Lieutenant Laura Piper (Number to Be Determined)
Historian’s Note: This Blog Post will eventually be moved to an actual list entry on the Women’s List, once I have the list caught up. I finished reading Laura’s story last night and knew I had to upload it as soon as possible.
The Pentagon Is Wrong
Born: 18 March 1969, United States Air Force Academy at Colorado Springs, Colorado, United States of America
Died: 14 April 1994, the No-Fly Zone near Irbil, Iraq
My journey into knowing Laura’s story came on a complete whim, a twist of fate that could have easily not happened.
This summer, my grandma is staying up in the Mountains to escape the summer heat (We’re in Arizona, so yeah…). In any case, my grandma and my aunt called one day to say they had found a treasure trove of books and were wondering if I was interested. They read off a list of titles to me and then said they had a few more they’d already bought.
The next week, my aunt comes home, and she and my cousin drop off two plastic bags of books—thirteen in all. And while some I quickly added to the ranks of my library shelves without reading, one caught my attention. It was A Chain of Events: The Government Cover-up of the Black Hawk Incident and the Friendly-Fire Death of Lt. Laura Piper by Joan L Piper. I consider myself well versed in our government’s history, but I had never heard the name Laura Piper, and the only Black Hawk Incident I’d ever heard of was the movie Black Hawk Down (completely unrelated incidents).
So, I opened the book. Three days later, I finished the story, and here I am the next morning, and I am pissed. So, here’s the story, and why from here on out my new life motto for when anything ever goes wrong will be The Pentagon Is Wrong (Which is a quote from the book, but we’ll get to that).
Lt. Piper had just turned twenty-five years old. Her father had recently retired from the Air Force after twenty-six years, and Laura and her brother Dan had joined up. Laura had already graduated from the Air Force Academy, and Dan would be doing the same the following month.
Laura was also engaged, to another Dan (and her dad was Danny—I know, it got a little confusing reading it at times). Her youngest brother Sean was ten. Laura had loving parents, siblings, and was going to start planning her wedding soon. She was stationed in Germany but had been sent to Turkey for a few months. Laura had just come back from a two-week vacation with her fiancé, Dan, in Egypt. She had everything to live for.
On the morning of April 14th, 1994, Laura was one of twenty-six passengers aboard Eagle Flight, the code name for the two Black Hawk helicopters that would be flying over something called the No-Fly Zone. The zone had been set up around a hostile area in Turkey and Iraq (remember, this was just after the Gulf War and Desert Storm). Incirlik Air Force Base was the home of the Air Force at the time as they worked on something called OPC or Operation Provide Comfort, where Britain, France, the United States, and Turkey provided supplies and humanitarian aid to the Kurdish people, who have no country of their own and were living in the area.
Back to the morning of April 14th. The Black Hawk helicopters, aka Eagle Flight, were flying between Zakhu in Iraq to another small city called Irbil.
This is where I highly recommend you read A Chain of Events. I could not possibly list everything that went wrong over the next few hours, days, and years, mostly because I am not a professional or in the know how on all the military lingo, but I’ll do my best.
There were four aircraft in the No-Fly Zone that morning: the two Black Hawks, and two F-15 Fighter Jets. Outside the No-Fly Zone was an aircraft referred to as AWACS, you’ve probably seen it. The large airplane with the spinning disk on top that does reconnaissance, tracking aircraft in the area and keeping watch of the skies.
Yes, you read that right, keeping track of aircraft.
This AWACS team failed. They failed in their mission so badly, twenty-six innocent people ended up dead. One of the crew members was sleeping, one was eating in another room, one couldn’t account for where he was at the time, one was looking at the wrong area of the radar screen, and on and on it goes. AWACS lost track of Eagle Flight and assumed they had landed somewhere. Helicopters often fly so low to the ground radar has a hard time keeping track of them, but no, they hadn’t landed, they were still flying.
The two F-15 fighter pilots had one mission that morning: protect AWACS.
Before they took to the skies, Dan (Laura’s fiancé) briefed them on the possible things they might encounter while in the skies that day. He thought about mentioning Laura would be on Eagle Flight but decided not to mention the helicopters, wanting to stay professional.
So, just before 10:30 AM, on April 14th, 1994, the two pilots came across two helicopters in the No-Fly Zone. They falsely identified them as Soviet Hind Helicopters, obviously being flown by Iraqis. No Hind helicopters had ever flown over this area during the entirety of Operation Private Comfort, which had started in 1991. The pilots failed to properly identify the helicopters (as was later proved by two separate flight tests—one by the Air Force and one by a Senate Hearing conducted by the US Army). The pilots reacted immediately—identifying them as enemy agents. They violated the Rules of Engagement, and moved way too quickly.
Eight minutes after first falsely identifying the Black Hawks as Hind Helicopters, twenty-six bodies were smoldering on the ground. The pilots had fired two different types of missiles, and two Black Hawks had blown up and hit the dirt. After the trailing Helicopter was shot down, the lead Black Hawk tried to escape, as the pilots later testified, but they shot it down anyway.
After they were downed, one of the pilots said, “Stick a Fork in them, they’re done!”
The reason the pilots shot down the Black Hawks? That’s not entirely clear either. The pilots claimed they shot them down because they were trying to protect AWACS, as was their job, but that makes less than zero sense. For one thing, AWACS hadn’t entered the No-Fly Zone yet, they were nowhere near each other. And for another, the Black Hawks were flying in the complete opposite direction of where the AWACS was currently located on their flight.
Within minutes, both AWACS and the Air Force officers back at Incirlik Air Force Base in Turkey knew Eagle Flight was missing. They knew the pilots had shot down their own. The Air Force, and later the Defense Department, were about to start one of the biggest government cover-ups in recent history.
By the time they were done, eleven Air Force members “involved” in the flight would be reprimanded in some way. And by reprimanded, I mean ten had letters written against them—none of them to stay in their record permanently. An eleventh faced a court martial and was found not guilty. The pilot who had first falsely identified them and then made the remark about the fork? He was given immunity to testify—without ever asking for it in the first place.
The Defense Department fought the Black Hawk Families (as the families of the victims began to call themselves) for a year on whether the fallen soldiers would receive Purple Hearts. Their reason? They claimed the victims were not killed in a combat zone (they were) and that therefore they did not qualify for our nation’s oldest award.
This is the part of the book where my favorite phrase came into play—The Pentagon Is Wrong. That’s how Joan, Laura’s mother, phrased it when Danny, Laura’s father, continued his fight to see the Pentagon and the Air Force bestow the Purple Heart on the fallen.
After Congressional pressure, they finally caved a week before the one-year anniversary.
Months after the disaster, the Defense Department also announced they would be paying the families of the foreign nationals on the flights—eleven families from France, England, and Turkey would receive $100,000 each for the loss of their loved ones. The American families would get nothing.
Also, around that time, the Air Force decided to station both the first pilot who had shot down the second Black Hawk, the one Laura was in, and the man in charge of the entire Incirlik Air Force Base, in San Antonio at the base there. The problem? Lt. Piper’s family, and one of the other Black Hawk families, lived in San Antonio. It was like the Air Force just wanted to punish these families as much as they could.
All that sounds horribly frustrating enough. But it gets worse.
Once the families realized the Defense Department had lied and would not reprimand those responsible in any meaningful way, the Black Hawk Families began putting pressure on Congress. Finally, the Senate announced they would be doing an investigation into not just the accident, but the circumstances that occurred afterward.
For nearly a year, Senator Roth and the rest of the committee looked through thousands of documents, listened to testimony from witnesses that day, and conducted a thorough investigation the likes of which the Air Force had done but just hidden the evidence afterward. Finally, the Senate Committee asked for four high ranking Air Force officials to testify about the shoot down. The Defense Department refused to comply. The Senate Committee threatened to subpoena, and the Defense Department continued to stonewall them. Finally, the Senate finally did send subpoenas.
The Defense Department’s response? This is the letter Senator Roth received from their lawyer:
“You have signed subpoenas that would require four officers to appear before your staff to justify their quasi-judicial acts. We have been advised by the Department of Justice that these subpoenas lack legal force and effect because they were issued after the adjournment of sine die of the 104th Congress. Accordingly, each of the concerned officers has been directed not to appear at the times and places stated in the subpoenas.” (Emphasis placed by me).
Yes, you read that right. The Defense Department refused to allow the Air Force to testify, protected them, more like. Senator Roth was now facing pressure from not just the Department of Defense, but from other senators as well.
As an Arizonan, this next part pissed me off the most. Last year, in 2018, Senator John McCain died. I was one of the few that was not at all upset, and this next part just made my resolve even more set as to why I am actually glad that man has no more impact on the goings on of our government.
From A Chain of Events: “Senator John McCain of Arizona, a former naval officer and Vietnam prisoner of war, personally sends a letter to Senator Roth asking him bluntly to back off. The Senate subcommittee notices that some of the paragraphs in Senator McCain’s letter are reproduced verbatim from the earlier letter sent by Deputy Secretary White. Roth has always held Senator McCain in high esteem, and this request is hurtful because Roth believes McCain’s first loyalty should be to the Black Hawk families, not to the Department of Defense,” (Piper 225).
Isn’t that nice? Because of the unanswered subpoenas and all the pressure from within the government, Senator Roth had no choice but to drop the hearing.
When the book was published in 2000, none of the people involved in the Black Hawk Incident had faced any real consequences for their actions. With the exception of one man, who had already put in his notice for retirement, all their careers continued on, allowing them to move to higher positions within the Air Force.
In the late 1990’s, the Federal Government started looking into whether or not they should award the American Black Hawk families monetary restitution for their loss. As of the publishing of the book, they had not received any yet, despite Congress deciding in 1999 to award the families money.
Despite President Bill Clinton promising the families that those responsible would face consequences, he refused to interfere and see it happen. The Piper family alone sent him at least two letters on two separate occasions. The White House never responded, or even acknowledged that they had received the letters.
In 1994 alone, sixty people were killed and 100 injured in Four major accidents involving the Air Force, with the Black Hawk Incident only accounting for twenty-six of those deaths in one of the “accidents”. The reason why none of this stayed in the national conscience for long? 1994 was also the year Ron Goldman and Nicole Simpson were murdered.
If you want to know the names of those involved in the shoot down, the ones who should have been punished yet were not, you can read the book, but I will not share their name and allow them to become more famous than those that died that day. Here are the names you should remember, the twenty-six that lost their lives that day.
From the United States Military:
SSG Paul Barclay
SPC Cornelius A Bass
SPC Jeffrey C Colbert
SPC Mark A Ellner
CW2 John W Garrett Jr
CW2 Michael A Hall
SFC Benjamin T Hodge
CPT Patrick M McKenna
WO1 Erik S Mounsey
COL Richard A Mulhern
1LT Laura A Piper
SGT Michael S Robinson
SSG Ricky L Robinson
Ms. Barbara L Schnell
COL Jerald L Thompson
From the British Military:
MAJ Harry Shapland
LTC Jonathan C Swann
From the French Military:
LTC Guy Demetz
From the Turkish Military:
COL Hikmet Alp
LT Ceyhun Civas
LT Barlas Gultepe
Kurdish Partisans also on Eagle Flight:
This post is for Laura, and all of you as well. You will never be forgotten, and I can only hope that by remembering you, the rest of us can fight for the truth and remember to never trust everything we blindly hear from the Department of Defense.
Find a Grave Marked
Located in my personal Library: A Chain of Events: The Government Cover-up of the Black Hawk Incident and the Friendly-Fire Death of Lt. Laura Piper by Joan L Piper
A Chain of Events by Joan L Piper