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JBLM trial update: Pilot’s fate is in jury’s hands; family of fallen paratrooper upset with blame game

Post by Adam Ashton / The News Tribune on Dec. 13, 2012 at 8:46 am |
December 13, 2012 6:32 pm

6:30 p.m. update: Closing arguments are complete and a court-martial panel composed of 10 Air Force officers is weighing the reckless endangerment and dereliction of duty charges against Capt. Jared Foley. A verdict could come tonight, but seems more likely to be released tomorrow.

Prosecutor Capt. Mark Rosenow showed respect to Foley’s reputation as a careful, meticulous pilot but charged that Foley made a fatal error when he allowed a sixth pass over a Montana Air Field on July 10, 2011  after the previous jump ended with a paratrooper landing outside of an established drop zone.

Under Air Force regulations, Foley should have terminated the mission after an off drop zone landing. Instead, the crew made one more pass and Army Sgt. Francis Campion died when he too landed outside of the drop zone.

“We all fall short some times, but at the time (Foley)  fell short, it was criminal,” Rosenow said.

Defense attorney Maj. Matt McCall forcefully stood up for Foley, even asking for a break during his closing argument because he felt he was getting carried away. He explained to the jury he had grown emotionally attached to the case.

McCall said the Air Force regulations governing off drop zone landings were not as clear as Rosenow presented. Foley and his crew, for instance, believed that the first off drop zone landing on the Montana mission last year was solid because an Army officer on the ground blamed the error on the jumper.

To them, that meant there had been no off drop zone landing and no reason to end their flight.

McCall called on the jurors to remember the 38 character letters they received from service members on behalf of Foley. He also cited testimony from two of Foley’s past commanders to demonstrate that the captain was careful in ensuring the safety of his crew and passengers.

“They say it’s black and white, how can it be black and white if Foley’s making this mistake?” McCall asked. “If it was black and white, we wouldn’t be here.”

Campion’s mother and sister watched the past two days of Foley’s court-martial. They said they were not invested in seeing a guilty verdict, but they wanted to be here “because Francis was here.”

Campion’s sister, Vivian Desiderio, nonetheless, came away with an impression that Foley’s defense team was blaming the Army for a lapse in his responsibility as commander of an Air Force C-17 crew.

“As a U.S. citizen, I am embarrassed that a highly reputable Air Force pilot would try to blame another service member,” she said.

Other pilots at McChord are showing their support for Foley by joining him in court. One officer stood in the courtroom during closing arguments because he could not find a seat.

*****

1:40 p.m. update: Capt. Jared Foley acknowledged that his present understanding of Air Force regulations would cause him to consider both of the flawed parachute landings from his July 2011 airdrop to be “off drop zone” results that would require him to end his mission.

Still, Foley maintained that the Air Force regulations he read and the training he received prior to that mission did not spell out the definition of an off drop zone landing.

“There’s no clarification one way or the other,” he said.

That’s important to his defense because he says he did not consider the first flawed jump that day to be an off drop zone landing. He relied on an Army safety officer on the ground who reported that the paratrooper steered himself off course. To Foley’s crew,  the safety officer’s recommendation cleared the way for more jumps.

Sgt. Francis Campion, another paratrooper on that mission, died on the next drop over Marshall Air Field in Montana when he blew out of the drop zone.

Foley said he believed his court-martial represents an effort by the military to better define protocol for  off drop zone landings. Air Force regulations require crews to discontinue airdrops if an off drop zone landing is confirmed or suspected.

“I think the government wants to make it black and white,” Foley said.

Prosecutor Capt. Mark Rosenow attempted to paint Foley as derelict in his performance on that mission by failing to nail down the specific data describing the parachutes Special Forces soldiers were using that day, and for relying on wind data from a nearby civilian airport instead of the Army drop zone officer’s reports.

Rosenow further noted that several jumpers who landed on target that day could have done so because they steered themselves there, not because of precision planning by Foley’s crew.

“It wasn’t a perfect pass, it just had a perfect result,” Rosenow said.

Foley spent more than four hours on the witness stand today taking questions from prosecutors, defense attorneys and two lieutenant colonels on his court-martial panel. The courtroom is crowded with supporters, most of them Air Force officers.

Foley joined the Marines in 1995 and became an airman after graduating from an ROTC program at the University of Utah. He has had two tours of duty in the Middle East, including a 2011 deployment in which he made 20 combat airdrops in Afghanistan.

*****

10:15 a.m. update: Capt. Jared Foley took the witness stand today and insisted that he did not believe his crew had an “off drop zone” landing during a parachute exercise that concluded with a fatal airdrop.

Sgt. Francis Campion of the 19th Special Forces Group  died on the sixth pass over a Montana air field. Another paratrooper, Staff Sgt. Josh McKee, flew off course on the fifth pass. The Air Force accuses Foley of reckless endangerment for allowing the sixth pass.

But Foley today said his mission computer and reports he received from an Army safety officer on the ground persuaded him that McKee’s jump was sound. By that time, several jumpers on previous passes landed on the designated point of impact. The Army safety officer reported to Foley that McKee had steered himself off course with a maneuverable parachute.

Foley also performed several checks on his C-17 Globemaster III that told him McKee’s drop went off successfully from the air.

“It was clear to me that this jumper had flown himself off the drop zone,” Foley testified. “We had released him in a solid position. We had released him in a valid position. There wasn’t a malfunction when he exited the aircraft.”

Air Force regulations require crews to terminate airdrops in the event of an off drop zone landing. Foley said he knew the regulations, but did not think they applied to McKee’s jump.  Foley is facing two and a half years in prison for allegedly breaking those regulations.

“The jumper had flown himself off the drop zone. I concluded this was not an off drop zone event,” he said.

Foley did not discuss the sixth and a fatal pass in more than an hour of testimony today. Prosecutors are set to begin a cross examination shortly.

******

Defense attorneys for the Joint Base Lewis-McChord pilot accused of reckless endangerment in the death of an Army paratrooper today submitted 38 character letters from supporters and called two former commanders who called him an “outstanding” officer.

Capt. Jared Foley, 37, faces two and a half years in prison on one count of reckless endangerment and three of dereliction of duty in connection with the July 2011 death of Army Sgt. Francis Campion.

His previous commanders in Lewis-McChord’s 7th Airlift Squadron did not testify about the training exercise that led to Campion’s death. Instead, they answered a quick series of questions about Foley’s merit as an officer.

“Above reproach,” said Lt. Col. James Sparrow.

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