At 1:30 a.m. Tuesday, the remains of 29-year-old Capt. Jennifer J. Odom, U.S. Army, arrived at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. The television cameras, usually present at such events, were nowhere to be seen. Indeed, the news media were totally absent, and the event went unrecorded. Nor was President Clinton there to feel her family's pain.
Capt. Odom, along with her co-pilot and three other crew members, died July 23 when the DeHavilland RC7 reconnaissance plane she was piloting crashed into a mountain in southern Colombia. The Pentagon says there is "no evidence" that narco-guerrillas shot down the plane but adds that the investigation is continuing. In any event, the five-member crew constituted the first U.S. military personnel to be killed in the war against the drug-financed, leftist insurrection subverting Colombia. Jennifer Odom is an unsung heroine in an unknown war.
The non-stop propaganda machinery during 78 days of bombing Yugoslavia was mute about the death of Odom, the first American woman pilot killed in action. The Clinton administration says as little as possible about Colombia. It never wanted to get involved there, but has been dragged into a conflict it deplores, and still presses for a negotiated settlement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). If Kosovo was a liberal's war, Colombia certainly is not.
Thus, the nation and even most of Congress were unaware that the United States dispatches aircraft on hazardous duty over FARC-occupied Colombia. U.S. planes have been on such missions for years, but what is new is the DeHavilland RC7s, carrying signal intelligence equipment to eavesdrop on the guerrillas' highly sophisticated communications system. "This is a very black [secret] operation," said one military source.
A Pentagon spokesman told me that the Odom plane's principal mission was "imagery" [taking pictures], but added that signal intelligence equipment was on board and may have been used. Independent military experts, however, contend that less technologically advanced aircraft -- or, indeed, satellites -- could handle imagery. The RC7 is configured to tap enemy communications (as it did in helping Peru's government in 1997, when terrorists seized the Japanese embassy in Lima). But the lid has been placed on Odom's outfit, the 204th Military Intelligence Battalion in Fort Bliss, Tex., to bar conversations with the press.
Similarly, military sources questioned the likelihood that Odom's death was accidental. The RC7's navigation equipment is so sophisticated that it is hard to imagine an experienced pilot crashing into a mountain without some provocation by enemy forces below.
Such questions went unasked amid the news blackout of the disaster. The wreckage was spotted July 25, but the names of the crew were not officially disclosed until Aug. 2 (long after next of kin had been notified). Pentagon sources speculated that the high command did not want a female pilot's death in Colombia to interfere with the celebration of Lt. Col. Eileen Collins's successful command of the Space Shuttle Columbia. It surely did not. At this writing, only Newsweek, among the mass media, has published a news report on the crash.
Thus did the first casualties of Colombia's war go unmentioned in much of the country. In addition to Capt. Odom, they include her co-pilot, Capt. Jose A. Santiago, as well as Chief Warrant Officer Thomas G. Moore, Specialist T. Bruce Cluff and Specialist Ray E. Krueger. Typically, when Republican Rep. Constance Morella took the House floor Tuesday morning to praise astronaut Collins, there was no mention of her fellow Marylander whose remains had arrived at Dover only hours before.
Republican Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, whose district contains Odom's hometown of Brunswick, Md., reported her family was frustrated by inability to get calls immediately returned by the Defense Department, while the military searched for John F. Kennedy Jr. Senior military officials later telephoned Odom's mother. But President Clinton, usually adept in commiserating with tragedy, said nothing.
Although Attorney General Janet Reno led a government delegation to honor the slain pilot at Dover, nobody was there to represent the White House. The omission was hardly accidental. If Jennifer Odom's death continues to be ignored, there can be no debate about how well this war is being fought, and little attention may be paid to tomorrow's hearing on Colombia by a House investigating subcommittee headed by Rep. John Mica of Florida.
(C) 1999, Creators Syndicate, Inc.