By Bill Hewitt
Updated February 03, 2003 12:00 PM

Far below, Majors William Umbach and Harry Schmidt thought they could make out the glow of antiaircraft fire as they patrolled the night skies over Afghanistan in their F-16s. Dropping for a closer look, Schmidt requested permission from a surveillance plane to strafe the enemy with his 20-mm cannon. Told to stand by, he soon radioed that he had spotted what looked like an artillery piece firing at Umbach’s plane. Schmidt announced that in self-defense he was dropping a 500-lb. laser-guided bomb. The pay-load hit its target exactly. Seconds later Schmidt was informed that there were friendly troops on the ground.

The bomb killed four Canadian soldiers and wounded eight others who were taking part in a routine live-firing exercise near Kandahar last April 17. Devastated by the incident, Schmidt, 37, and Umbach, 43, are facing a new round of anguish. After a joint Canadian-U.S. military inquiry, investigators concluded that the two pilots had acted recklessly and recommended that they be charged with involuntary manslaughter, aggravated assault and dereliction of duty. After a hearing, which began on Jan. 13, the investigating officer will issue his own recommendations to Lt. Gen. Bruce Carlson. The general will then decide what, if any, charges will be pursued. If he does refer it to a court-martial it would be one of the rare instances that anyone in the American military has ever been brought to trial on criminal grounds for a wartime friendly-fire incident. That prospect has triggered outrage among the pilots’ friends and family, who believe they are being scapegoated. “We were shocked,” says Schmidt’s wife, Lisa, 44. “It’s never happened, it’s not supposed to happen, you can’t believe it’s happening.”

Certainly up until the night in question, Schmidt and Umbach, who could face up to 64 years in a military prison, had exemplary service records. Umbach graduated from the United States Air Force Academy and Schmidt from the United States Naval Academy. Both racked up extensive experience as fighter pilots on active duty before joining the Illinois Air National Guard, based in Springfield. Nevertheless, it now appears that Schmidt and Umbach made several errors during the incident. Investigators contend that Schmidt violated the rules of engagement when he dropped in altitude after he initially thought he was being fired upon (in such circumstances pilots are directed to climb higher out of range). The report faulted Umbach for not reinforcing the need to hold fire until they knew what they were aiming at. “How these pilots thought we were the enemy is beyond me,” says Sgt. Loren Ford, 33, one of the wounded Canadians.

But as the pilots’ supporters have emphasized—and even the report acknowledged—there were other factors that contributed to the accident. Above all, neither Schmidt nor Umbach was aware that Canadian forces would be holding a firing exercise, despite the fact that the Canadians had informed their American counterparts of their plans. As part of their defense, lawyers for Schmidt and Umbach have noted that the pilots were given routine doses of Dexedrine, an amphetamine, before the flight to help them stay alert. The drug has been found to sometimes cause paranoia and aggressiveness when taken in large doses.

Supporters in Illinois say the pilots are victims of a witch hunt. Even some relatives of the four Canadians who died feel sympathy. “One part of me feels they should be punished with jail time,” says Marley Léger, 28, the widow of Sgt. Marc Léger, who was 29. “But then I think of these pilots’ families and what they’ve been through.”

These have indeed been very tough times in the Schmidt and Umbach households. “Harry has moments when he can pull it together, but he’s in and out of fear, worry and anger,” says Lisa Schmidt, who adds that the stress has strained their marriage and caused them to be short with their two sons, Tucker, 5, and Colton, 2. Umbach’s wife, Marlene, 41, says she remains hopeful that everything will turn out all right for the couple and their two daughters, Ingrid, 5, and Ava, 3.

Perhaps the best hope for the pilots, whose careers appear to be over no matter what, is that the long tradition of recognizing that the fog of war sometimes leads to terrible accidents will help spare them from the most serious charges. But the fact that Schmidt and Umbach have come to this point is something that they and their loved ones can barely comprehend. “I knew I might not get my husband back from combat, death or injury,” says Lisa Schmidt, “but I never expected to fight for his personal freedom—in our own country.”

Bill Hewitt

Barbara Sandler in Springfield and Constance Droganes in Toronto