The Air Force plans to announce today that it effectively is ending the careers of at least seven officers who initially had been given slaps on the wrist for their roles in the downing of two Army helicopters over Iraq last year.
The unusual action comes as the result of a growing anger by lawmakers, surviving family members and even senior military officials that no one had been held accountable for the tragedy that killed 26 people, including 15 Americans.
This feeling intensified after the acquittal in June of the only person to face a court-martial in the accidental shooting, Capt. Jim Wang.
Although the seven were reprimanded months ago for their involvement, several have received favorable evaluations, awards and choice assignments.
But responding to the growing pressure, the Air Force is grounding the two F-15 fighter pilots who mistakenly shot down the American helicopters and three officers on the radar plane who failed to prevent the tragedy. The five - including Wang, who was cleared by a military jury in Oklahoma of all criminal charges - will be grounded for at least three years and most likely will be assigned to nonflying jobs.
Angry that officers who were reprimanded for their role in the tragedy were promoted or awarded plum jobs, Gen. Ronald R. Fogleman, the Air Force chief of staff, wrote scathing “letters of evaluation” for the permanent files of the two F-15 pilots, three radar-plane controllers and two generals overseeing the operation in northern Iraq, citing poor judgment and failure to uphold Air Force standards.
Such unusual criticism from the Air Force’s top officer effectively dooms the officers’ careers. “Their chances for promotion now are essentially zero,” said a senior Pentagon official. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see them retire.”
Nonetheless, the Air Force action is unlikely to appease angry family members and lawmakers, who are determined to hold more hearings on the causes of the downing and the investigation.
“All I can say is this is an effort to suddenly make the military look accountable when a congressional investigation is taking place,” said Joan Piper, mother of 2nd Lt. Laura Ashley Piper of the Air Force, a victim in the downing.
The Air Force’s handling of the matter has raised serious questions about a military culture which produced commanders who rewarded the same officers whom they only recently had reprimanded for one of the worst accidents in American military history.