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Two JBLM bosses might testify in fatal airdrop

TACOMA, Wash. — Two of Joint Base Lewis-McChord’s highest-ranking Air Force commanders could be called to testify on behalf of a pilot facing a court-martial stemming from a training exercise that resulted in the death of an Army paratrooper.

The accused pilot, Capt. Jared Foley, was well regarded among top officers in Lewis-McChord’s 62nd Airlift Wing, and until recently provided daily operations briefings to commanding officer Col. Wyn Elder.

“I thought (Foley) did a fine job with the task at hand” in those daily briefings, said Col. Thomas Jackson, commander of the wing’s maintenance group.

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Foley’s court-martial started Tuesday at Lewis-McChord with jury selection and sparring between attorneys over motions that could restrict testimony from senior Air Force officers. Foley faces more than two years in prison on one charge of reckless endangerment and three counts of dereliction of duty.

His court-martial is to resume today with opening arguments and testimony from government witnesses.

Jury selection revealed that the fatal July 10, 2011, training mission in Montana was well known among officers and airmen at Lewis-McChord because it was so unusual.

Foley allegedly approved a late jump outside of an established drop zone in windy conditions that day. Sgt. Francis Campion, 31, of the 19th Special Forces Group landed on a building and fell to his death.

Jackson said he and other senior officers discussed the accident on the day of the mission and several times afterward. Jackson was taken out of the jury pool because of his direct knowledge of the incident and his previous working relationship with Foley.

Another one of the senior officers called as a potential juror said he had flown hundreds of airdrops and never approved one outside of a drop zone. He said he was an instructor for hundreds more airdrops, and did not have direct knowledge of any of them taking place outside of a drop zone.

The officer was aware of several “off drop zone” missions among other units in his 15-year career, but he said none of them resulted in criminal charges against a pilot. He was not asked whether any of those missions were linked to a fatality.

Prosecutors asked the 12 potential jurors if they knew anyone among a list of 13 probable witnesses. A few jurors raised their hands to show they recognized some of the names. Their familiarity with witnesses did not disqualify them from serving on the court-martial panel.

All of the jurors, however, knew Col. Paul Eberhart. He commands the 62nd’s Operations Group and is one of the most senior Air Force officers at the base. He’s in the chain of command for Foley and for several of the airmen on the court-martial panel.

Eberhart is a probable defense witness, according to prosecutors. So is his commander, Elder.

adam.ashton@thenewstribune.com

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