Pat Tillman's Mother on His Friendly-Fire Death

When Army Cpl. Pat Tillman was killed in Afghanistan on April 22, 2004, the story of the former NFL star who walked away from his pro career to sacrifice his life for his country became a legend. Tillman, who played for the Arizona Cardinals, and his younger brother Kevin, a minor league baseball player, enlisted in the Army after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and joined the elite Rangers. The Tillman brothers were serving in the same platoon in Afghanistan the day Pat was killed during what was reported to be an ambush near the Afghan-Pakistan border. At first the Army reported that Tillman, the highest-profile soldier to die in the war, had been killed while leading the charge against enemy fighters. He was posthumously awarded the Silver Star, one of the nation's highest combat awards. Within weeks, though, the Army reported that Tillman had in fact been killed by friendly fire, the result of a disastrous decision to split his unit into two convoys so that one could tow a disabled Humvee through a treacherous canyon road before dark and the other could proceed to its mission in a village suspected of harboring Taliban fighters. The convoys became separated and one was ambushed, causing soldiers to start firing. Tillman was shot through the head by fellow rangers as he tried to approach their position to help.

Since his death, Tillman's family in San Jose, Calif., led by Kevin and his mother Mary, have accused the Pentagon of covering up the facts after spending years piecing together the events that led to Tillman's death and the delay in reporting the friendly fire. A series of Army investigations revealed that top officers, including a three-star general, misled Tillman's family and the public about the circumstances of Tillman's killing. During a congressional hearing last August, former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld denied a cover-up but said that he felt "terrible" that accurate reporting about Tillman's death "was handled in a way that was unsatisfactory and that caused a great deal of heartache for the Tillman family."

This week Mary Tillman publishes her story, "Boots on the Ground by Dusk: My Tribute to Pat Tillman." She spoke to NEWSWEEK's Karen Breslau in San Francisco. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: What remain the biggest unanswered questions for you in Pat's death?
Mary Tillman:
I want to know who was the one responsible for the cover-up, because I believe that it went much higher up than a three-star general not telling us. I think the administration had something to do with the cover-up … One of the reasons I believe [that] is [because] Rumsfeld wrote a letter to Pat after he enlisted. This was a brief letter thanking him for enlisting, for leaving the NFL and serving his country. But Pat was on his radar, obviously. The other thing was that Rumsfeld sent a memo to the then-deputy secretary of the army, now Secretary of the Army Pete Geren, indicating that Pat was a very special young man. The language Rumsfeld used was that Pat was "world class" and that they should keep an eye on him. I'm not sure what that meant, but writing something like that, writing a letter to Pat, obviously he's going to be concerned when he's killed. He's going to want to know what happened.

One memo you got hold of came from Gen. Stanley McChrystal, head of the Army's special forces, warning top officials that it was likely that Pat was killed as a result of friendly fire and that he was concerned that President Bush and the secretary of the army might mention his heroic death in upcoming speeches. It ends this way: "I felt it was essential that you received this information as soon as we detected it in order to preclude any unknowing statements by our country's leaders which might cause public embarrassment if the circumstances of Corporal Tillman's death become public."
There were three e-mails that we have seen where Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and various speechwriters are trying to get information about Pat's death, exactly what happened. And it's interesting that within a day that memo is sent to top generals—[Gen. John] Abizaid was the highest general at the time—to notify the president and the secretary of the army to be aware that Pat was killed by friendly fire so they don't say anything unseemly or inappropriate at the White House Correspondents' dinner that took place that weekend.

Your family wasn't notified for more than a month that Pat was killed by friendly fire?
My son Kevin, who served in Pat's platoon, was notified before we were. Kevin was going to come home and tell the family on Memorial Day weekend, a month after Pat's death, and the Arizona Republic somehow got wind of this, and they called the house. And then when I called [the reporter] back, he asked what I thought about the latest news, and I said, "I don't know what you're talking about," and then he told me. A reporter told me my son was killed by friendly fire.

It later emerged through various military reports and investigations that fratricide was the suspicion, really, within hours of Pat's death.
Well, the young man next to him, Pvt. Bryan O'Neal, knew. There were soldiers on the ridgeline behind Pat, they were pretty sure it was this vehicle behind him that killed Pat because there was no enemy fire at that point. And of course one of the colonels wanted us to believe that it was like "Saving Private Ryan." That's what he wanted to use as a comparison.

In early May 2004 a huge memorial was held for Pat, attended by thousands of people, televised nationally. Do you think that getting through that memorial service with the story that Pat had been killed by the enemy while leading a charge was part of the reason the Army didn't notify your family?
Well, I think so. Originally the casualty report indicated that Pat got out of a vehicle, he was shot in the head, and that he died an hour later in a field hospital. The casualty report stipulates that he was killed by enemy fire. The story was so contrived, it was like it sounds like something out of a movie. And that was kind of disturbing to us. And not that Pat wasn't heroic—he was extremely brave, physically and morally—but there was still something eerie about that, just the way that it played out. It sounded like something out of a movie.

When did you start to suspect that something wasn't right in the version your family was originally given in Pat's death?
I don't think we suspected anything was amiss. We did kind of feel like the story was awfully convenient for the military, but nobody really said it out loud. When we learned about the fratricide we were very disturbed by it, of course, but that happens in war, so it's not like we just came unglued. It's just that when we learned about so many blunders that took place, that was very aggravating … The humvee broke down, it had to be towed, the platoon was split into two serials—when you usually don't split your troops, especially when you're in a dangerous place when you could lose communication. Pat was in the lead serial, Kevin was in the second serial, and the two serials got separated and one ended up firing on the other. The tragedy happened in large part because the two serials couldn't communicate with each other. That's one of the reasons during the Civil War you weren't supposed to split your troops if you're going to lose contact with them. So this was a very crucial error.

You write that the timing, the context of the war in Iraq in April 2004 was important to the way that Pat's death was handled, even though he was killed in Afghanistan.
That was the week the Abu Ghraib [prisoner abuse] scandal was breaking in the mainstream media, and in Fallujah the situation there was not good. [Also,] the most casualties of the war thus far were in the month of April 2004. All of that was atrocious for the military and for the administration—Bush's approval ratings were very poor at that time. The other interesting thing was that that was the same week that the photographer took the pictures of the coffins coming out of the plane, the flag-draped coffins, and there was all this criticism and there was all this uproar over that, yet the administration and the military didn't have a problem taking Pat's death and magnifying the story and embellishing the story for that because it served their purposes.

What is it like for families of fallen soldiers who didn't have Pat Tillman's celebrity and whose cases didn't pose the colossal embarrassment that your son's does to the military?
This grandiose narrative wasn't created for our benefit or for the benefit of Pat's legacy; this was created to dupe the public, and that's crucial. And that's what I think a lot of people don't understand. Because there are people that say, "Oh, why doesn't she just be quiet? Why does she keep pushing this? The Army's already apologized …" I mean, the point is that no, they haven't apologized. They've apologized for making mistakes. They have not admitted that this was an actual attempt to deceive the public.

Congressman Tom Davis, a Republican member of the House committee that investigated Pat's death, said that the truth falls somewhere between screwup and cover-up. Do you buy that?
Yeah, I think there's a combination of screwup and cover-up. At every path along the way every protocol was broken, and every mistake they could have made they made. It's just like the 9/11 report: "Oh, we were negligent, we were negligent, we were negligent." Yet there's no accountability ever.

What do you want at this point from the Army? From the administration?
The only thing that they could do is admit that they did this on purpose, that they tried to use him as a political tool. I don't think that that's going to happen. I think they dug a hole too deep and they're too narcissistic to admit it. And I don't really expect anything anymore, because I don't think anyone's going to hold them accountable. I believe that the hearing in August when Rumsfeld and the panel of generals were up there, I think it was clear they were lying.

You uncovered one internal document written by a senior Army officer implying that your family was unable to accept your son's death because you're atheists.
He goes on this diatribe in the documents about it … I think that he thinks we're a big problem because we won't let this go and it's making the Rangers look bad, and I think that he believes that because we are atheists we can't put Pat to rest and we have to keep stirring up this problem, which is absolutely inaccurate. What people don't know is that we're grieving. We've lost this tremendous human being in our family, but because of the nature of this person we're certainly not these down-in-the-mouth people. We're living out life. I have a whole other side to my life. I've invested a lot of my energy into this, but I am not a humorless, morbid, crying person. And I am very spiritual. Pat was very spiritual, not religious. But they have this whole misunderstanding about this. And I don't care if you worship a grub on the ground, you're going to want to know what happened to your loved one in these kinds of circumstances. What he said, it was very disgusting, but at one level it's laughable.

One of the points you raise is that your son was more faithful to the Army than you think the Army was to him. Is there any way to repair that?
It's not just about our family—otherwise I don't even know if I would bother with all of this. [Pat's] intentions were good. And, you know, soldiers expect that they could die. They expect that they could be wounded severely. They expect that they could be mentally or emotionally damaged. These things they go in knowing, and if they don't know it immediately when they enlist, they figure it out pretty fast. But they don't expect their government to treat them and their families with disrespect when they die.