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.
* * *
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."
* * *
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.
* * *
They flew out of Kuwait. It was Schmidt's seventh mission into Afghanistan since his arrival in the Gulf region a month earlier. He had also flown six or seven missions over Iraq. All told, he had logged more than 100 combat missions in Kosovo, Bosnia, Yugoslavia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. For communication purposes on this flight, Schmidt would be called "Coffee 52." Umbach was "Coffee 51." Each pilot flew in his own F-16 Viper, a single-seat, $25-million jet armed with four laser-guided bombs and a 20-millimeter cannon. Flying together near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, the two were to look out for unusual activity and mark any enemy positions they saw.
With the three-hour trip to Afghanistan and several hours of patrolling, then another three to four hours to return, with several in-air refuelings thrown in, they could expect to be packed into their cramped cockpits for more than 11 hours. Legs immobilized. Peeing into bags they stashed under their legs or by their sides, wherever there was room. On constant alert, peering through their night vision goggles at an eerie green world.
Pilots maintain a love-hate relationship with those goggles. Shaped like two empty toilet paper rolls, they are pulled down from the helmet and clamped in front of the eyes. Ideally, they allow pilots to see the ground and weapons firing at them, even on the darkest nights. But they also cut their peripheral vision and exaggerate sources of light. Sometimes, objects can appear larger and closer than they are. Automobiles traveling across the ground have been known to look like antiaircraft fire. Some pilots have mistaken shooting stars for enemy shots.
And one other thing. Both Schmidt and Umbach were doped up that night. Flying on speed. Literally. The military calls them "go pills." They are designed to give pilots the stamina to complete the 12-hour missions. Whenever they needed, Schmidt says, he and the other pilots would get a plastic baggie with several tablets of Dexedrine, an amphetamine, from the base pharmacy and pop one before their flight. They took "no-go" pills-essentially sleeping pills-to come down after the mission. Had he been caught using those drugs as a civilian airline pilot, Schmidt says, he would have lost his wings. "But [the air force] gave them to us like they were nothing." The military defends the use of the uppers and likens the effect to three strong cups of coffee, but studies have shown a number of side effects, including increased aggressiveness, paranoia, and an impaired ability to multitask-a vital skill for a fighter pilot wrestling the controls of an F-16 while trying to look out for the enemy, communicate with air command, and make sure one of those Ringbacks doesn't whistle up out of nowhere and punch a hole in his seat. "I don't know what the effect was supposed to be," Schmidt says. "All I know is something [was] happening to my body and brain" that could have affected his judgment, he says.
The mission was typical-long, stressful, exhausting hours spent continually on guard for the unexpected. The squadron was on its way back to base and preparing to rendezvous with an airborne refueling tanker when they saw light emanating from fired weapons. It flashed near Kandahar over an abandoned camp where Osama bin Laden had once trained his terrorists. "I couldn't see the exact location," Schmidt recalls. "I roll in, but I don't see any personnel. I see bombed-out buildings. . . . I know that the bad guys were here once. Now my brain is saying, Why are the bad guys shooting at us from a bombed-out house? As we're turning around I lit my afterburner, and they shot again. And now I think they've spotted us because the flame from the afterburner has given us away."
Unknown to the pilots or to the AWACS communication plane that was supposed to serve as the "eyes and ears" of the pilots, an allied convoy of five trucks plus an ambulance and escorting armored units had rolled into the area. Soldiers from the "A" Company, 3rd Battalion Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry were firing everything from personal sidearms to rocket-propelled, shoulder-fired antitank munitions as part of live-fire drills.
What happened next would form the crux of the case against Schmidt and Umbach. Schmidt says he believed that he and Umbach were being shot at and that he was defending Umbach, who was the mission's lead pilot. "They keep firing every 30 or 40 seconds," Schmidt recalls. "At one point, [Umbach radios that] it seems like they're leading us"-firing out in front of the jet so they'll run into the tracers.
Schmidt would later say that he thought the weapons were being fired up, an assertion supported by the admission of Canadian forces later that the soldiers had occasionally fired vertically. Having been briefed on the possibility of ambushes against coalition aircraft and the use by the Taliban of new types of shoulder-fired antiaircraft weapons, Schmidt says, he had to make a quick decision-otherwise their first indication of the weapon type might be a missile through the wing. Furthermore, Schmidt insists, he was not the flight lead, so he could not leave the area without an order from Umbach, who did not give one. Military prosecutors, by contrast, would offer very different theories: that Schmidt was rashly trying to score a kill, that he was too impatient to wait for a report on the nature of the fire, that he lingered in the area when he should have flown away to reassess. The military would insist that the arms were never a threat and should not have alarmed an experienced pilot like Schmidt.
Both sides would point to a crucial voice exchange between Schmidt, Umbach, and Sgt. Michael Carroll, an AWACS operator nicknamed Bossman, to make their cases:
* * *
Schmidt: "Request permission to lay down some 20 mike mike"-that is, a burst from his 20-millimeter cannon. ("The rules of engagement instruct you to fire warning shots," Schmidt explains today. "The idea is, if it's bad guys, the burp of high incendiary explosives gives us time to stun them and leave the area.")
Bossman: "Stand by."
Umbach: "Let's just make sure that it's, uh, that it's not friendlies is all"-a reference to the human figures he sees through the infrared camera.
Bossman to another AWACS crew member: "Coffee 51 [Umbach] has experienced [surface-to-air] fire near the city of Kandahar, requesting permission to open up with 20 mm. I'll try to get you a little more information; we told them to hold fire."
After more back-and-forth communications, Bossman says to Schmidt: "Hold fire; need details on [surface-to-air fire]."
Schmidt: "I've got some men on a road and it looks like a piece of artillery firing at us. I am rolling in, in self-defense."
This is the crucial moment, by all accounts. By "rolling in, in self-defense," Schmidt has trumped the order to hold fire. Such a declaration, to be used by a pilot only when he feels threatened, grants him permission to use his weapons even when told to stand by. "It immediately eliminates the command-and-control structure," Col. John Odom, the lead prosecutor against Schmidt and Umbach, told Chicago. "At that point, he takes it all on himself. You need to be right. You better be right."
Bossman then says to an AWACS colleague: "Roger. He's invoking self-defense . . . on the fire. On the road he sees artillery shooting at him. Stand by for details."
Seconds later, after more back-and-forth, Schmidt says, "Bombs away, cranking left."
* * *
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?"
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."
* * *
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.