A couple of years ago I saw an American “fly-on-the-wall” documentary series about life on a US aircraft carrier. This was after a US plane attacked a Canadian live-fire training exercise in Afghanistan and killed four of the men taking part. If the incident had happened a week earlier, there would have been five dead and I would have been the fifth man. I was horrified to learn that the pilot involved Maj. “Psycho” Schmidt had placed his 500 lb bomb exactly where I would have been standing if I’d been doing a newspaper story on the exercise – next to the anti-tank rocket launcher and the machine-gunners. I’d stood in that very spot while covering a daylight live-fire exercise and would have taken the same vantage point if I’d attended the night-time version. Luckily for me, the exercise was conducted a few days after I flew back to Canada.
But back to the documentary. The planes from the aircraft carrier were flying in support of US troops fighting in Iraq. The pilots’ frustration at never being called in to bomb or strafe anyone during their entire deployment was obvious. They wanted to do what millions of dollars had been spent training them to do. I wonder if “Psycho” suffered from the same frustration. I suspect he did. He and his supposed patrol commander were flying a similar mission to the pilots from the aircraft carrier – only over Afghanistan. I say “supposed commander” because the other pilot proved to have little control over “Psycho”. The pair spotted gunfire on the ground near the Kandahar airfield and the flash of what might have been an anti-aircraft missile being launched. The area near the base was often used for live-fire training exercises. The flash Psycho and his supposed commander saw was from the anti-tank rocket launcher being fired during the exercise. The men on ground didn’t even know Psycho and his buddy were high above them in the Afghan night sky until the bomb that ruined so many lives came whistling down. The two Air National Guard pilots were well above the range of machine gun fire or a shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missile. But for some reason they flew down towards what they thought was hostile fire. They radioed US control for information on who might be shooting – there was always a concern that the Bad Guys would infiltrate a night-fire exercise. Control had no immediate information about any exercise that night at the Tarnac Farm training area and advised the pilots to wait while a further check was done. But Psycho couldn’t wait. He killed four Canadian soldiers and maimed a couple more. Sadly, he was a very good pilot and an excellent aim. After the bomb was unleashed, one of the two pilots, I can’t remember which, said something along the lines of “I hope that was the right thing to do”.
Psycho was no ordinary National Guard reservist. He was former regular and an instructor at the US Navy’s Top Gun training school. Both he and his buddy got what many regard as slaps on the wrist. Questions were raised about why US air control didn’t immediately identify the ground fire as coming from a Canadian exercise and the drugs issued to pilots to keep them alert during long standby patrols over Iraq and Afghanistan. Embarrassing questions which some people perhaps didn’t want answered or raised at a court-martial. Some plea bargaining was done. Psycho, probably on the advice of his lawyers, wouldn’t speak to the Canadian media. But his mother would. When, as a reporter on the Edmonton Sun, I asked her if her son had the slightest sliver, scintilla, of doubt about whether he should have dropped that bomb, she hung up on me. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. But apples seldom blow people to Kingdom Come.