By Narda Zacchino
Editor’s note: Listen to the author discuss this story on the Truthdig Radio show.
What is the matter with Barack Obama? Rather than leave the retired and disgraced Gen. Stanley McChrystal in the dustbin of military history after an indiscreet magazine interview, the president has resurrected him to oversee the administration’s new initiative to help military families.
What a slap in the face to the nation’s highest-profile military family—that of Army Ranger Pat Tillman—on whom McChrystal heaped misery and disrespect by assisting in the fabrication of the circumstances surrounding Tillman’s death.
On Tuesday, after the president announced the Joining Forces initiative, led by first lady Michelle Obama and the vice president’s wife, Jill Biden, ABC correspondent Jake Tapper asked White House spokesman Jay Carney the obvious question:
“What’s the White House’s response to critics who say that, because of his role in the cover-up of how Pat Tillman actually died and the pain that he caused to the family of Pat Tillman, that Gen. McChrystal should not be on any sort of advisory committee having to do with military families?” A rambling answer on the importance of the initiative and helping military families brought this follow-up from Tapper: “Is the president aware of the role that Gen. McChrystal played in the cover-up when Pat Tillman died?” Carney answered that Obama is “very aware … of the general’s résumé.”
It was the actions of McChrystal in shepherding a phony Silver Star citation through the system and in helping keep the truth of Tillman’s death from the family that prompted Tillman’s mother, Mary, to try to stop Obama in June 2009 from appointing McChrystal to be the top commander in Afghanistan.
Her letters to Obama and members of Congress were unsuccessful, but she felt validated last June when the four-star general was forced from his position after audacious and embarrassing comments by him and his staff criticizing several White House officials were published in a Rolling Stone article. One of those ridiculed was Joe (“Who?” “Bite Me?”) Biden, making McChrystal’s appointment to a program co-headed by the vice president’s wife even more curious.
It was in McChrystal’s job as head of the Joint Special Operations Command that he oversaw creation of the inaccurate Silver Star commendation for Tillman, who was a victim of fratricide in Afghanistan in April 2004. For five weeks, the truth about Tillman’s death was held hostage while the military deceived his family and the public with a false story of death by hostile fire, exploiting the former professional football player while stoking patriotic sentiment and support for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The Silver Star award was central to the fantasy, and it was used as the centerpiece of the May 3, 2004, nationally televised memorial service for Tillman. The award citation contained misleading statements implying that Tillman was killed by the enemy, including that he “put himself in the line of devastating enemy fire” and enabled “his platoon’s safe passage from the ambush kill zone.” There was no hint that the devastating fire was from his platoon mates, who created the kill zone in which he died.
Worse, the two eyewitness accounts were falsified, according to the Pentagon inspector general’s report on the Tillman case. The IG report, released March 26, 2007, stated that one eyewitness “recalled writing about Cpl. Tillman’s actions, and specifically recalled writing that Cpl. Tillman’s actions saved his life, but [he] stated that he did not sign the erroneous witness statement sent with Cpl. Tillman’s Silver Star recommendations. [He] also pointed out parts he knows he did not write and parts that were not accurate.”
The second eyewitness statement was from a Ranger sergeant who, according to the IG report, “testified that he did not sign such a statement.” And though he “confirmed some parts of the valorous award witness statement as accurate and he identified other parts that he might have written … [he] also pointed out parts that were inaccurate, in that he was unable to see Cpl. Tillman’s actions from his location. Finally, [he] pointed to a phrase ‘in the most gallant Ranger fashion’ that he found ‘hokey’ and stated that it was a phrase he would not have written.”
The inspector general concluded that “the purported statements” of the two soldiers, stamped “original signed,” were prepared by others, “but we were not able to identify the specific drafter.”
The IG held McChrystal and two other officers “accountable for the inaccurate award recommendation.” McChrystal, in his 2009 Senate confirmation hearing, said he “would do this differently if I had the chance again.” He conceded that the tainted Silver Star citation “was not well-written.”
Navy SEAL Steve White, the only active-duty member of the military to speak at Tillman’s memorial, told ESPN.com’s Mike Fish that about an hour before he ascended the stage, someone from the Army phoned him, asked that he announce the Silver Star award and “spoon fed” a story to him. He could not remember the name of the person who called, but he said, “They wanted me to let everyone know he was being awarded the Silver Star, posthumously, and all that. … I wanted to have an idea of what happened. So they told me their version at the time of what happened, which is the heroic tale that they initially came out with. I repeated it back. I summarized it and read it back. I said, ‘Does that sound accurate?’ He said, ‘Absolutely.’ ” White later was upset to learn that the story was phony.
Announcing the award at Tillman’s memorial service, an action that led the 3,000 mourners present, plus the national television audience, to conclude he had been killed by the enemy, “was ill-advised and contributed to the continuing mistrust at Army representations to family members,” the IG report said, especially since top-ranking officers knew at the time that the likely cause of death was friendly fire.
One of those officers was McChrystal, who approved the Silver Star citation on April 28, 2004, yet one day later wrote a memo to three top generals urging them to warn President George W. Bush and the secretary of the Army not to make “comments about Tillman’s heroism” in upcoming speeches in order “to preclude any unknowing statements by our country’s leaders which might cause public embarrassment if the circumstances of Corporal Tillman’s death become public.” Note the “if” and not “when.”
It is bewildering and tasteless, after McChrystal’s callous disregard for the Tillman family throughout this entire episode, that Barack Obama should appoint him to a high-profile position having anything to do with helping military families.
Narda Zacchino is a former associate editor of the Los Angeles Times. She collaborated with Mary Tillman on the book “Boots on the Ground by Dusk.”
AP / Gerald Herbert