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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 3 of 5)


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:

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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.”

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