Magazine article Editor & Publisher

The Pat Tillman Case Reaches a Climax: 'They Blew Up Their Poster Boy'

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

The Pat Tillman Case Reaches a Climax: 'They Blew Up Their Poster Boy'

Article excerpt

The results of the belated official military probe of the Pat Tillman killing and cover-up were finally released on Monday. It criticized nine officers, including up to four generals, for badly mishandling information about the "friendly fire" incident but found no criminally negligent behavior in the shooting itself. It also found that the cover-up was not organized or orchestrated.

In other words, it may be a cover-up of a cover-up.

Late Monday, Tillman's family denounced the report, said it continued the distortions, and asked Congress and the press to lead the charge to find more answers. On Tuesday, Tillman's mother Mary asked, "How do you prevent this from happening again unless there's a serious consequence?''

Even while pressing ahead with this protest, it is also vital to look back at why the case stirs such anger and reveals so much about military deceit and (too often) media acceptance of it.

It was The Washington Post that really broke the case wide open in May 2005. Simply stated: the Pentagon lied about the friendly fire incident, even to Tillman's family. Still, there were few calls for apologies to the public and the firing of those responsible. Not many suggested that the Pentagon's word should never be trusted unless backed up by numerous credible sources.

The Post's Josh White that month reported 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 had 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 drew wide coverage, hardly anyone mentioned that they also lied to the public and to the press, which dutifully carried one report after another based on the Pentagon's spin. It had happened many times before, as in the faux Jessica Lynch incident in Iraq. Tillman was killed in a barrage of gunfire from his own men, mistaken for the enemy on a hillside near the Pakistan border. "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 latest military investigation, exposed by the Post earlier in May 2005, "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."

Patrick Tillman Sr., the father -- a lawyer, as it happens -- said he blamed 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," 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. …

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