WASHINGTON – The brother of Army Ranger Pat Tillman accused the Pentagon and the Bush administration Tuesday of deliberately concealing the circumstances of the former football star’s friendly-fire death in Afghanistan in an attempt to avoid embarrassment.
Speaking publicly for the first time since his brother was killed in Afghanistan three years ago, Kevin Tillman at a congressional hearing accused Army and administration officials of exploiting his brother’s death to shift attention away from the detainee abuses at Abu Ghraib prison, which at the time was about to become a public relations nightmare for the military.
Investigations by the Army, including an inspector general’s report late last month, have not established any conspiracy to cover up the cause of Tillman’s April 2004 death. But top officers, including four generals, have been criticized for failing to tell his family the truth for more than a month afterward, and they could face criminal charges.
Kevin Tillman, who gave up a minor-league baseball career to enlist with his older brother in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks and was nearby the day Pat Tillman was shot by fellow U.S. soldiers, said the military’s early heroic depiction of his brother’s death was “utter fiction” intended to deceive not only a grieving family but also the entire country.
“To our family and friends, it was a devastating loss. To the nation, it was a moment of disorientation. To the military, it was a nightmare,” Kevin Tillman said, his voice wavering with emotion. “But to others within the government, it appears to have been an opportunity.”
Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said he called the hearing – which also included testimony by Pfc. Jessica Lynch – because “the bare minimum we owe our soldiers and their families is the truth.”
In the case of Tillman and Lynch, Waxman said, “the government violated its most basic responsibility.”
The hearing showed how Tillman’s death and the military’s response provoke heated emotion and produce gripping drama three years after the botched Army operation in Afghanistan.
Army Spec. Bryan O’Neal, an eyewitness to Tillman’s death and the last person to see him alive, told lawmakers that one of his superiors instructed him not to tell Tillman’s brother or family about the circumstances of the shooting, even though he knew it was a case of fratricide.
“I was ordered not to tell them,” O’Neal said, adding the order came from Jeff Bailey, then the lieutenant colonel in charge of the platoon. “He made it known that I’d get in trouble” for speaking with the family, O’Neal said.
Lynch, the Army truck driver who was captured in an ambush during the early days of the Iraq war, recounted how the news media repeated “the story of the little girl Rambo from the hills who went down fighting.” She added: “It was not true.”
She said that the story of her capture and a dramatic rescue videotape that was released to the media by U.S. forces may have helped “inspire our troops and rally a nation” but added that the real heroes were her comrades who died during the ambush.
“The bottom line is the American people are capable of determining their own ideals for heroes,” she said. “They don’t need to be told elaborate tales.”