- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 14, 2002

SHERMAN, Ill. (AP) Near the welcome signs to this small village stands another message, flanked by red, white and blue ribbons: "USA Support Our Pilots."
It's one of many reminders in this quiet town that a favorite son has become embroiled in an international controversy. Maj. Harry Schmidt is one of two area pilots charged in a friendly-fire incident that killed four Canadians in Afghanistan.
In Sherman, bells hang from doorknobs as a salute and a reminder. Collection cans are left at virtually every business to raise money for the defense of Maj. Schmidt and Maj. William Umbach of nearby Petersburg.
Sherman, Petersburg and other towns across central Illinois figure they're providing support the U.S. government won't.
"It was an accident, and the government should be behind them," said Terry Cooley, manager of the Subway restaurant in Sherman, a town of 2,900 people just outside Springfield.
By hosting golf tournaments, auctions and other events, locals have raised nearly half the $200,000 needed for the men's defense.
"They fought for us, so we should fight for his freedom as well," said Lisa Lynn of Easton, who helped organize a fund-raiser that netted more than $25,000. "It's just like a wedding vow here for better or worse."
Maj. Schmidt, 37, and Maj. Umbach, 43, will find out early next year whether they will stand trial on military charges of involuntary manslaughter, aggravated assault and dereliction of duty in the April 17 bombing.
If convicted, Maj. Schmidt and Maj. Umbach could be sentenced to 64 years in prison and receive a dishonorable discharge.
Maj. Schmidt and Maj. Umbach are members of the Illinois Air National Guard's 183rd Fighter Wing based in Springfield.
Maj. Schmidt, a combat-decorated Navy pilot who transferred to the National Guard last year, and Maj. Umbach, a United Airlines pilot who had served in the Air Force, were on a routine patrol over southern Afghanistan when they mistook ground fire from a Canadian training exercise for an enemy attack.
Maj. Schmidt told investigators he dropped a 500-pound bomb in self-defense.
Maj. Schmidt and Maj. Umbach stand accused of poor airmanship and judgment and failing to follow procedures, such as flying higher to avoid ground fire until more information was gathered.
But reports on the incident by both the Canadian and American military indicate the pilots were not briefed about the training exercise and that there were conflicting messages about whether they could fire.
One of the pilots' biggest backers is a Springfield post of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, which has organized fund-raisers and placed 500 collection cans at businesses across central Illinois.
Jerry Helfrich, treasurer of the VFW's fund-raising effort, said publicity about the case has generated more than 1,500 donations from across the country, and even from Canada and Britain.
"If the military decides to press these charges, what is that going to tell every young person even thinking about joining the military?" he asked. "They'll think, 'If I make a mistake, I could go to jail.'"


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