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Officer cleared in friendly fire case

OKLAHOMA CITY, June 20 -- An Air Force officer was acquitted Tuesday by a court-martial panel in connection with the friendly fire downing of two Army helicopters over northern Iraq in 1994. Capt. Jim Wang, 29, was the only U.S. officer charged in the incident that killed 26 people. He faced three counts of dereliction of duty in the trial that began June 2 and included more than 40 witnesses. Wang lead the mission crew aboard the Airborne Warning and Control Systems plane responsible for directing air traffic over the region at the time of the downing. The Air Force last year dismissed charges against five other air crew members involved in the case. The incident occurred April 14, 1994, when two U.S. F-15 fighter planes, enforcing the no-fly zone over northern Iraq, mistakenly identified the U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopters as being Iraqi. Investigators found that the AWACS plane failed to inform the F-15s that the helicopters were 'friendly.' An ensuing investigation unearthed an abundance of human, procedural and operational errors that contributed to the shootdown -- considered one of the worst accidents of its kind in U.S. military history. The court-martial panel of 10 officers began deliberations in Wang's case late Monday at Tinker Air Force Base outside Oklahoma City. Seven votes were necessary for a verdict. Wang, who previously described himself as a scapegoat in the case, told reporters he was pleased with the victory but said the story was not over. He urged the Air Force to make another investigation of the incident.

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'The fight is nowhere (near) over for me,' he said. 'This is a victory, one battle. The Air Force needs to have another investigation. If that doesn't happen, Congress needs to have a congressional hearing.' The mother of one of the victims of the incident said she was 'shocked and stunned' when she heard the verdict. 'We have 26 people dead and nobody is accountable. Is that what they're saying?' asked Joan Piper of San Antonio. Piper's daughter, Air Force Lt. Laura Ashley Piper, 26, was killed in the accident. 'I think that how Wang got off was that other people were also so guilty, but that doesn't excuse him,' Piper said. Defense Secretary William Perry, who vowed after the incident to find those responsible, stood by the military court system and its decision to exonerate Wang. 'They have come to a verdict in this case, the verdict was acquittal,' Perry said. 'I accept that verdict. 'It would be a great mistake for me or any other officer of the Defense Department to try to begin to interfere with a system that has served us well for many, many decades.' Perry said that while no military personnel went to jail in the case, administrative actions have been taken against several officers. 'Many officers' careers have been adversely affected,' Perry said. Maj. Gen. Nolan Sklute, the advocate general of the U.S. Air Force, said that 'not every mishap that occurs means there is criminal liability or culpability.' But Sklute said several of those involved in the case have been found to be negligible and have received 'non-judicial punishment.' The most severe punishment in the case appears to be under what is known as an 'Article 15' disciplinary action, which was slapped on one of the AWACS crewman. The Pentagon declined to specify which of the crewmembers received the Article 15 or outline the type of punishment delivered. Typically, however, an Article 15 could impose house arrest, restriction to base or a reduction of pay. Sklute said letters of reprimand were placed in the personnel files of three of the AWACS crewmen and on each of the two F-15 pilots. Two letters of admonishment have been placed in the files of two general officers. Letters of reprimand or admonishment remain in a servicemember's personnel file for only two years, said Sklute. Even so, receiving such letters are considered career enders, a Pentagon official said. The official said those cited as being negligent in the incident are unlikely to ever receive promotions. Sklute declined to identify which of the servicemen received the letters of reprimand. The Pentagon last September, however, identified the AWACS crewmembers that were to receive disciplinary action as Maj. Douglas Martin; Maj. Lawrence Tracey, 1st Lt. Joseph Halcli; 2nd Lt. Ricky Wilson; and Wang. The F-15 pilots were identified as Lt. Col. Randy May, the wingman, and lead pilot Capt. Eric Wickson. Sklute said the letters of admonishment -- which are considered less serious than letters of reprimand but still reflect brick walls to career advancement -- were placed against Brig. Gen. Jeffrey S. Pilkington, the then-commander of Operation Provide Comfort which entails the enforcement of the no-fly zone over northern Iraq; and Brig. Gen. Curtis Emery II, who was the commander of all flights taking part in that operation. Pilkington, who was found by investigators to have failed to fulfull his responsibilities as commander, was reassigned as vice commander of the air intelligence agency at Kelly Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. Emery was moved to the Pentagon's Ballistic Missile Defense Organization. Because of his acquittal on Tuesday, Wang is left as the only servicemember involved in the incident without a letter of reprimand or admonishment in his file. Sklute said Wang's commander could still decide to impose such non-judicial punishment on Wang. Wang defended his actions for nearly six hours on the witness stand Friday, and many court observers said his appearance was a pivotal point in the trial. He maintained he carried out his duties as required by the Air Force. Wang said after the verdict that he did not know whether he would stay in the Air Force. In all, 15 Americans, three Turkish officers, two British officers, one French officer and five Kurdish civilian workers employed by the United States were killed in the downing. The Pentagon in September gave each of the families of the 11 foreign nationals who died $100,000 'in recognition of the unique circumstances related to the aircraft accident.'

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