In a swift and stunning verdict, the lone officer to stand trial for last year’s “friendly-fire” helicopter shootdown in Iraq was acquitted Tuesday.
That decision means that no one will receive more than a reprimand for the disastrous incident that caused 26 deaths.
The Air Force had originally charged six officers in one of its worst friendly fire incidents 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 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.
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.
Wang’s exoneration, which occurred at the end of a two-week trial, closes a bitter, 14-month odyssey that began in the no-fly zone over northern Iraq 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 shootdown, which killed 15 Americans, five Kurds, three Turks, one Frenchman and one Briton. And some relatives of the victims complained that officers much higher up the chain of command bore responsibility for the catastrophe.
“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. 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.
The accident happened when the two pilots, Capt. Eric Wickson and Lt. Col. Randy W. May, were flying their F-15s on patrol of the no-fly zone.
As they flew, they encountered two American Black Hawk helicopters that were ferrying allied officials on visits among Kurdish villages. Through a long chain of error, the fighters misidentified the Black Hawks as Russian-made Iraqi Hinds and shot them down with missiles.