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Monday, April 21, 2014

The Tillman Tragedy, Ten Years On

Marking the 10th anniversary of the death/killing of Pat Tillman,  I thought I'd re-publish a piece I wrote on March 6, 2006, on "How the Press Was Spun" at Editor & Publisher, where I was the editor.   More on this and other Iraq outrages in my book So Wrong for So Long.

The Pat Tillman case is back in the news, with the Army’s belated announcement that it is launching a criminal probe into the “friendly fire” killing of the former pro football star in Afghanistan in April 2004. It’s a long way, indeed, since those days immediately after the tragic incident when Tillman's death was promoted by the Pentagon as a symbol of American goodness in the war on terrorists.

While the criminal matter takes center stage, we should not forget that the military not only lied to Tillman’s friends and family about the episode, but also--in the tradition of the Jessica Lynch affair—to the press. Eventually, the media played a key role in helping to get the truth out. As far as anyone knows, none of the Army officials who misled the world have been punished.

Tillman's mother, Mary, told The Washington Post on Saturday that she believes evidence of a crime has existed all along, and that the family's repeated calls for a criminal investigation were ignored until now. Her husband, Patrick Tillman Sr., commented, "if you send investigators to reinvestigate an investigation that was falsified in the first place, what do you think you're going to get?"

The Tillman tragedy was last in the news in a major way last May, thanks to an account in The Washington Post, which has taken the lead on this story from the beginning.

The Post's Josh White reported in May that Tillman's parents were now ripping the Army, saying that the military's investigations into their son's 2004 "friendly fire" death in Afghanistan was a sham based on "lies" and that the Army cover-up made it harder for them to deal with their loss. They were speaking out because they have finally had a chance to look at the full records of the military probe.

"Tillman's mother and father said in interviews that they believe the military and the government created a heroic tale about how their son died to foster a patriotic response across the country," White reported.

While military officials' lying to the parents gained wide publicity then, hardly anyone mentioned that the press had dutifully carried one report after another based on the Pentagon's spin.

Tillman was killed in a barrage of gunfire from his own men, mistaken for the enemy on a hillside near the Pakistan border—perhaps, we will soon learn, criminally. "Immediately," the Post reported, "the Army kept the soldiers on the ground quiet and told Tillman's family and the public that he was killed by enemy fire while storming a hill, barking orders to his fellow Rangers." Tillman posthumously received the Silver Star for his "actions."

The military investigation, exposed by the Post, "showed that soldiers in Afghanistan knew almost immediately that they had killed Tillman by mistake in what they believed was a firefight with enemies on a tight canyon road. The investigation also revealed that soldiers later burned Tillman's uniform and body armor."

Tillman's father said he blamed high-ranking Army officers for presenting "outright lies" to the family and to the press. "After it happened, all the people in positions of authority went out of their way to script this," he told the Post. "They purposely interfered with the investigation, they covered it up. I think they thought they could control it, and they realized that their recruiting efforts were going to go to hell in a handbasket if the truth about his death got out. They blew up their poster boy.”

Mary, the mother, complained to the Post that the government used her son for weeks after his death. She said she was particularly offended when President Bush offered a taped memorial message to Tillman at a Cardinals football game shortly before the presidential election last fall.

It is worth recalling that Steve Coll, then with the Washington Post, in December 2004 described the early weeks of the Pentagon spin on Tillman, before his paper helped reveal the truth.

"Just days after Pat Tillman died from friendly fire on a desolate ridge in southeastern Afghanistan," Coll wrote, "the U.S. Army Special Operations Command released a brief account of his last moments. The April 30, 2004, statement awarded Tillman a posthumous Silver Star for combat valor and described how a section of his Ranger platoon came under attack&hellip.

"It was a stirring tale and fitting eulogy for the Army's most famous volunteer in the war on terrorism, a charismatic former pro football star whose reticence, courage and handsome beret-draped face captured for many Americans the best aspects of the country's post-Sept. 11 character.

"It was also a distorted and incomplete narrative, according to dozens of internal Army documents obtained by The Washington Post that describe Tillman's death by fratricide after a chain of botched communications, a misguided order to divide his platoon over the objection of its leader and undisciplined firing by fellow Rangers.

"The Army's public release made no mention of friendly fire, even though at the time it was issued, investigators in Afghanistan had already taken at least 14 sworn statements from Tillman's platoon members that made clear the true causes of his death.

"But the Army's published account not only withheld all evidence of fratricide, but also exaggerated Tillman's role and stripped his actions of their context. ... The Army's April 30 news release was just one episode in a broader Army effort to manage the uncomfortable facts of Pat Tillman's death, according to internal records and interviews."

Now the Army is going after soldiers who presumably pulled the triggers at the scene. There is no evidence that it is looking at its own high-level cover-up.

"Maybe lying's not a big deal anymore," Tillman’s father told the Post last year. "Pat's dead, and this isn't going to bring him back. But these guys should have been held up to scrutiny, right up the chain of command, and no one has."

More on Tillman and other Iraq and media outrages and controversies in my book, So Wrong for So Long.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Pat Tillman's death (http://bit.ly/cCwHyw ) is an example of an event missing from the #Wikileaks Afghan War Diary http://bit.ly/buPyez