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Air Force drops charges in friendly fire deaths

Relatives of victims were hoping for a court-martial

SHARE Air Force drops charges in friendly fire deaths

NEW ORLEANS — The Air Force dropped homicide and assault charges Thursday against two fighter pilots who mistakenly bombed Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan last year, killing four.

The pilots, Majs. Harry Schmidt and William Umbach, had been charged with involuntary manslaughter, aggravated assault and dereliction of duty and faced up to 64 years in prison if convicted in a court-martial.

The decision was met with disappointment by relatives of the Canadian soldiers.

"I was hoping for a court-martial," said Marley Leger, wife of Sgt. Marc Leger, who died when the powerful explosive detonated next to him. But "it doesn't matter what the decision would be. It would not bring back Marc."

Lt. Gen. Bruce Carlson, commander of the Louisiana-based 8th Air Force, dropped all charges against Umbach. Schmidt still faces dereliction of duty counts but will not be court-martialed.

Carlson recommended that commanders should decide whether Schmidt, who released the 500-pound bomb from an F-16, should be punished for lesser criminal offenses, including failure to ensure that the troops he attacked were not allies and to obey when air controllers told him to "stand by" before he dropped the bomb.

Carlson also recommended that a flying evaluation board determine whether Schmidt should be allowed to fly for the Air Force again. The maximum non-judicial punishment would be a reprimand, forfeiture of a month's pay, confinement to quarters for a month and restriction on travel for two months.

Schmidt could refuse the non-judicial hearing and insist on a trial. His defense lawyer, Charles Gittins, said Thursday the pilot was considering his options.

"Like the other 14 friendly fire accidents that have occurred in Iraq and Afghanistan, charges should not have been pursued in the first place," Gittins said.

Umbach, the mission commander, was issued a letter of reprimand for "leadership failures." He had asked to retire, and the general recommended it be approved.

Both pilots declined to comment.

The two Illinois Air National Guardsmen had been the first Air Force pilots to face homicide charges as a result of a friendly fire incident during combat.

Schmidt, 37, blamed the "fog of war" for the mistake, saying he believed he and Umbach, 44, were being ambushed by ground forces. The pilots said they were never told the Canadians would be conducting live-ammunition exercises that night. Defense attorneys suggested Air Force-issued amphetamines, which were routinely issued to help aviators stay awake during long missions, had clouded the pilots' judgment. They also blamed a military communications breakdown and said Air Force brass, not the pilots, should be punished.

A joint U.S.-Canadian investigation into the bombing concluded that the pilots were at fault for the Canadian soldiers' deaths, and the head of the probe said they showed "reckless disregard" for standing orders against attacking, ignored briefings about allied troop locations and should have simply flown out of the area.