On Saturday, Mary Tillman went to a graduation party, corrected essays written by her junior high school students and got the house ready for a visit from her mother. Life goes on, even though the “friendly fire” death in Afghanistan of her famous football-playing son never fully leaves her thoughts.
And how could it? Although Pat Tillman, 27, was shot to death on a mountain pass in Afghanistan on April 22, 2004, his family has been tortured ever since by a pattern of official deception over how he died–killed by US Army machine-gun fire–and why the family was kept in the dark.
That deception has continued with the latest and allegedly definitive government statement. Last week, the Army unconvincingly claimed that the suppression of field reports that Tillman was killed by friendly fire did not amount to an official cover-up but was merely the result of confusing regulations that should be changed–“an administrative error,” in the words of Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks, the head of Army public affairs.
Mary Tillman, however, begs to differ with this convenient conclusion to the investigation. When I met with her on Sunday near the Northern California suburb where she raised her three sons, she was measured but firm in rejecting the Army’s report and latest statements.
“As far as our family is concerned, the case of Pat’s death is not closed, as the Army suggests,” she told me. “It concerns us that the documents we received state that Gen. [John P.] Abizaid knew on April 28 that Pat was absolutely killed by fratricide. Why were we not told prior to Pat’s memorial service, which was nationally televised on May 3? We weren’t told until five weeks later, and only because the troops that were with Pat came home from Afghanistan and the story was unfolding.”
The documents that Mary Tillman is referring to are gathered in a six-volume record of the military’s investigation, which were recently made available to the family but not to the media or public. Although heavily redacted, including one wholly censored volume, the files I have read make unmistakably clear that the true cause of Tillman’s death was known in the field shortly after he was killed and reported as fratricide up through the military command. Yet those facts were systematically kept from the family–including Pat’s brother and fellow Army Ranger, Kevin Tillman, who was serving in the same unit in Afghanistan–while a markedly inaccurate story played itself out in the world’s media.
The publicly unreleased files also present major contradictions of fact and logic as to how this fratricide occurred, including questions about the decision to split Tillman’s unit; why the shooting continued even after the identification of the target as friendly by the driver of the attack vehicle; what were the light conditions and distances involved; what was the medical treatment administered; and how was it decided to burn Tillman’s clothes and body armor, which bore tell-tale markings of penetration by US ammunition.
The files also make plain that in the rush to honor Tillman with the Silver Star before a much-publicized memorial service, the Army deliberately obfuscated the fact that Tillman was a victim of friendly fire–implying in the official press release that he had been killed by Taliban or Al Qaeda forces while taking “the fight to the enemy forces…on the dominating high ground.” In fact, no physical evidence was ever found that proves enemy fighters were even in the area.
None of this, of course, lessens the fact that Tillman died acting heroically in what he initially believed to be a battle with an enemy he had forsaken fame and fortune to fight.
The specter that the military’s shameful treatment of Pat Tillman, his family and the American public does raise, however, is what the White House knew as it played the Tillman story for maximum political benefit.
Certainly the White House was very interested in Tillman. One April 28, 2004, memo included in the Army’s investigation describes a “request from a White House speechwriter” who needed information on Tillman before the president’s appearance at the upcoming White House correspondents dinner, in which he paid tribute to Tillman as a fallen hero.
That Bush has not acknowledged the controversy over Tillman’s death, yet was so quick to invoke Tillman’s heroism in the midst of the Abu Ghraib scandal and on the campaign trail, speaks volumes about how politicians exploit soldiers, both the living and the dead.