Fundraiser held for 'friendly-fire' pilots
The two U.S. pilots being blamed for the deaths of Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan were hailed as heroes Wednesday night at a fundraising dinner in their honour in Illinois.
More than 400 people came to the $50-a-person event in honour of Maj. Harry Schmidt and Maj. William Umbach. The two men face six-figure legal bills as they fight charges of involuntary manslaughter, aggravated assault and dereliction of duty.
The charges stem from the accidental bombing last April of Canadian troops from Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry. The troops were conducting a live-fire training exercise in Afghanistan when Schmidt dropped a 225-kilogram bomb on what he thought was hostile fire.
Four Canadian soldiers were killed and eight injured.
Both the Canadian and the joint Canada-U.S. inquiry into the bombing accused Schmidt and Umbach, who were flying a routine mission over southern Afghanistan at the time, of not following procedure before dropping the bomb. The pilots say they weren't told about the Canadian training exercise in the area that night.
On Wednesday night, Illinois Gov. George Ryan put his full support behind the two pilots, who are members of the Illinois Air National Guard's 183rd Fighter Wing.
"I know these two fellows and I know their wives. They're not people who commit manslaughter," Ryan said, speaking outside his official residence. "They didn't do this on purpose. They're solid, sound citizens.
"They're not cowboys."
It seems some Canadians have also given the pilots their support in the form of donations to their defence fund. Some came with the message: "Drop the charges."
"It shouldn't destroy more lives," says fundraiser John Russo.
Schmidt and Umbach face a military trial at the Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana late this year or early next year. An Article 32 hearing will determine if the charges will be pursued. For now, they have been reassigned to desk duty.
The two men have not commented publicly on the charges against them. However, family members have.
Schmidt's wife, Lisa, said in a recent interview her husband was "in shock" and "struggling" with grief the day of the accident. She said she fears that her husband, along with his flight lead Umbach, will spend the rest of his life in jail.
"Don't put them in jail. Don't charge them as criminals. Don't tell them they're criminals when they didn't do a criminal act," she said.
On Thursday, Canada AM will have an exclusive interview with Umbach's brother, Bob.