Aug. 29, 2012
Pat Tillman was an incredible recruiting asset for the military in the wake of the terrorist attacks on America on September 11, 2001. The popular Californian was an academic and athletic standout in high school and at Arizona State University. Motivated by intense patriotism, Tillman gave up a lucrative professional football career and joined the Army Rangers.
by Don Fulsom
A Sports Illustrated All-Pro safety for the Arizona Cardinals in 2000, Tillman enlisted in the elite military squadron at the end of the 2001 season. Just wed to his high school sweetheart, he turned down a three-year $3.6 million contract with the Cardinals to help avenge the surprise air assaults on his homeland.
On April 22, 2004, at age 27, Cpl. Tillman was killed in action in a canyon in eastern Afghanistan. Apparently, his death was a not-uncommon “fog of war” tragedy caused by “friendly fire.” The entire rear of Tillman’s movie-star handsome head was blown out by a burst of three tightly placed bullets to his forehead from an M-16-type rifle. The fatal shots were fired from a scant 10 yards away.
Initially, however, Pentagon officials refused to disclose that U.S. bullets had killed the Army’s No. 1 “poster boy.” The story the Army put out claimed Tillman was fatally wounded during an ambush by as many as one-dozen Taliban insurgents.
They knew better. Documents obtained by The Washington Post in 2005 say the first Army investigator on the scene determined “within days” that his fellow Rangers killed Tillman in an act of “gross negligence.” The documents also show that top Army officials—including the theater commander, General John Abizaid—were almost immediately informed that Tillman’s death was fratricide.
Yet the Pentagon’s phony explanation said Tillman was killed while charging up a hill “under devastating enemy fire” after saving the lives of several members of his platoon. He was posthumously awarded a Silver Star for valor and was eulogized by President George W. Bush as a classic war hero.
Only after Tillman’s nationally televised May 4th memorial service, did the truth begin to emerge. The Army admitted that Tillman had “probably” been a victim of fratricide. This prompted Tillman’s family to press for more information on Pat’s death.
Despite a number of military investigations and a congressional hearing, Patrick and Mary Tillman say they still don’t know the full truth about their son’s death. In 2010, Mary Tillman told CNN’s Larry King: “They never did a criminal investigation after Pat was killed. So, without that proper criminal investigation, they destroyed evidence (Pat’s uniform, body armor and diary were burned), which is long gone. There is really no way for us to know exactly what happened to him.” On the same program, Patrick Tillman even stated he has not “eliminated” the possibility that his son may have been deliberately killed.
Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and retired General Stanley McChrystal – a former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan – declined to appear on the same program. But the Army issued a statement to the news outlet admitting to a failure “in our duty to the memory of a fallen soldier and to his family.” The Army added regrets for “the pain and suffering endured by the Tillman family as a result of this tragic friendly fire accident, and the shortfalls in reporting accurate information to them in the days and weeks following Pat’s death.”
That statement did not pacify the family. Mary Tillman told King: “They weren’t shortfalls … they were deliberate attempts to cover up what happened in order for them to use Pat’s death for propaganda purposes at a time during the war in 2004 when (the) Abu Ghraib Prison scandal was breaking … it was a terrible time for the military and for (the George W. Bush) administration, and Pat’s death was an opportunity for them.”
The theory that Tillman might have been murdered, however, seems absent of any motive, as he was regarded with favor and affection by his fellow troops –all of whom testified that his death was accidental.
During the congressional hearings, Rumsfeld and other top officials used some version of “I don’t recall” 82 times when queried about just when they learned that Tillman was killed by friendly fire.
Rumsfeld told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee: “I can’t recall precisely how I learned that he was killed. It could have been internally; it could have been through the press.” Rumsfeld was also uncertain of when he was informed that Tillman’s death was most likely from American fire. At the end of the hearings, a frustrated Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) asserted: “You’ve all admitted that the system failed; none of you feel responsible. Somebody should be responsible.”
When President Bush was asked at a news conference when he discovered the truth behind Tillman’s death, his response was equally evasive: “I can’t give you the precise moment.”
Congressional investigators say their probe “was frustrated by a near-universal lack of recall” among “senior officials at the (Bush) White House” and the military. They concluded that “the pervasive lack of recollection and absence of specific information makes it impossible … to assign responsibility for the misinformation” that was originally made public. “It is clear, however, that the Defense Department did not meet its most basic obligations in sharing accurate information” with Tillman’s family and the American public.
In its review of a 2010 documentary “The Tillman Story,” The New York Times was even more direct, saying the Tillman family “emerges as finer, more morally sturdy people than the cynical chain of command that lied to them and used their son as a propaganda tool.”