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Growing up in Westbury, his Dad remembered, Joseph Schweitzer was the kind of young person who consistently made his parents proud.

"I guess in most respects, he was just the typical kid," George Schweitzer said while seated in the living room of his family's home on Magnolia Street.

Captain Joseph Schweitzer

"During his grammar school years, which he spent in the Carle Place School District, he was a Cub Scout, and played CYO basketball at St. Brigid's. Later, while at Chaminade High School, he also played lacrosse and football and distinguished himself as a true scholar/athlete."

"You know it's funny," Joe's mother, Pat, added wistfully. "Because of the date of his birthday, he was always missing the cut-off date for some league he wanted to participate in.

"Finally, I said, 'Well, I'll just fib for you.' But he said, 'No Mom, you can't do that.'"

As she paused to wipe away a tear, George Schweitzer continued. "He was a great builder of model airplanes."

"He was living out his boyhood dream," the father said.

Living out his dream, that is, until February 3, 1998, when an EA-6B Prowler warplane he was flying in over the Italian Alps accidentally clipped the cables of a ski lift.

The cables severed, a gondola they were supporting plummeted some 375 feet to the ground below. The twenty people riding in the gondola at the time lost their lives that day. Killed in the accident were skiers from Italy, Germany, Poland, the Netherlands and Austria.

Joseph P. Schweitzer, 31, a much-decorated captain in his ninth and final year with the United States Marine Corps, was the navigator for that flight, in a four-seat twin-engine combat jet designed to support air strikes and ground troops.

Also flying in the jet that fateful afternoon were the pilot, Capt. Richard J. Ashby, 30, of Mission Viejo, California; Capt. William L. Raney II, 26, of Englewood, Colorado; and Captain Chandler P. Seagraves, 28, of Nineveh, Indiana.

"Actually, I heard about the accident on the car radio as I pulled into our driveway," remembered Pat Schweitzer. "I was coming home from work and, you know, when you're the mother of someone in military aviation, you always say a little prayer for the people involved in something like this.

"You hear of a lot of accidents. And as a mother, you always worry, you know? But the thing was, I didn't initially think my son could possibly be involved because the reporter said it had happened on a low level flight."

After years of their son's deployments keeping the family apart during the holidays, George and Pat Schweitzer had spent last Thanksgiving visiting with him at the Aviano Air Base in Italy, where he was stationed.

"This was Joe's second deployment relating to the conflict in Bosnia, and since he's spent so many, many holidays away from home, we wanted to make this one especially nice for him," his mother said.

Had fate played out differently, perhaps she would have forgotten it by now, but Pat Schweitzer still remembers a conversation with her son during that trip that is now tragically ironic.

"In describing what he was doing, he told us specifically that he was not involved with low level flying. He knew I always worried about his being in harm's way."

Ten minutes after she walked from her car and into her home, past an American flag bearing the colonial-era image of a snake and the words "Don't Tread On Me," the phone rang. It was Joe.

"'Mom,' he said. 'I've been in an accident,'" Pat Schweitzer recalled, her jaw visibly tightening.

"He said it was both the worst day of his life and yet, the best day of his life. It was the worst because of the tragedy. And the best because the pilot, somehow, managed to fly the plane back to the base after the collision

"'And thank God for Grumman,'" she remembered her son saying. "'That plane is built like a tank.'"

"They just didn't see the cable," George Schweitzer said. "They didn't know about the deaths until after they landed."

The incident for which Captain Joseph Schweitzer now faces a February court-martial came near the end of what had been an almost stellar, ribbon and medal bedecked career.

Though unusual for him, the February 3 mission was a routine one for other Marine flight crews stationed at the base, which is overseen by the United States Air Force. Not only was it routine, but the low level training exercise that took their jet over the Italian ski resort in Cavalese was Air Force approved.

Despite this, those now prosecuting the case say that the jet was flying too low that day. There have also been accusations that the Marine fliers were "flat-heading," or showing off too close to the popular resort.

The tragedy is considered the worst military training disaster since the end of the Cold War.

"What happened is a tragedy," Captain Schweitzer said in the only interview he's ever given in regard to the mishap, an interview that appeared in the Knoxville, Tennessee News-Sentinal. "It will always be a tragedy. As a Marine, it is my job to defend people, and to be involved in something like this is just beyond comprehension."

"Eventually everything will come out and our side of the story will be told as well," Schweitzer continued.

"A lot of accusations, I don't think will... " his voiced trailed off, the paper said.

"I don't know how to say this, but the truth will come out, and the wrongs will be righted. Eventually, this thing will be resolved."

Not even knowing the dimensions of the tragedy they'd been an inadvertent party too, the flight crew found itself, immediately upon touching down, in the hands of the Italian authorities.

What followed was five hours of interrogation, during which, according to the Schweitzers, the four men were actually unsure they'd ever see America again.

At the same time, the Italian police confiscated the EA-6B Prowler, surrounding the jet with armed guards. According to several sources, however, the aircraft was something less than secure, with a number of people actually gaining access to the inside of the warplane.

Naval Intelligence began its own investigation into the mishap a few days later. Italian authorities immediately appealed to the United States for the right to try the four Marines in Italy.

Though that request was denied, the United States reportedly still felt intense pressure to appease the Italian government. Aviano Air Base is critical to NATO's activities in the region.

According to a report that appeared in The Washington Post this past summer, President Clinton had received a call from Italy's Prime minister in the hours immediately following the incident.

The president, the newspaper said, had hoped to hear some version of "I understand, accidents happen." Instead, the prime minister reportedly threatened, "You Americans may never operate out of Italy again."

By the time that exchange became public, the four Marines were facing an Article 32 hearing -- the equivalent to a civilian grand jury -- at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. The hearing was held to determine whether there was enough evidence to support criminal charges against the four crewman.

Marine Lt. Col. Ron Rodgers was the Article 32 hearing officer, and as such, after evaluating the evidence, had the latitude to make any of a wide range of recommendations, from dismissing the charges to recommending court-martial.

Immediately after the accident, the Marine Corps Command Investigation Board, working closely with Italian authorities, blamed the tragedy on the Prowler crew, saying that they were flying the warplane "too fast and too low during a training maneuver."

The four faced 20 counts each of involuntary manslaughter and negligent homicide. Each manslaughter charge carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison, while the maximum for each negligent homicide count is three years.

The crewmen also faced charges of dereliction of duty, destruction of military property and destroying civilian property.

At the conclusion of the hearing, which was held late this past spring, it was Lt. Col. Rodgers duty to forward his recommendations relating to the charges to Lt. General Peter Pace, Commanding General of the Marine Corps Atlantic Forces.

Lt. General Pace then had the prerogative to either follow those recommendations, settle the matter himself administratively, or send it on to court-martial.

As the investigation proceeded, the four crewmen were put on non-flying status and reassigned to the Marine Corps Air Station at Cherry Point, North Carolina.

Joseph Schweitzer, is a 1989 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, where he was not only distinguished academically, but also started four years on the Midshipman lacrosse team and was its captain his senior year.

After graduating, he was sent to Naval Flight Officers School for two years of training, and, as an honor graduate of the Navy's electronic warfare course, qualified for a seat as an Electronics Countermeasures Officer in the Prowler.

"He always wanted to go to the Naval Academy," Pat Schweitzer said. "Although I must say that initially, I had some reservations.

"What changed my mind, however, was a conversation we had one day, right here in this living room. He said, 'Mom, if I'm in a regular, four year college and a war breaks out, I'm going to quit and enlist. So, I might as well be at the Naval Academy.'

"When he said that, I thought, 'How can you not support this young man?'"

"He always had a good head on his shoulders," his father said.

Asked where his son's passion for the military came from, George Schweitzer again harkened back to his son's childhood.

"His passion for the military grew out of a passion for American history," the father explained. "Even as young as 7, he just had this thing for history and his country."

Though while growing up in Westbury, just a few blocks from Carle Place High School, Schweitzer had dreamed of attending the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, by his third year there, he decided that what he really wanted to be was a U.S. Marine Corps officer.

His eyesight prevented his becoming a Marine fighter pilot, but he considered getting into the Prowler as not a bad second choice.

In combat, the EA-6B needs fighter escort because the HARM missile -- meant to take out enemy radar -- is the only weapon it carries.

On the EA-6B the pilot is the only one who actually flies the aircraft. None of the electronics officers is qualified to do so. Duties and seats of the other three officers on board are interchangeable. The officer in the second seat is in charge of navigation, while the other two work the plane's awesome electronic system.

Joseph Schweitzer's first overseas action was in Iwakuni, Japan. That mission called for Prowlers to fly near the Korean peninsula, where the plane's electronic surveillance gear listened in on radar activity.

In 1994, he was ordered to Sicily as part of Operation Deny Flight over Bosnia, tracking surface to air missile sites. On that tour, Schweitzer flew 66 days with only two days off and earned the Air Medal.

Captain Schweitzer has had two tours of duty in the skies over Bosnia in the Prowler. He was commander for more than 20 missions, and responsible for planning and coordinating numerous tactical exercises and squadron deployments in Japan, Bosnia, South Korea and Australia.

Last year, Schweitzer received the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal.

In May, 1997, Schweitzer returned to Cherry Point, home for the Marine's Prowler squadrons, and was given the added duties as logistics officer.

By August of the same year, his squadron was ordered back to Aviano.

At the time of the accident last winter, Schweitzer was well on his way home. A few months previously, he had informed his commanding officers that he was leaving the military to attend graduate school. The major he wanted to pursue: international relations.

Speaking of the accident with the Knoxville News-Sentinal, Schweitzer's lawyer, Dave Beck, said, "This has had a devastating effect on everybody, but it was an accident nonetheless.

"It was not a criminal act. The action on the part of the four outstanding marine aviators, whose reputations for integrity and for professionalism, for caring, for putting their lives at risk, is to preserve freedom and to protect people... so obviously this is devastating, what happened and what is happening now."

What was happening "now" to the attorney's mind-- "now" being about five months ago, while the initial Navy investigation was still going on -- was that political pressure was laying its heavy hand on the investigators.

It was in his testimony during the article 32 hearing that Marine Col. Thomas L. Blickensderfer first suggested that the investigation into the crash was subjected to outside pressure, including daily phone calls from high ranking military officials.

"We certainly had more help than we needed," he said.

That testimony was used by defense attorneys to bolster their claim that the investigation was a "rush to judgment" that unfairly implicated the aviators.

In their closing statements, defense attorneys charged that U.S. officials had short-circuited a customary inquiry by a Marine mishap board in order to establish an open investigation more acceptable to Italy.

The attorneys said U.S officials feared that the mishap board, which would have operated in secrecy and kept the information it gathered as privileged, would further inflame Italian anger and suspicion over the accident.

"The Marine Corps, in bowing to international pressure, is more interested in political expediency right now than safety," said Frank Spinner, pilot Richard Ashby's attorney.

"You're right, there has been international pressure," retorted Maj. Vernon Couch, a Marine prosecutor, who recited the list of 20 Italian, Polish, German, Belgian, and Dutch victims. "That's the international pressure that's present here."

Blickensderfer was one of four officers who signed a Command Investigation Board report that found that the accident was caused by air crew error. But he said during testimony at the Article 32 hearing that he did not believe Ashby and his crew were deliberately "flat-hatting," military slang for flying recklessly in order to show off.

"They absolutely were not flat-hatting, in my opinion," Blickensderfer said. "They were out practicing their low-level flying skills."

Asked why he had signed the report then, Blickensderfer explained that such a report is prepared by committee, and that therefore, it is not uncommon for board members to have contrasting opinions.

"If I was a one-man [investigating board], I would have done a lot of things differently," he said.

The investigator said that he personally attributed the collision, in large degree, to an honest miscalculation by the crew.

He said that flying from a narrow valley to a wider valley, as the Marine crew did on its fateful approach to the lift cables, causes, "certainly the risk of an optical illusion that you're higher than you really are."

Blickensderfer testified that he experienced the same problem when he re-created the flight using a classified, highly realistic Air Force flight simulator.

Upon entering the valley "I did the same thing," he said. "Without even knowing it, I was down a few hundred feet.... each time, I got myself amazingly low, in the 300- , 400-, 500-foot range."

Blickensderfer also testified that the investigation board was unaware of a Marine memo that warned of flaws in the low-level operating procedures used by Marine squadrons operating in Aviano. It relates to an incident in which a Marine jet nearly collided with two air force jets flying in the opposite direction.

Stunningly, on July 10, Lt. General Pace ruled that two of the four Marine officers, Schweitzer and Ashby, would face court-martial on charges of negligent homicide and involuntary manslaughter.

In making that decision, Pace, in effect, was issuing a split-decision, for while he came down hard on two of the men who had been in the jet, he had also followed the recommendation made in June by the hearing officer and dropped all charges against two other officers who were seated in the rear cockpit of the EA-6B Prowler.

The withdrawal of charges against the two officers in the rear seats, Captain Chandler Seagraves and Captain William Raney, clears the way for the two back-seaters to testify in the courts-martial of their fellow crew members.

Pace also ruled that four other officers in the squadron, including its commander, should face a hearing on the non criminal charge of dereliction of duty.

Those officers are Lt. Col. Richard A. Muegge, the squadron commander. Lt. Col, John G. Koran III, the executive officer, Maj. Kirk A, Shawhan, the operations officer, and Maj. Max A. Caramanian, the director of standardization and safety.

(In August, Muegge was relieved of his command, while Maj Max Caramanian was punished with a letter of reprimand.)

Pace ruled that there is "sufficient evidence" to warrant trial on all charges leveled against the pilot, Capt. Richard Ashby, and the navigator, Capt. Joseph Schweitzer, including involuntary manslaughter, negligent homicide, damage to military and private property, and dereliction of duty. If convicted on all counts, they face life in prison.

In his June 30 report to Pace, Lt. Col. Ronald Rodgers said he recommended a court-martial for Ashby "without hesitation," but warned that certain evidence presented in the hearing undermined the case, including testimony that the squadron was operating with faulty flight information, and that Ashby may have been the victim of an optical illusion.

"The outcome of a court-martial in the case of Capt. Ashby is in substantial doubt, both because of the evidence of systemic errors for which none of the mishap crew can be held accountable and the evidence of non criminally negligent pilot behavior," Rodgers wrote.

Rodgers called the case involving Schweitzer "the most difficult to resolve," and recommended that the navigator face court-martial for negligent homicide, but not the more serious charge of involuntary manslaughter.

"Whatever negligence Captain Schweitzer exhibited as a navigator was not, in my opinion, gross negligence, which would be required for a conviction for involuntary manslaughter," Rodgers wrote.

However, Pace overruled that aspect of Rodgers' recommendation and ordered that Schweitzer face a court-martial on all charges.

"That's not surprising," said Frank Spinner, the lawyer representing Ashby. "To me, that points to the political pressure that General Pace is under."

"We're disappointed with the decision," said David Beck, Schweitzer's attorney. "We believe the evidence -- or lack of evidence -- is not sufficient to support criminal charges of any kind."

Attorney Spinner contends that the charges against the four squadron officers is evidence that Ashby and Schweitzer are being made scapegoats for a broader failure of Marine aviation.

"If there were no systematic problem, why would those [in charge of the squadron] face any disciplinary action?" Spinner asked.

On November 10, a fund-raiser on Captain Schweitzer's behalf was held at the Merry Pedlar restaurant in Floral Park.

It was organized by Jill Sullivan, of Floral Park, whose son was a classmate of Joe's at the Naval Academy and Alice Power, an aide in the local elementary school. Schweitzer's sister, Courtney Fitzgerald is a fifth grade teacher there.

In all, about 70 people, many of them strangers to the Schweitzer's, showed up to show their support.

"The people who have come forward, it's just been fantastic," said Pat Schweitzer. "The fund-raiser was almost a kind of out-of-body experience. And the outpouring of generosity... even Sean Farley, the DJ that night, wouldn't accept payment for his services."

Early on in the evening, a letter from Joseph Schweitzer was read.

"The day after the tragic mishap, February 4, 1998, while we, the aircrew, were still in shock (none of us slept that night), and after the Air Force lawyers said we may go to Italian jail and the impact of the political situation hit me, I looked up toward the mountains north of Aviano [and] came to the realization that this was my Mount Everest," he wrote.

"At that moment I was at the very base of the mountain and as I looked to the peak, I felt hopeless peering at an unreachable goal.

"However, nine months have passed and we are steadily climbing closer toward that peak. We have come this far because we are fighters, have hope and perseverance, and know we are right. Occasionally, we still encounter dark days when it feels hopeless again as on February 4. Yet we have supporters, like yourselves, that pull us up and help us on our way.

"Lastly, as you are gathered together on Veterans Day and the Marine Corps birthday, I ask that you take a moment to think about those military aviators, who over the recent months and years, have not made it back alive.

"The tragedy aboard the USS Eisenhower just a few day ago, involving a Navy Prowler crew, reaffirms that defending freedom is an inherently dangerous business.

"Usually, you only hear or read a small blurb in the news about these accidents. For TV networks, it really isn't newsworthy. Yet these men and women go into harm's way day in and day out.

"As you should know by now, there are no routine flights. Unfortunately, I must use two hands to count the friends and acquaintances that are no longer with us. And every day I thank God and my pilot, Rich Ashby, that I am still alive. Freedom has its price and sometimes it is very costly and painful.

"Even though the toughest part of the climb is still ahead, I know with the help of my family, friends, and supporters, I will reach the summit and the sun will be shining."

In addition to the dinner fund-raiser, friends of the Schweitzer family have started a legal defense fund on Captain Schweitzer's behalf. Donations can be made by sending a check to the CAPT. JPS Legal Defense Fund, P.O. Box 293, Massapequa, NY 11758.

"It was extremely helpful for them to do this," George Schweitzer said of the defense fund. "Frankly, when something like this happens, you worry about the person involved and kind of forget about everything else."

The family anticipates that when all is said and done, the legal bills stemming from the court-martial will top $200,000.

"You think about this constantly," the father said when asked how he's coping. "Here you have a son, really an All-American kid, and suddenly he faces something like 200 years in prison.

"In a way, we're lucky we both still have to work and take care of the day to day things in our lives," Schweitzer continued. "Otherwise, we'd likely be consumed by this."

"We get our strength from Joe," Pat Schweitzer said. "He believes in himself, realizes that no one who knows him will believe he ever acted so recklessly, and believes that in the long run the truth will come out."

Asked if their son has expressed any regrets about the life he pursued or any hostility toward the Marines, his parents answered "no," almost in unison.

"In fact, he said to me the other day, 'If it wasn't for the Marines, I wouldn't have the tools necessary to get through this,'" Pat Schweitzer said.

"I think he'll be a patriot to the day he dies," George Schweitzer added.

"The unshakable nature of his beliefs and his belief in this country.. given all that's happened... it boggles me. And makes me feel very proud of him," Mr. Schweitzer continued.

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