Army's credibility takes 2 hard hits - Tillman's kin, Lynch criticize military's deception
By Aamer Madhani
Copyright © 2007, Chicago Tribune
Published April 25, 2007
WASHINGTON -- In a poignant condemnation of one of the compelling myths of the current wars, the brother of Pat Tillman bitterly accused the U.S. military Tuesday of consciously deceiving the public and the family of the football-star-turned-Army-Ranger to promote a story of heroism that suited its purposes.
Kevin Tillman, the brother of Tillman who served in the same platoon in Afghanistan, told a House committee that the military was going through a particularly rough patch when his brother was killed in a friendly fire incident on April 22, 2004.
"Revealing that Pat's death was a fratricide would have been yet another political disaster in a month of political disasters," Tillman said. "So the truth needed to be suppressed."
The Army portrayed the soldier's killing as the result of a heroic firefight with enemy fighters in the mountains of Afghanistan, and the Silver Star was awarded to Tillman. But it later turned out that Army officials had been aware almost immediately that Tillman was probably killed by fellow GIs. A soldier told lawmakers Tuesday that he had been ordered not to tell Tillman's brother how he had died.
The hearing dealt a double blow to the military's public relations machinery. In addition to testimony in the Tillman case, Jessica Lynch, an Army private captured in Iraq soon after the 2003 invasion, discussed the early military and media accounts depicting her as a "girl Rambo from the hills of West Virginia" who had emptied her gun as enemy soldiers closed in. In fact, she was captured without firing a shot.
Every war has its stories of heroism, and those of Tillman and Lynch have perhaps been the two most dramatic tales of the current campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. They were often told as examples of the bravery and resourcefulness of ordinary Americans in the face of a brutal, callous enemy.
In both cases, the early official accounts have long been challenged as additional facts have come out bit by bit. But the sight of those directly involved, speaking with anger and puzzlement about the inaccuracies of those stories, helped demolish them in a particularly human way.
Lynch said there were countless heroes in the war, but their stories weren't necessarily glamorous. "The truth of war is not always easy," she said. "The truth is always more heroic than the hype."
She added: "The bottom line is the American people are capable of determining their own ideals of heroes and they don't need to be told elaborate lies."
Fear of reprisal
In separate testimony before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, a fellow soldier who was the last to see Tillman alive gave a gripping account about the day when comrades mistakenly killed the former pro football player, who gave up a $3.6 million contract to join the Army.
Spec. Bryan O'Neal said he knew that Tillman, who was posthumously promoted from specialist to corporal, was killed by friendly fire. O'Neal said he told several people in the unit's chain of command, but he did not say anything to the Tillman family out of fear of reprisal.
O'Neal said the battalion commander, Lt. Col. Jeff Bailey, told him not to tell Kevin Tillman that the death was from friendly fire. He added that Bailey told him he would be in trouble if he did so.
"He basically just said, 'Do not let Kevin know. He's probably in a bad place knowing that his brother's dead,'" O'Neal said.
Several senior military officials, politicians and other dignitaries attended Tillman's funeral. At least one, Lt. Gen. Philip Kensinger, who then was the commanding general of the U.S. Army Special Operations Command, was fully aware within days after Tillman's death that friendly fire was a likely cause. But Kensinger failed to let the family know even as he attended the soldier's May 3, 2004, memorial service.
Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.), a member of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said the panel asked Kensinger to testify, but he declined through a lawyer, citing the right not to incriminate himself.
Last month the military concluded in two reports that nine high-ranking Army officers, including four generals, made critical errors in reporting Tillman's death but that there was no criminal wrongdoing in his shooting.
The Army decided last month to allow Tillman to retain the Silver Star, but revised the citation as to the specifics of what happened.
Narrative 'utter fiction'
The Tillman family said the military needed Pat's death to serve as a heroic story when the U.S. military was getting pilloried over bad news out of Iraq.
Kevin Tillman, who has since left the Army, noted that U.S. commanders were locked in fighting with Sunni insurgents in the city of Fallujah, diplomats and U.S. commanders were struggling to win the trust of Iraq's most influential Shiite cleric and the Defense Department was readying itself for the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal to blow up.
Kevin Tillman argued that top officials knew that admitting Tillman died in a fratricide incident would have been disastrous. In the end, the military's cover-up proved to be an even greater blow to the U.S. military's public relations efforts.
"There was one problem with the narrative," Tillman said, referring to the initial account offered by the military. "It was utter fiction. The narrative was meant to deceive the family and more importantly, to deceive the American public."
While three years have passed since Tillman's death, the fallout from the Army's handling of the case continues to tarnish the military as public support for the wars -- particularly the fight in Iraq -- has plummeted.
Mary Tillman, mother of the Tillman brothers, told the panel she was not satisfied with the Defense Department's investigation and believed that high-ranking Bush administration officials, such as former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the then-head of Central Command, Gen. John Abizaid, were likely aware of the circumstances of her son's death.
Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal wrote a memo to Abizaid on April 29 saying it was highly likely that Tillman died from friendly fire and advised that President Bush be made aware. Abizaid, who is now retired, had told investigators he did not receive the memo until 10 to 20 days later.
"We've all been betrayed," Mary Tillman said. "We never thought they would use him the way they did."