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"They Used Pat for Public Consumption, Just Like Jessica Lynch": An Interview with Mary Tillman

The official cover-up of football star-turned-soldier Pat Tillman's death by "friendly fire" has led his family on a four-year mission for justice.
 
 
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After the Sept. 11 attacks, football star Pat Tillman left a multimillion-dollar contract with the Arizona Cardinals to join the Army Rangers, wanting to go fight Al-Qaeda. When the former NFL safety was killed in Afghanistan in April 2004, Army officials told his family he died in an enemy ambush. Five weeks later, after Tillman was posthumously awarded the Silver Star, and after Army officials at a nationally televised memorial had told a story of him charging up a hill in pursuit of enemy insurgents, the Army reported that, in fact, Tillman had been shot three times in the head by "friendly fire."

Since discovering that Tillman was killed by friendly fire, his family, led by his mother, Mary, and his brother, Kevin, who served with him in the Army, has been trying to find who was responsible for covering up what happened in Pat's death. After seven investigations, two Congressional hearings, and support from politicians ranging from Democratic California Rep. Mike Honda to Republican presidential candidate John McCain to retired general Wesley Clark, Mary Tillman says no one has been held accountable.

Now, with Narda Zacchino, former deputy editor of the San Francisco Chronicle , she has written a book about Pat's life and her struggle to find out the truth about his death. The title is Boots on the Ground by Dusk: My Tribute to Pat Tillman . AlterNet writer Emily Wilson sat down with her recently in San Francisco to talk about the book.

Emily Wilson: In the book you have a lot of stories about Pat as a toddler, a kid and a teenager. Why did you choose to include those?

Mary Tillman: I included the stories about Pat growing up because I felt that for the reader to care about what happened to him, they had to have a little bit of an understanding about who he was. I felt the media coverage sort of turned him into a caricature. I wanted to present him as a human being.

Emily Wilson: In four years, you have had seven investigations and two Congressional hearings. What gives you the will to keep going with this?

Mary Tillman: I think there is so much that is disturbing in the documents, the fact that they lied to us to begin with -- and you know, when you are lied to and you see discrepancies, it just makes you more concerned and confused and outraged. And at every turn we just kept finding new pieces of information that made it seem there was huge deception and cover-up. So I feel it's very important to find out who's accountable for the cover-up.

At this point I think most of the evidence is gone. It's been four years, and these soldiers (the ones who shot Tillman) are young, they were in a stress situation. I think it's horrific they were so negligent, but I think if there's some kind of consequence, it should have happened early on. I think putting them through that at this point -- I don't think Pat would have wanted that. But for these men in positions of authority and power to willfully deceive the public and cover up and use a young man for propaganda is outrageous, and I think they should be held accountable.

Emily Wilson: What has been the hardest thing about dealing with the Army?

Mary Tillman: I think the hardest thing is the officers we've been dealing with. They're very polished, they're very polite, they're very respectful. I mean their outward behavior is very respectful, but they're clearly lying. And it took us awhile to realize that this honest, earnest facade was just that; a facade. So it's been very hard to realize that these people who seem so genuine are not.

Emily Wilson: On "60 Minutes," Katie Couric asked the new secretary of the Army, Pete Geren: Who altered eyewitness statements to say Pat was killed by the enemy? He says this question can't be completely answered. What is your response to that?

Mary Tillman: In the Congressional hearing, they kept saying they couldn't know who falsified the Silver Star narrative, that they couldn't find out who was responsible for the cover-up. It's impossible, they say, to find this information out. And I just don't really believe that. I think there's a way. I just think they just don't want to trace it because it would lead to people they don't want uncovered.

Emily Wilson: You mention all the inconsistencies you have been told over the past four years. What were some of the most glaring?

Mary Tillman: Well, the original story we got with the fratricide was that the light conditions were fairly good, but that Pat and the Afghan were about 150 meters away. We were also told the AMF (Afghanistan Military Forces) soldier, the friendly Afghan who was working with the soldiers, was standing when he was shot by a sergeant who was out of the vehicle.

But then when we went to Fort Lewis for the official briefing we were told actually it was very dark, and that Pat and the Afghan soldier were much closer, and all of a sudden the soldier was not out of the vehicle and the Afghan soldier was in a prone position (lying face down on the ground). Well, the Afghan soldier was shot in the chest six to eight times -- how do you shoot someone in the chest if they're in a prone position and he's shooting over their heads on the high ground? He would have to be a contortionist. That didn't make any sense. So we knew there was some weird thing going on with the stories.

After that, when we go the autopsy and the field hospital report, they said CPR was performed on Pat, he was transferred to the ICU for continued CPR. Well, Pat essentially had no brain and he'd been bagged as KIA (Killed in Action), and he had been dead for two hours before he got to the field hospital, so the idea they would perform CPR makes absolutely no sense. They said, well, it was busy in the hospital, we didn't have a morgue, we just wrote that down. But it makes absolutely no sense.

They burned his uniform, which clearly, from the testimony, had evidence of him being hit with U.S. rounds, so what I think they did is they destroyed the uniform, making it appear as though they tried to save him. So the CPR and the transfer to ICU made it look as though he came in and they made an attempt to save him, which would give them an excuse for taking off his uniform and destroying it, since there is a protocol that all fallen soldiers should be returned to Rockville, Md., with their uniform and equipment -- especially if they suspect fratricide, suicide or execution. Clearly, Pat was a suspected fratricide from the very beginning.

Emily Wilson: You say you think the cover-up went very high up and you think it might even go to former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

Mary Tillman: Yes, I'm of the belief it went as high as Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld had written a letter to Pat thanking him for enlisting, so clearly he was in his radar, and then we learned at the second Congressional hearing in August that he had left his snowflake memo, which is basically a memo he dropped on someone's desk because he doesn't like to use e-mail according to everything you read. This said Pat was a very special person and they should keep an eye on him. So it would really defy reason to think the generals and the officers in the upper chain of command who clearly knew within 24 to 48 hours it was a suspected fratricide -- it would be unreasonable to think they wouldn't tell Rumsfeld.

That month was such a bad month for the military and the administration. The Abu Ghraib prison scandal broke that month, the same week Pat died, Fallujah was in chaos, the president's approval rating was very poor, and the most deaths in the war in Iraq were in April 2004 -- so to top that off with Pat's death being a friendly fire, if they did not tell Rumsfield, heads would have rolled. He is noted to be a micromanager, and he clearly liked having his hands on the military, especially special ops and black ops.

Emily Wilson: You say you don't think Pat's death was murder, but rather gross negligence. What are some examples of that?

Mary Tillman: First, the order that was given to split the troops was very irresponsible. This platoon was basically supposed to be checking boxes, making sure there were no insurgents in these villages. This platoon had trouble with a Humvee and they kept trying to repair it, and they couldn't, and they had to hire a local flatbed truck driver. They asked this truck driver to haul it, and the whole idea was they wanted one of the convoys to take the Humvee to get picked up by a wrecker and the other part of the convoy would go through the canyon they were supposed to be searching and then the two convoys would meet up later.

Well, the platoon leader was very disturbed by that. He was worried that because of the terrain they would lose communication. He vehemently opposed the order to split and also the order to move during daylight hours because protocol was such that they weren't supposed to do that. … This platoon leader was the first captain of his class at West Point, which is essentially the valedictorian, and he was a very bright young man. The fact that they disregarded his protest is very disturbing and questionable. A commander told us it's highly unusual the officer on the ground is disregarded like that; usually he has the last word.

We were also told the soldiers in the vehicle who killed Pat and the AMF ... were in fog of war, but from the testimonies it's clear that they were more in a lust to fight. They had already come out of the canyon, the ambush zone. Clearly they were pumped up, and they had been scared, I'm sure. I have to give them some leeway there. But no one was firing at them. They admit that in their testimonies. They said they saw waving hands, yet they fired anyway. They were firing so irresponsibly that they could have killed any number of soldiers on that ridgeline. They were shooting at buildings, which is clearly against the rules of engagement. They were shooting so irresponsibly they nearly shot the soldiers in the vehicle coming out of the canyon behind them. We feel this was an act of gross negligence that should have been addressed much more seriously, and it was not because I think it would have been too embarrassing for the Rangers.

Emily Wilson: It seems that you don't want to be considered part of the antiwar movement and to be associated with Cindy Sheehan or Code Pink.

Mary Tillman: I admire and I respect their goal, but I don't respect their tactics. I guess I should explain that a bit. At the congressional hearing, Code Pink was there. I thought they were very much a distraction and almost like they were causing a lack of focus on the issue. With Cindy Sheehan, I do admire her courage and perseverance, but some of her actions are a little too militant, and if you are preaching to the choir, that's fine, but if you're trying to get other people in your corner, it just doesn't seem to work. And it was so crucial to me to get Pat's story out that I had to be careful associating with certain factions.

Emily Wilson: What is it you would like the Army to do?

Mary Tillman:I would hope that someone of authority and power would try to find out who was responsible for the cover-up, and they should be held accountable.

One of the reasons we didn't go through the legal system was because we didn't want any monetary compensation, and also we wanted to make the system work. There are checks and balances to take care of these abuses of power. These soldiers are going and fighting for our system, and they hope the system works, and we hoped it would work for Pat. We had really high hopes last April, because they deemed there was a cover-up and we were really thinking the system is working, and then it just sort of fizzled out. So that was disappointing.

Emily Wilson: You have said that this isn't about your family, that this is about the public. Could you explain that?

Mary Tillman: Well, sure we would like to know what happened to Pat, but this is a public deception.

The reason they used Pat is so they could use him for public consumption, just like Jessica Lynch. Pat was used to dupe the public, which is outrageous. And if people don't see that, then I think it speaks to how numb we are to the deceit and deception and lies we have been subjected to the last eight years. This is a young man who gave up a tremendous amount to serve his country, and he was killed, and they tried to use him to their benefit, to their advantage. They lied to us and in lying to us made us feel like we were losing our minds, because the documents we were receiving didn't make sense. I mean, it's crazy-making behavior, and it's cruel and it's abusive. And also, Pat is not an isolated case. I think definitely the public should be outraged.

Click here to buy Mary Tillman's book.

Emily Wilson is a freelance writer and teaches basic skills at City College of San Francisco.

 
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