An Air Force fighter pilot who mistakenly bombed a group of Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan in 2002 -- killing four and injuring eight -- was found guilty of dereliction of duty yesterday and was fined $5,672 for an act that a military commander characterized as shameful.
Maj. Harry Schmidt, 38, avoided jail time and criminal charges, but he will not be allowed to fly Air Force jets again as a result of the nonjudicial ruling issued by Lt. Gen. Bruce Carlson, commander of the 8th Air Force at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana. Carlson found that Schmidt made a rash decision contrary to orders when he dropped a 500-pound laser-guided bomb from his F-16 on Canadian troops training near Kandahar on April 17, 2002.
Schmidt and another pilot, Maj. William Umbach, have said they mistook the Canadian live-fire exercise at the Tarnak Farm range as an enemy attack and have said they acted in self-defense. They also claimed through their attorneys that they were not warned about the Canadian presence and that they were under the influence of amphetamines that blurred their judgment.
In issuing the reprimand, Carlson ruled that Schmidt "flagrantly" disregarded a direct order to hold his fire, displayed a lack of flight discipline and ignored the rules of engagement.
"Your actions indicate that you used your self-defense declaration as a pretext to strike a target, which you rashly decided was an enemy firing position, and about which you had exhausted your patience in waiting for clearance from the Combined Air Operations Center to engage," Carlson wrote. "You used the inherent right of self-defense as an excuse to wage your own war."
Charles W. Gittins, Schmidt's attorney, said he and his client are shocked by the decision, calling the accident a product of senior leadership's failure to adequately plan and execute missions in Afghanistan.
"By placing the blame at the lowest possible level, the lowest ranked American in the chain, the Air Force has protected the criminal negligence of its general officer corps," Gittins said. "This bodes ill for the rank-and-file USAF combat aviator. They can expect to be sacrificed for the careerist generals who claim to be Air Force leaders but lack the moral courage to stand up and do what is right."
Schmidt appeared before Carlson on Thursday to plead his own case rather than be the subject of a court-martial, which could have yielded a harsher punishment. Schmidt can appeal the punishment by Monday, which Gittins said he is considering.
Umbach, the lead pilot on the mission, was reprimanded last year for his inability to control Schmidt and granted a request to retire from the Air Force. Schmidt, an instructor in the Illinois Air National Guard and a graduate of the Navy's "Top Gun" Fighter Weapons School, will remain in the Air National Guard but will no longer be permitted to fly Air Force aircraft, according to an Air Force release.
The incident caused outrage in Canada. A Canadian Department of National Defence board of inquiry found the pilots to blame for the bombing. Heather Brunner, a spokeswoman for the department, said Canadian officials were declining to comment on the appropriateness of the punishment.