WASHINGTON – An Army Ranger who was with Pat Tillman when the former football star died by friendly fire said Tuesday he was told by a higher-up to conceal that information from Tillman's brother.
"I was ordered not to tell him," U.S. Army Spc. Bryan O'Neal told the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
He said he was given the order by then-Lt. Col. Jeff Bailey, the battalion commander who oversaw Tillman's platoon.
Pat Tillman's brother Kevin was in a convoy behind his brother when the incident happened, but didn't see it. O'Neal said Bailey told him specifically not to tell Kevin Tillman that the death was friendly fire rather than heroic engagement with the enemy.
"He basically just said, sir, that uh, 'Do not let Kevin know, he's probably in a bad place knowing that his brother's dead,"' O'Neal said. He added that Bailey made clear he would "get in trouble" if he told.
Kevin Tillman was not in the hearing room when O'Neal spoke.
In earlier testimony, Kevin Tillman accused the military of "intentional falsehoods" and "deliberate and careful misrepresentations" in portraying Pat Tillman's death in Afghanistan as the result of heroic engagement with the enemy instead of friendly fire.
"We believe this narrative was intended to deceive the family but more importantly the American public," Kevin Tillman told a House Government Reform and Oversight Committee hearing. "Pat's death was clearly the result of fratricide," he said, contending that the military's misstatements amounted to "fraud."
"Revealing that Pat's death was a fratricide would have been yet another political disaster in a month of political disasters ... so the truth needed to be suppressed," Tillman said.
The committee's chairman, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., accused the government of inventing "sensational details and stories" about Pat Tillman's death and the 2003 rescue of Jessica Lynch, perhaps the most famous victims of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.
"The government violated its most basic responsibility," said Waxman.
Lynch, then an Army private, was badly injured when her convoy was ambushed in Iraq. She was subsequently rescued by American troops from an Iraqi hospital but the tale of her ambush was changed into a story of heroism on her part.
Still hampered by her injuries, Lynch walked slowly to the witness table and took a seat alongside Tillman's family members.
"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," Lynch said.
Kevin Tillman said his family has sought for years to get at the truth, and have now concluded that they were "being actively thwarted by powers that are more interested in protecting a narrative than getting at the truth and seeing justice is served."
Lawmakers questioned how high up the chain of command the information about Tillman's friendly fire death went, and whether anyone in the White House knew before Tillman's family.
"How high up did this go?" asked Waxman.
Pat Tillman's mother, Mary Tillman, said she believed former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld must have known. "The fact that he would have died by friendly fire and no one told Rumsfeld is ludicrous," she said.
Tillman was killed on April 22, 2004, after his Army Ranger comrades were ambushed in eastern Afghanistan. Rangers in a convoy trailing Tillman's group had just emerged from a canyon where they had been fired upon. They saw Tillman and mistakenly fired on him.
Though dozens of soldiers knew quickly that Tillman had been killed by his fellow troops, the Army said initially that he was killed by enemy gunfire when he led his team to help another group of ambushed soldiers. The family was not told what really happened until May 29, 2004, a delay the Army blamed on procedural mistakes.
In questioning what the White House knew, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., cited a memo written by a top general seven days after Tillman's death warning it was "highly possible" the Army Ranger was killed by friendly fire and making clear his warning should be conveyed to the president. President Bush made no reference to the way Tillman died in a speech delivered two days after the memo was written.
A White House spokesman has said there's no indication Bush received the warning in the memo written April 29, 2004 by then-Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal to Gen. John Abizaid, head of Central Command.
"It's a little disingenuous to think the administration didn't know," Kevin Tillman told the committee. "That's kind of what we hoped you guys would get involved with and take a look," he said.
Mary Tillman told the committee that family members were "absolutely appalled" upon realizing the extent to which they were misled.
"We've all been betrayed ... We never thought they would use him the way they did," she said.
The Tillman family has made similar accusations against the administration and the military before, but has generally shied away from news media attention. The family had never previously appeared together and summarized their criticism and questions in such a public, comprehensive way.
"We shouldn't be allowed to have smoke screens thrown in our face," Mary Tillman said. "You're diminishing their true heroism to write these glorious tales. It's really a disservice to the nation."
"Our family will never be satisfied. We'll never have Pat back," she said. "Something really awful happened. It's your job to find out what happened to him. That's really important."
Last month the military concluded in a pair of 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.
Tillman's death received worldwide attention because he had walked away from a huge contract with the NFL's Arizona Cardinals to enlist in the Army after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.