THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT Copyright (c) 1995, Landmark Communications, Inc. DATE: Wednesday, June 21, 1995 TAG: 9506210570 SECTION: FRONT PAGE: A1 EDITION: FINAL SOURCE: FROM WIRE REPORTS DATELINE: WASHINGTON LENGTH: Long : 130 lines
In a swift and stunning verdict, the lone officer to stand trial for last year's ``friendly fire'' downing of two helicopters in Iraq was acquitted Tuesday.
That decision means that no one will receive more than a reprimand for the disastrous mistake that killed 26 people.
The Air Force had originally charged six officers in one of its worst friendly fire accidents ever. But Capt. Jim Wang, 29, the senior director aboard an airborne warning and control plane (AWACS), was the only person court-martialed in the case.
After just five hours of deliberation, a military jury of nine men and one woman found Wang innocent of charges related to the April 14, 1994, downing of two American helicopters by two American fighter jets over a no-fly zone in northern Iraq.
The victims' families expressed outrage at the outcome.
``My husband and I feel that this concludes for the Air Force their massive whitewash of this tragedy that cost the life of our son, Patrick, and 25 other people,'' said Maureen McKenna. Her son, Army Capt. Patrick M. McKenna, was a pilot of one of the helicopters.
Kaye Mounsey, whose husband, Army Warrant Officer Erik Mounsey, was also one of the helicopter pilots killed, held up a photograph of his charred remains and cried after the verdict was read.
``They are going to walk away and have peace with themselves,'' said Mounsey, who lives in Culver City, Calif. ``I have a little daughter who will never know her father and it's not right.''
``The families have been lied to by the government from the beginning that there were would be accountability and answers to our questions,'' Mounsey said. ``And yet I am still baffled how 26 people could be brutally killed and yet not one person held accountable.''
While all the officers but Wang were spared court-martial, the Air Force pointed out Tuesday that most received reprimands and two other officers got ``admonishments'' in recent months.
The first fighter pilot was reprimanded but never charged. The second pilot was charged but later cleared after he altered his original account of the incident. He received a reprimand.
In Washington, Defense Secretary William J. Perry rejected complaints that no one was being held accountable, noting the letters of reprimand or admonishment for the incident.
Wang's exoneration, which occurred at the end of a two-week trial, closes a bitter, 14-month odyssey that began in an Iraqi no-fly zone and ended in a tiny, makeshift second-floor courtroom at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma City.
Wang had consistently said he was being made a scapegoat in the case. Fifteen Americans, five Kurds, three Turks, one Frenchman and two Britons were killed.
``I feel that I've still been dragged through the mud,'' Wang, an Air Force Academy graduate and the son of Taiwanese immigrants, said in a telephone interview. ``I've still been dirtied.''
Further, ``the fact that I was cleared raises even more questions about what could have gone wrong,'' he said. ``If the blame doesn't lie with the AWACS senior director, it must lie with'' other shortcomings that surfaced during the accident investigation.
Despite his exoneration, he said, he will continue to push for a congressional hearing into the matter. ``We owe it to the public and to the families of the victims,'' he said.
Wang said the pilots - and not the radar crew - were responsible for the mistakes.
``The pilots made the decision to fire,'' he said. ``And they didn't make that decision based on any input from us. We didn't give the order to fire.''
He said he felt no personal responsibility for the tragedy.
Ironically, family members of those killed in the shooting, which included U.S. civilians, agreed with Wang that Congress should step into the controversy. But they also strongly asserted that Wang, his radar plane crew members, and the F-15 pilots should all have been sent to prison for blundering into such a fatal mishap.
Mrs. McKenna, speaking in a telephone interview from her home in Columbus, Ga., said, ``We were really not surprised by this. I just feel that the Air Force knew what the outcome was going to be.''
Said Joan Piper, the mother of Air Force Lt. Laura A. Piper, who was a passenger on one of the helicopters: ``So now we have 26 people, on a clear day in perfect weather, shot down by our own F-15s and no one is responsible.
``It's got to be a real perplexing thing to the American public and to the (victims') families that Secretary of Defense Perry promised us accountability and . . . it's finished and no one is accountable.''
``It was a horrible, terrible death. I've had seven months to deal with this,'' said Piper. ``I'm not going to get closure by seeing these people go to jail, I will get closure if they get kicked out of the military.''
After the downing, senior Pentagon leaders promised that everyone at fault in the mishap would be held responsible, and the government agreed to pay reparations to the families of the dead.
At the court-martial, Air Force prosecutors argued that a recording and a videotape showed radar symbols that the AWACS crew should have interpreted as meaning the helicopters were not enemy aircraft. In addition, lead prosecutor Maj. Robert Coacher said that a 1992 training evaluation noted that Wang once fell asleep when he was supposed to be providing radar support for fighter pilots.
But defense attorney Maj. Donald Holtz countered that the radar system misidentified the aircraft that day. He also told the jury that Wang and his crew would have been a ``ship of fools'' to have carelessly misread their radar screens.
Wang was accused of failing to warn two F-15C Eagle fighter pilots that they had visually misidentified two Blackhawk helicopters as Russian-made Iraqi helicopters. ILLUSTRATION: Color photos
Air Force Capt. Jim Wang was found innocent in the April 1994
incident in which two U.S. fighters shot down two Army helicopters
over Iraq, killing 26 people. The verdict means no one has been held
A WIDOW'S REACTION
KAY MOUNSEY, whose husband, Erik, was killed
Wang was monitoring the Allies' northern no-fly zone on the morning
of the attack. The zones were established after the Gulf War to
protect Iraq's Kurdish and Shiite Muslim minorities.
KEYWORDS: FRIENDLY FIRE ACCIDENTS MILITARY FATALITIES
TRIAL VERDICT HELICOPTERS COURT
MARTIAL by CNB