Tarnak Farm incident

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The Tarnak Farm incident refers to the killing of four Canadian soldiers and the injury of eight others from the 3rd Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry Battle Group (3PPCLIBG) on the night of April 17, 2002, near Kandahar, Afghanistan.

An American F-16 fighter jet piloted by Air National Guard Major Harry Schmidt dropped a laser-guided 500-pound (230 kg) bomb on the Canadians, who were conducting a night firing exercise at Tarnak Farms.

The deaths were the first of Canada’s war in Afghanistan, and the first in a combat zone since the Korean War.

F-16 pilots Major William Umbach and his wingman Major Harry Schmidt were returning to their base after a 10-hour night patrol. While flying at 23,000 feet (7,000 m), they reported surface-to-air fire. The fire was actually from a Canadian Forces anti-tank and machine-gun exercise, which was taking place on a former Taliban firing range.

Maj Schmidt descended a few thousand feet to take a closer look, and asked for permission to “lay down some 20 mike-mike”, or spray the area with 20-millimeter cannon fire, but was told to stand by. Major Umbach cautioned his wing man to wait, as well. “Let’s just make sure that it’s, that it’s not friendlies, is all”, he said.

At 9:25, the pilots’ AWACS controller ordered them to “hold fire” and asked Major Schmidt for more information on the surface-to-air fire. But a minute later, after seeing another firing plume from an antitank weapon, Major Schmidt reported seeing “some men on a road, and it looks like a piece of artillery firing at us.”

“I am rolling in in self-defense”, he said.

After Major Umbach reminded him to unlock his weapons, Major Schmidt called “bombs away”. Twenty-two seconds later, he reported a direct hit. Ten seconds later, the controller ordered the pilots to disengage, saying the forces on the ground were “friendlies Kandahar”.

Major Schmidt’s testimony at his Article 32 hearing was that he believed his flight leader, Major Umbach, was under attack. The radio logs show that Major Schmidt requested permission from flight control to fire his 20 mm cannons at what he said to be an anti-aircraft or Multiple Launch Rocket System below.

The soldiers who were killed were:

The eight wounded men include:

Two Boards of Inquiry, one Canadian and one American, were held simultaneously. The two boards shared personnel information. Canadian Brigadier-General M.J. Dumais was specialist advisor to the Canadian board and co-chair of the American board. The findings of the four-member Canadian Tarnak Farm Board of Inquiry, chaired by General Maurice Baril, were released on June 28, 2002. The Board found that the Canadian troops engaged in the night live-fire exercise had conducted their operations as authorized and in accordance with the established range procedures for the types of weapons fire. The Board concluded that the American F-16 pilots contravened established procedures and were the cause of the incident. The Board further concluded that correcting deficiencies in air coordination and control and tactical planning might have prevented the accident:

“… as much as the F-16 pilots bear final responsibility for the fratricide incident, there existed other systemic shortcomings in air coordination and control procedures, as well as mission planning practices by the tactical flying units team uniforms, that may have prevented the accident had they been corrected.”

In his official apology to the family and friends of the dead and injured Canadians, Schmidt stated

During the Article 32 hearing, five F-16 pilots testified, including one who had led the US Board of Inquiry. All five pilots agreed under oath that the dropping of the bomb by Schmidt was not an unreasonable action. Michael Friscolanti summarized their comments in his book Friendly Fire:

One of the issues highlighted by the Inquiry related to the use of amphetamines in combat. In testimony it was revealed that Schmidt and Umbach were told by their superiors to use “go pills” on their missions, and the airmen blamed the incident on the drugs. This was a significant part of the defense of the two pilots. Schmidt’s defense also blamed the fog of war.

Another issue that was evident, but remained largely in the background, was the quality of communications between the various coalition forces in Afghanistan.

On September 11, 2002, William Umbach and Harry Schmidt were officially charged with four counts of negligent manslaughter, eight counts of aggravated assault, and one count of dereliction of duty. Umbach’s charges were later dismissed. Schmidt’s charges were reduced on June 30, 2003, to just the dereliction of duty charge.

On July 6, 2004, Umbach was reprimanded for leadership failures and allowed to retire. U.S. Lt.-Gen. Bruce Carlson found Schmidt guilty of dereliction of duty in what the U.S. military calls a “non-judicial hearing” before a senior officer. He was fined nearly $5,700 in pay and reprimanded. The reprimand, written by Lt. Gen. Carlson said Schmidt had “flagrantly disregarded a direct order”, “exercised a total lack of basic flight discipline”, and “blatantly ignored the applicable rules of engagement”.

Here is an excerpt from the letter of reprimand given to Schmidt:

In April 2006, Schmidt sued the USAF, saying that the military violated the federal Privacy Act by disclosing parts of his military record without his permission and by doing so ruined his reputation. On September 22, 2007, U.S. District Judge Jeanne Scott ruled against Schmidt, stating, “The release of Schmidt’s reprimand gave the public … insight into the way in which the United States government was holding its pilot accountable. Thus considering all of the circumstances, the disclosures at issue were clearly warranted.”

This was the most serious case of fratricide or friendly fire to have been experienced by the Canadian Forces (CF) in Coalition operations since the Korean War.

Private Green’s mother, Doreen Coolen, was chosen by the Royal Canadian Legion to be the Silver Cross Mother for the Remembrance Day ceremony in Ottawa in 2002.

Private Smith’s mother small reusable water bottles, Charlotte Lynn Smith, was named the Silver Cross Mother in 2003. Camp Nathan Smith in Afghanistan was named after him.

Corporal Dyer’s mother, Agatha Dyer, was chosen as the Silver Cross Mother in 2004. Ainsworth Dyer Memorial Bridge in Rundle Park, Edmonton, was named in his memory.

Sergeant Léger’s mother, Claire Léger, was chosen as the Silver Cross Mother in 2005. Léger was awarded the South-West Asia Service Medal and the United States Bronze Star Medal posthumously