Former NFL player Pat Tillman's family is lashing out against the Army, saying that the military's investigations into Tillman's friendly-fire death in Afghanistan last year were a sham and that Army efforts to cover up the truth have made it harder for them to deal with their loss.
More than a year after their son was shot several times by his fellow Army Rangers on a craggy hillside near the Pakistani border, 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. They say the Army's "lies" about what happened have made them suspicious, and that they are certain they will never get the full story.
‘A sign of disrespect’
"Pat had high ideals about the country; that's why he did what he did," Mary Tillman said in her first lengthy interview since her son's death. "The military let him down. The administration let him down. It was a sign of disrespect. The fact that he was the ultimate team player and he watched his own men kill him is absolutely heartbreaking and tragic. The fact that they lied about it afterward is disgusting."
Tillman, a popular player for the Arizona Cardinals, gave up stardom in the National Football League after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to join the Army Rangers with his brother. After a tour in Iraq, their unit was sent to Afghanistan in spring 2004, where they were to hunt for the Taliban and Osama bin Laden. Shortly after arriving in the mountains to fight, Tillman was killed in a barrage of gunfire from his own men, mistaken for the enemy as he got into position to defend them.
Immediately, 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. After a public memorial service, at which Tillman received the Silver Star, the Army told Tillman's family what had really happened, that he had been killed by his own men.
Death marked by confusion, disarray
In separate interviews in their home town of San Jose and by telephone, Tillman's parents, who are divorced, spoke about their ordeal with the Army with simmering frustration and anger. A series of military investigations have offered differing accounts of Tillman's death. The most recent report revealed more deeply the confusion and disarray surrounding the mission he was on, and more clearly showed that the family had been kept in the dark about details of his death.
The latest investigation, written about by The Washington Post earlier this month, 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.
That information was slow to make it back to the United States, the report said, and Army officials here were unaware that his death on April 22, 2004, was fratricide when they notified the family that Tillman had been shot.
Over the next 10 days, however, top-ranking Army officials — including the theater commander, Army Gen. John P. Abizaid — were told of the reports that Tillman had been killed by his own men, the investigation said. But the Army waited until a formal investigation was finished before telling the family — which was weeks after a nationally televised memorial service that honored Tillman on May 3, 2004.
‘They blew up their poster boy’
Patrick Tillman Sr., a San Jose lawyer, said he is furious about what he found in the volumes of witness statements and investigative documents the Army has given to the family. He decried what he calls a "botched homicide investigation" and blames high-ranking Army officers for presenting "outright lies" to the family and to the public.
"After it happened, all the people in positions of authority went out of their way to script this," Patrick Tillman said. "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."
Army expresses ‘heartfelt sorrow’
Army spokesmen maintain that the Army has done everything it can to keep the family informed about the investigation, offering to answer relatives' questions and going back to them as investigators gathered more information.
Army officials said Friday that the Army "reaffirms its heartfelt sorrow to the Tillman family and all families who have lost loved ones during this war." Brig. Gen. Vincent K. Brooks, an Army spokesman, said the Army acts with compassion and heartfelt commitment when informing grieving families, often a painful duty.
"In the case of the death of Corporal Patrick Tillman, the Army made mistakes in reporting the circumstances of his death to the family," Brooks said. "For these, we apologize. We cannot undo those early mistakes."
Brooks said the Army has "actively and directly" informed the Tillman family regarding investigations into his death and has dedicated a team of soldiers and civilians to answering the family's questions through phone calls and personal meetings while ensuring the family "was as well informed as they could be."
‘You can never put it to rest’
Mary Tillman keeps her son's wedding album in the living room of the house where he grew up, and his Arizona State University football jersey, still dirty from the 1997 Rose Bowl game, hangs in a nearby closet. With each new version of events, her mind swirls with new theories about what really happened and why. She questions how an elite Army unit could gun down its most recognizable member at such close range. She dwells on distances and boulders and piles of documents and the words of frenzied men.
"It makes you feel like you're losing your mind in a way," she said. "You imagine things. When you don't know the truth, certain details can be blown out of proportion. The truth may be painful, but it's the truth. You start to contrive all these scenarios that could have taken place because they just kept lying. If you feel you're being lied to, you can never put it to rest."
Patrick Tillman Sr. believes he will never get the truth, and he says he is resigned to that now. But he wants everyone in the chain of command, from Tillman's direct supervisors to the one-star general who conducted the latest investigation, to face discipline for "dishonorable acts." He also said the soldiers who killed his son have not been adequately punished.
"Maybe lying's not a big deal anymore," he said. "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."
Not just any soldier
That their son was famous opened up the situation to problems, the Tillmans say, in part because of the devastating public relations loss his death represented for the military. Mary Tillman says the government used her son for weeks after his death, perpetuating an untrue story to capitalize on his altruism — just as the Abu Ghraib prison scandal was erupting publicly. 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. She again felt as though her son was being used, something he never would have wanted.
"Every day is sort of emotional," Mary Tillman said. "It just keeps slapping me in the face. To find that he was killed in this debacle — everything that could have gone wrong did — it's so much harder to take. We should not have been subjected to all of this. This lie was to cover their image. I think there's a lot more yet that we don't even know, or they wouldn't still be covering their tails.
"If this is what happens when someone high profile dies, I can only imagine what happens with everyone else."