet, even now when he talks of feelings of remorse, he does so awkwardly, carefully. He is willing to recount the most minute details of the incident, its aftermath, and the struggles he and his family endured. He has searched his mind, his memory, and his own sense of morality. But he has not searched his soul.

“As a parent and a husband, I can only imagine how devastating it must have been to lose a child or a spouse,” he says. “I thought of how this has affected my own family. They were totally innocent in this, too, and yet they’re intricately affected.” The answer to those whys, he says, is that he has been fighting a war, his war, ducking fire from the government, the families of the dead and wounded, and his own demons. Because of that, he says, “I don’t know if I’ve been able to fully grieve. Because I was in a position where I had to protect my family from the start.”

His wife says that is what is most pitiful. “I feel sorry for him,” she says. No, he did not die that day, nor was he physically wounded. But that night has claimed her husband as a victim, too. “He went to combat and he has never come home,” she says. “My husband has never come home, and that is sad.”

* * *

A large American flag flaps outside the Schmidt home on a raw winter afternoon. Inside, someone launches a paper airplane from the kitchen into the hallway. Schmidt watches his son sail around the corner and pick up the plane again. These days, Schmidt is doing a job he loves: helping coordinate logistics for National Guard units after they have received their deployment orders.

He misses flying, but not flying for the military. “I would never put my life on the line for it again,” he says. “I would never fly for these people again.” If his sons ever want to follow in their father’s footsteps, Schmidt says, he’ll discourage it. Even so, he smiles when he sees the paper airplane soar through the air, tracing a graceful arc across the livingroom, past the fireplace, landing gently, safely at his feet.

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