Wednesday, May 4, 2005

Friendly Fire

This is tragic on so many levels.

The first Army investigator who looked into the death of former NFL player Pat Tillman in Afghanistan last year found within days that he was killed by his fellow Rangers in an act of “gross negligence,” but Army officials decided not to inform Tillman’s family or the public until weeks after a nationally televised memorial service.

A new Army report on the death shows that top Army officials, including the theater commander, Gen. John P. Abizaid, were told that Tillman’s death was fratricide days before the service.

Soldiers on the scene said they were immediately sure Tillman was killed by a barrage of American bullets as he took shelter behind a large boulder during a twilight firefight along a narrow canyon road near the Pakistani border, according to nearly 2,000 pages of interview transcripts and investigative reports obtained by The Washington Post.

The documents also show that officers made erroneous initial reports that Tillman was killed by enemy fire, destroyed critical evidence and initially concealed the truth from Tillman’s brother, also an Army Ranger, who was near the attack on April 22, 2004, but did not witness it.

Brig. Gen. Gary M. Jones prepared the report in response to questions from Tillman’s family and from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz). Jones concluded that there was no official reluctance to report the truth but that “nothing has contributed more to an atmosphere of suspicion by the family than the failure to tell the family that Cpl. Pat Tillman’s death was the result of suspected friendly fire, as soon as that information became known within military channels.”

[…]

Tillman’s death was an enormous blow to the image of the Army and the Special Forces because of his storybook personal narrative. Tillman turned down a multimillion-dollar football contract with the Arizona Cardinals to enlist in the Army after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He and his brother joined the elite Army Rangers and deployed to Iraq and later Afghanistan, hunting the Taliban and al Qaeda through mountainous terrain.

[…]

The first report about Tillman’s death within Army channels — sent at 4:40 p.m. April 22 — said that Tillman died in a medical treatment facility after his vehicle came under direct and indirect fire, attributing the gunshot wounds he received to “enemy forces.” An investigation was immediately launched, and several documents show that the local chain of command was largely convinced it was fratricide from the beginning.

The next day, Tillman’s Ranger body armor was burned because it was covered in blood and was considered a “biohazard.” His uniform was also burned. Jones noted that this amounted to the destruction of evidence.

Soldiers reported they burned the evidence because “we knew at the time, based on taking the pictures and walking around it it was a fratricide. . . . We knew in our hearts what had happened, and we weren’t going to lie about it. So we weren’t thinking about proof or anything.”

An initial investigation found fratricide just days later. Top commanders within the U.S. Central Command, including Abizaid, were notified by April 29 — four days before Tillman’s memorial service in San Jose, where he was given a posthumous Silver Star Award. Jones concluded that Tillman, who was bravely leading his fire team into battle, was given the award based on what he intended to do.

The family learned about Tillman’s fratricide over Memorial Day weekend, several weeks later. Commanders felt they could not hold on to the old version because the Rangers were returning home and “everybody knows the story,” the documents show.

Seven soldiers were given administrative reprimands for their actions, the most serious of which were for dereliction of duty and failing to exercise sound judgment and fire discipline in combat operations. Jones did not address the appropriateness of the punishments.

It’s bad enough that Pat Tillman died, it’s bad enough that he was killed accidentally by his own side, but to keep the truth from his family… that’s not just tragic, it’s just plain cold.