In 2000, Pat Tillman, safety for the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals, turned down a $9 million contract offer from the St. Louis Rams, in order to remain in Arizona for a mere $500,000. Tillman valued team loyalty, even though his team wasn’t all that good.
Most of us now know what happened next. After Sept. 11, 2001, Tillman felt a different sense of duty. After watching the World Trade Center towers fall, Tillman left football to join the Army Rangers. His brother, a minor league baseball player at the time, joined him. In April 2004, Tillman was killed in Afghanistan en route to a sweep of a small town for Al Qaeda operatives.
The Washington Post and San Francisco Chronicle have since pored over thousands of Pentagon documents pertaining to Tillman’s death. Two themes have emerged from those documents:
The first theme is that Tillman cast an enormous shadow. Far from a footballing, soldiering brute, he was a curious and independent thinker, a man who embraced the challenges of leadership but shied away from fame and praise. And he was, of course, a guy who — if you’ll pardon the cliché — risked and paid the ultimate sacrifice for his country.
The second theme to emerge from Tillman’s death is that his country probably didn’t deserve him. At every turn, the U.S. military has exploited, desecrated, and, ultimately, turned its back on Tillman’s heroism. The Pentagon has since closed its doors to Tillman’s family, sharing information about his death only when compelled to do so by members of the media, or by the Tillman family’s newfound allies in Congress.
We now know that Tillman died in friendly fire, shot accidentally by members of his own platoon. Soldiers interviewed in subsequent investigations have since testified that it was apparent to everyone involved that Tillman died from friendly fire the moment he was taken off the battlefield. A series of serious errors by Army commanders and Tillman’s fellow soldiers — none of them by Tillman himself — led to his unnecessary death. These events were tragic, but they certainly don’t reflect poorly on Tillman, his bravery, or his memory.
It’s also now clear that U.S. Army brass knew early on how Tillman died, but allowed alternative histories to permeate the media and sink in with Tillman’s friends and family for weeks. They even hid the truth from Tillman’s brother, who was in the same platoon, but didn’t witness Tillman’s death. He was immediately flown back to the U.S. with Tillman’s body.
Tillman’s public memorial service, held on May 3, 2004, took place a day after Army Secretary Les Brownlee was officially told of Tillman’s fratricide. There, Tillman was posthumously awarded a Silver Star in which the Army described battlefield events that clearly never happened. It wasn’t until May 28 that the Army told the Tillmans the real circumstances surrounding Pat’s death.
The Post reports that investigations documents show this decision was not based on a sudden desire to release the truth, but because many Army Rangers would be returning over Memorial Day, and they could no longer hold fast to the Army’s version of the story.
A subsequent investigation into the cover-up of Tillman’s death found “gross negligence” among commanders of and soldiers in Tillman’s platoon, and called for stern punishments. But here it gets odder: The officer who issued that report was quickly replaced by a higher-ranking officer.
The Chronicle has since discovered that since the original report was issued, soldiers and commanders were allowed to go back and change their testimony. The subsequent report is more reluctant to place blame, and calls for less severe punishment. More disturbing, the commanding officer who gave an ill-considered order to break up Tillman’s platoon — which the original report determined to be a key mistake leading to his death — was not only given an opportunity to revise his testimony to the first investigator, he was given immunity, and was allowed to disburse punishment to those below him.
One of those punished, Tillman’s platoon leader, had correctly protested the commanding officer’s order. Tillman’s platoon leader, who took shrapnel to the face during the incident, was subsequently dismissed from the Rangers.
So what’s going on here? Why would the Pentagon and Army brass cover up Tillman’s friendly fire death? The answer may be that the Pentagon had too much invested in Tillman to concede that its own mistakes led to his death. Tillman’s decision to eschew the life of a professional athlete for a tour in the Army was a public relations dream for the military, and they treated it as such. This despite the fact that Tillman specifically asked that the military not make a spectacle of him (Tillman shunned requests for fawning interviews and fluffy media profiles).
It would have been tough for the military to concede its own ineptitude caused the death of the war on terror’s poster soldier in any setting. But just days after Tillman’s death, the Abu Ghraib scandal broke. The military was in desperate need of some good news. Recycling Tillman’s selfless bravery put torture stories on the backburner for at least a news cycle or two.
What’s tragic is that the military’s duplicity in all of this has buried the better story — what a remarkable man Tillman was. Tillman, we’ve since learned from media interviews with friends, family, and fellow soldiers, was a thinker. He defied easy classification. He was a poet, kept a journal (which vanished after his death), and subscribed to the Economist. He admired Winston Churchill, but was also interested in anti-war academic Noam Chomsky. He read Emerson and Thoreau. He wasn’t religious, but had read the Bible, the Koran, and the book of Mormon. He brought along a portable library of classic novels for his platoon pals to read.
Perhaps most interestingly, Tillman opposed the war in Iraq. He’d told platoon mates he thought the war was “illegal,” and a distraction from the war on Al Qaeda, but fought in Iraq anyway, owing to a sense of duty.
We lost a complicated, interesting, fascinating guy 18 months ago, a guy who exhibited the kind of critical thinking that seems to be in short supply among the men who commanded him. They, and we, owe Tillman a lot. Truth and accountability would be a good start.
Radley Balko maintains the The Agitator weblog.