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Relatives' faith in military shaken


Arnita Colbert-Sowers said she knew all along that the military would never convict one of its own. She knew no one would ever be held accountable for the death of her son, a Maryland-raised military man, and 25 others gunned down by U.S. fighter pilots over Iraq last year.

Still, she said yesterday's not-guilty verdict was tough to take.

"I instantly got sick to my stomach," said Ms. Colbert-Sowers, mother of Jeffrey Colbert, 22, a Taneytown man who joined the Army to fly helicopters and fulfill a childhood dream. "I was brought up in a military family and the military was always there. I'm still proud of my country. But I'm no longer proud of the military."

Across the country yesterday, families questioned their faith in the military, calling the not-guilty verdict part of a "coverup" in what is called a case of "friendly fire."

Second Lt. Laura Ashley Piper came from one of those families. She was born on the base of the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo. Her father, an Air Force pilot, flew the plane that brought the U.S. hostages held in Iran to freedom in 1981. She attended Robinson High School in Fairfax County, Va., and graduated from the Air Force Academy.

Her bereaved family was furious yesterday. "We initially refused to be negative about this," said Lieutenant Piper's mother, Joan, at her home in San Antonio. "We don't like to say this, but we think there is a coverup. We don't like to sling those words around, but people are covering up things at the Department of Defense."

That frustration has made its way into the homes of many families of men and women killed when two U.S. fighter pilots and a team of radar specialists mistook two Black Hawk helicopters for enemy aircraft and gunned them down on April 14, 1994.

Army Warrant Officer Erik Scott Mounsey, 28, was piloting the first chopper to go down. He left a wife and a 3 1/2 -year-old daughter, Natasha.

"What we expected"

"I think the whole thing from the very beginning was a complete coverup," his mother, Sarah, said at her Los Angeles home. "I didn't want to face this, but this is what we expected in the long run. The military used a strategy to get their way out of it."

Tony Bass was a crew chief on Mr. Mounsey's Black Hawk. His father was a career Air Force officer. After the incident and after seeing how the Pentagon handled the investigation, Capt. Cleon Bass retired from the Air Force this year.

"Hold someone accountable"

L His wife said she thought someone would be held responsible.

"We didn't want anyone to go to jail. No one set out to commit murder," Cornelia Bass said from her Texas home. "But we thought they would hold someone accountable for what happened."

Since the incident, the families have stuck together. They convinced the Defense Department to reverse itself and award Purple Hearts to the Americans killed. They also persuaded Rep. David Funderburk, Republican of North Carolina, to order the General Accounting Office to examine whether the Pentagon properly handled the case.

After hearing the news yesterday, some members of Jeffrey Colbert's family gathered at his father's Middletown home in Frederick County.

Not giving up

On the refrigerator is a picture of the Army crew chief standing in front of a Black Hawk. In the background is Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's winter palace.

L Jeffrey Colbert's wife, Laura, 24, said she's not giving up.

"We feel that the Air Force is looking out for their own, especially now that everybody's walked," she said. "Jeff's not here to stand up for himself, and we're not going to walk away from it."

Two daughters

Jeffrey Colbert left two daughters, Beth, 5, and Amber, 6. Last month, Beth was diagnosed with leukemia. She just returned home after seven weeks at Johns Hopkins Hospital undergoing tests and treatments. After the first anniversary of Mr. Colbert's death in February 1994, his wife and his children became ineligible for full medical benefits.

Beth's medical bills are starting to arrive. The cost for the first 30 days: $60,000.

Yesterday's verdict was just one more blow for the Colbert family.

"It's hard to take, I tell ya," said Jeffrey's father, Butch Colbert. "I just can't believe it. Twenty-six people died, and no one is going to be held accountable. It's not fair. It's unreal."

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