The Army's not-so-heroic damage control

The Army blames muddled regulations -- not a coverup -- for its failure to tell the truth about sports star-turned-soldier Pat Tillman's death, until after his family buried him.

By Mark Follman
Published June 10, 2005 7:26PM (EDT)

The U.S. Army says it wasn't a coverup but rather "an administrative error" that led it to mislead the public about the death of onetime NFL star Pat Tillman, who was accidentally killed by his own comrades while fighting in Afghanistan in April 2004. A report released this week by Brig. Gen. Gary M. Jones, who led an investigation into the matter, revealed that the Army knew almost immediately that Tillman had been killed by fellow soldiers rather than enemy fire.

Shortly after Tillman's death, the Army said he was killed while leading troops in battle, scaling a hill to ensure the safety of other U.S. soldiers following him. Days after his death, the Army awarded him the Silver Star, praising his courage under enemy fire. But a few weeks later, the Army changed directions, saying he probably died as a result of so-called friendly fire.

"The evidence from my investigation tells me that no one attempted to cover up or conceal anything in the course of this investigation," Jones said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times this week. On Thursday, Army officials issued a statement saying they stood by those findings. Jones also expressed sympathy for Tillman's family, who buried Tillman before they learned the truth about what had happened.

According to the Times, in briefings given this spring to Tillman's family and to Sen. John McCain, Jones told them that information pointing to friendly fire initially had been withheld by lower-level commanders in a well-meaning attempt to spare the family's feelings before all the facts were known. For his part, Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks, the head of Army public affairs, said that withholding the information amounted to "an administrative error."

The Army is fighting a number of P.R. battles these days, including over its recruiting shortfalls and practices -- and making the death of a former sports hero into a scandal doesn't seem like the best tactical strategy. Mary Tillman, the slain soldier's mother, isn't buying the Army's latest account, which she says differs from some of the information in the six volumes of its written investigation.

"What the military says in the briefing and what is in the report are two different things," she told the Times. "We're working on getting that document released under [the Freedom of Information Act] so the media can see it."

Jones did acknowledge that "Army regulations appear to be in conflict" over how to handle this kind of issue. "In my view," he added, "nothing has done more to create suspicion by the family as to the Army's intentions than failing to release that this was a potential fratricide as soon as that became known."

Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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