The truth about Tillman

The U.S. military is in for some more miserable publicity over Pat Tillman's death -- but the disgraceful handling of his story is equally damning for the Bush White House.

Published June 15, 2005 12:48PM (EDT)

Mary Tillman, the mother of slain soldier Pat Tillman, has said she isn't buying the Army's official finding that an "administrative error," rather than any kind of coverup, led the Army to deceive her family and the American public over the circumstances of her son's death. The former football star was accidentally killed by his fellow soldiers in Afghanistan last year, but it wasn't until well after Tillman's memorial service, which was nationally televised on May 3, 2004, that the truth came out. "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," Mary Tillman told columnist Robert Scheer this week. "As far as our family is concerned, the case of Pat's death is not closed, as the Army suggests," she said.

She also gave Scheer access to the six-volume record of the military's investigation, which was recently made available to the family but not to the media or public. The military has already earned itself a dose of miserable publicity with how it has handled the case, and it looks like it's only in for more of the same.

"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," Scheer writes. "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 U.S. 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."

Scheer reiterates that Tillman's honor and service are not at issue -- and that it's not just the Army that deserves the ire of Tillman's family and the rest of the nation. "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," Scheer says.

Indeed, the cynical exploitation of Tillman's death reaches into the heart of the Bush White House -- and came at a time, during the explosive Abu Ghraib prison scandal, when the administration was in serious need of some "good" publicity regarding its war policies. The story of a charismatic war hero who died under heavy enemy fire might do the trick.

"Certainly the White House was very interested in Tillman," Scheer writes. "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."

By Mark Follman

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

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