The Pat Tillman Case Reaches a Climax: ‘They Blew Up Their Poster Boy’

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By: Greg Mitchell

The results of the belated official military probe of the Pat Tillman killing and cover-up were finally released on Monday. It criticized nine officers, including up to four generals, for badly mishandling information about the “friendly fire” incident but found no criminally negligent behavior in the shooting itself. It also found that the cover-up was not organized or orchestrated.

In other words, it may be a cover-up of a cover-up.

Late Monday, Tillman’s family denounced the report, said it continued the distortions, and asked Congress and the press to lead the charge to find more answers. On Tuesday, Tillman’s mother Mary asked, “How do you prevent this from happening again unless there’s a serious consequence?”

Even while pressing ahead with this protest, it is also vital to look back at why the case stirs such anger and reveals so much about military deceit and (too often) media acceptance of it.

It was The Washington Post that really broke the case wide open in May 2005. Simply stated: the Pentagon lied about the friendly fire incident, even to Tillman’s family. Still, there were few calls for apologies to the public and the firing of those responsible. Not many suggested that the Pentagon’s word should never be trusted unless backed up by numerous credible sources.

The Post’s Josh White that month reported that Tillman’s parents were now ripping the Army, saying that the military’s investigations into their son’s 2004 “friendly fire” death in Afghanistan was a sham based on “lies” and that the Army cover-up made it harder for them to deal with their loss. They were speaking out because they had finally had a chance to look at the full records of the military probe.

“Tillman’s mother and father said in interviews that they believe the military and the government created a heroic tale about how their son died to foster a patriotic response across the country,” White reported.

While military officials’ lying to the parents drew wide coverage, hardly anyone mentioned that they also lied to the public and to the press, which dutifully carried one report after another based on the Pentagon’s spin. It had happened many times before, as in the faux Jessica Lynch incident in Iraq.

Tillman was killed in a barrage of gunfire from his own men, mistaken for the enemy on a hillside near the Pakistan border. “Immediately,” the Post reported, “the Army kept the soldiers on the ground quiet and told Tillman’s family and the public that he was killed by enemy fire while storming a hill, barking orders to his fellow Rangers.” Tillman posthumously received the Silver Star for his “actions.”

The latest military investigation, exposed by the Post earlier in May 2005, “showed that soldiers in Afghanistan knew almost immediately that they had killed Tillman by mistake in what they believed was a firefight with enemies on a tight canyon road. The investigation also revealed that soldiers later burned Tillman’s uniform and body armor.”

Patrick Tillman Sr., the father — a lawyer, as it happens — said he blamed high-ranking Army officers for presenting “outright lies” to the family and to the public. “After it happened, all the people in positions of authority went out of their way to script this,” he told the Post. “They purposely interfered with the investigation, they covered it up. I think they thought they could control it, and they realized that their recruiting efforts were going to go to hell in a handbasket if the truth about his death got out.

“They blew up their poster boy.”

“Maybe lying’s not a big deal anymore,” he said. “Pat’s dead, and this isn’t going to bring him back. But these guys should have been held up to scrutiny, right up the chain of command, and no one has.”

Mary Tillman, the mother, complained to the Post that the government used her son for weeks after his death. She said she was particularly offended when President Bush offered a taped memorial message to Tillman at a Cardinals football game shortly before the presidential election last fall.

It is worth looking back even a bit further at how Steve Coll, then of the Washington Post, the previous December had described the early weeks of the positive Pentagon spin — i.e. lies — about Tillman. “Just days after Pat Tillman died from friendly fire on a desolate ridge in southeastern Afghanistan,” Coll wrote, “the U.S. Army Special Operations Command released a brief account of his last moments.

“The April 30, 2004, statement awarded Tillman a posthumous Silver Star for combat valor and described how a section of his Ranger platoon came under attack.
‘He ordered his team to dismount and then maneuvered the Rangers up a hill near the enemy’s location,’ the release said. ‘As they crested the hill, Tillman directed his team into firing positions and personally provided suppressive fire. … Tillman’s voice was heard issuing commands to take the fight to the enemy forces.’

“It was a stirring tale and fitting eulogy for the Army’s most famous volunteer in the war on terrorism, a charismatic former pro football star whose reticence, courage and handsome beret-draped face captured for many Americans the best aspects of the country’s post-Sept. 11 character.

“It was also a distorted and incomplete narrative, according to dozens of internal Army documents obtained by The Washington Post that describe Tillman’s death by fratricide after a chain of botched communications, a misguided order to divide his platoon over the objection of its leader and undisciplined firing by fellow Rangers.

“The Army’s public release made no mention of friendly fire, even though at the time it was issued, investigators in Afghanistan had already taken at least 14 sworn statements from Tillman’s platoon members that made clear the true causes of his death.

“But the Army’s published account not only withheld all evidence of fratricide, but also exaggerated Tillman’s role and stripped his actions of their context. … The Army’s April 30 news release was just one episode in a broader Army effort to manage the uncomfortable facts of Pat Tillman’s death, according to internal records and interviews.”

Two years later, fearing the worst, Rep. Mike Honda of California this weekend declared, “It is my sincere hope that the Department of Defense reveals, at long last, the complete truth in this matter, and explains its successive failures to do so in the years following Pat’s fratricide. Should this not be the result of the latest investigations, I will immediately call for congressional hearings to bring justice to Pat’s memory, closure for his family and to ensure service members’ confidence in their commanding officers and civilian superiors.”

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