By Robert Scheer
Mary Tillman has been a model of patience and fortitude as she doggedly pursues the facts concerning her son Pat’s death in Afghanistan two years ago. In that spirit, she welcomed as positive the news that the Pentagon’s inspector general has asked the Army to launch an investigation into whether criminal negligence was involved in the “friendly fire” incident that resulted in the death of her football-star son who turned soldier.
That request by the inspector general, made after a review of three previous investigations, implies a clear rebuke of the military’s handling of this case to date. But as much as Mary Tillman and the rest of the Tillman family hope this new inquiry will clear up the glaring contradictions and mysterious discrepancies of the previous accounts, she knows it is not prudent to be overly optimistic.
That’s because, quite apart from what happened on that afternoon two years ago, there can now be little doubt that the Bush administration quickly and cynically moved to spin the story in ways that would serve its political purposes at the expense of the truth.
“The administration used Pat,” Mary Tillman told me in a phone interview on Monday from San Jose. “They tried to attach themselves to his virtue and then they wiped their feet with him.”
Her words were chosen carefully, as befits a schoolteacher who spends many hours each week grading the logic and syntax of her students. But over the past two years, she has been fed so many lies by this administration that she now confidently accuses it of something much more sinister than simple incompetence.
As a star safety for the Arizona Cardinals who gave up a contract worth millions of dollars to join the military in a burst of post-Sept. 11 patriotism, Pat Tillman was certainly one of a handful of popularly known American soldiers of his generation—along with the similarly exploited Jessica Lynch and the infamous Abu Ghraib guard Lyndie England. It was the scandal of Abu Ghraib, in fact, that the family believes may have driven the Bush administration and the military to cover up the embarrassing truth of Tillman’s pointless death.
First, Pat’s relatives were informed that he had been killed by enemy fire, even though it was soon obvious to his superiors in Afghanistan that this was untrue. Soldiers on the scene knew the truth, but were told by higher-ups not to reveal it, even to Pat’s brother, Kevin, a professional baseball player who had enlisted alongside his brother. Kevin, who served in the same unit as Pat, was patrolling nearby at the time and accompanied his brother’s body home, unaware of the cause of his death.
For more than a month, an investigating officer’s determination that friendly fire and possible “gross negligence” had led to Tillman’s death was buried so that military press releases and a nationally televised memorial service could sell America on the completely false notion that Tillman had died in a battle with Taliban or Al Qaeda irregulars. The officer also later testified that, in the subsequent investigations, key witnesses were allowed to change their previous testimony.
It is inconceivable that the facts of this publicly revered soldier’s death were not transmitted to the top brass at the Pentagon and over to the White House. As Mary Tillman pointed out Monday, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had written a letter to her son when he enlisted, congratulating him on his patriotic spirit.
“I’m sure he was on their radar and I’m sure the Army wouldn’t do this without the administration knowing. The administration covered it up because they needed to promote the war and it came at the time of the Abu Ghraib scandal,” she said. “They spun a fantasy story that made his Silver Star suspect—I know that Pat was heroic and I didn’t need their deceptions to confirm it.”
When they enlisted in the Army’s elite Rangers, serving tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan, the Tillman brothers became convenient poster boys for a Bush administration eager to exploit the patriotic sensibilities of a wounded nation. What a tragedy that the family’s deep sacrifice should come to be treated so shabbily.
Hero is a word easily cheapened by overuse, especially in times of war. Yet it is clear that the Tillman family has provided us with more than one of the real thing. The public should back its request for a full accounting as to the death of Pat Tillman, but that will require more than another perfunctory Army investigation, which their congressional representative, Mike Honda (D-San Jose), has criticized as yet another example of the military “investigating itself.” There needs to be a congressional hearing on the role of the administration in exploiting this tragic episode.
Pat Tillman (left) and his brother, Kevin, before going to Iraq in 2003