The parents of former ASU and Arizona Cardinals star Pat Tillman are lashing out against the Army, saying the military’s investigations into Tillman’s friendly-fire death in Afghanistan last year were a sham and that Army efforts to cover up the truth have made it harder for them to deal with their loss.
More than a year after their son was shot several times by his fellow Army Rangers on a craggy hillside near the Pakistani border, 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.
They say the Army’s "lies" about what happened have made them suspicious, and they are certain they will never get the full story.
"Pat had high ideals about the country; that’s why he did what he did," Mary Tillman said in her first lengthy interview since her son’s death.
"The military let him down. The administration let him down. It was a sign of disrespect. The fact that he was the ultimate team player and he watched his own men kill him is absolutely heartbreaking and tragic. The fact that they lied about it afterward is disgusting," she said.
Tillman, a popular player for the Cardinals and Arizona State University Sun Devils, gave up stardom in the NFL after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to join the Army Rangers with his brother.
After a tour in Iraq, their unit was sent to Afghanistan in spring 2004, where they were to hunt for the Taliban and Osama bin Laden.
Shortly after arriving in the mountains to fight, Tillman was killed in a barrage of gunfire from his own men, mistaken for the enemy as he got into position to defend them.
Immediately, 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.
After a public memorial service, at which Tillman received the Silver Star, the Army told Tillman’s family what had really happened, that he had been killed by his own men.
In separate interviews in their home town of San Jose, Calif., and by telephone, Tillman’s parents, who are divorced, spoke about their ordeal with the Army with simmering frustration and anger.
A series of military investigations has offered differing accounts of Tillman’s death. The most recent report revealed more deeply the confusion and disarray surrounding the mission he was on, and more clearly showed that the family had been kept in the dark about details of his death.
The latest investigation, written about by The Washington Post earlier this month, showed that soldiers in Afghanistan knew almost immediately that they had killed Tillman by mistake in what they believed was a firefight with the enemy on a tight canyon road. The investigation also revealed soldiers later burned Tillman’s uniform and body armor.
That information was slow to make it back to the United States, the report said, and Army officials here were unaware that his death on April 22, 2004, was fratricide when they notified the family that Tillman had been shot.
Over the next 10 days, however, top-ranking Army officials — including the theater commander, Army Gen. John Abizaid — were told of the reports that Tillman had been killed by his own men, the investigation said.
The Army waited until a formal investigation was finished before telling the family — weeks after a nationally televised memorial service honored Tillman on May 3, 2004.
Patrick Tillman Sr., a San Jose lawyer, said he is furious about what he found in the volumes of witness statements and investigative documents the Army has given to the family.
He decried what he calls a "botched homicide investigation" and blames highranking 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," Patrick Tillman said. "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. They blew up their poster boy."
Army spokesmen maintain the Army has done everything it can to keep the family informed about the investigation, offering to answer relatives’ questions and going back to them as investigators gathered more information.
Army officials said Friday that the Army "reaffirms its heartfelt sorrow to the Tillman family and all families who have lost loved ones during this war."
Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks, an Army spokesman, said the Army acts with compassion and heartfelt commitment when informing grieving families, often a painful duty.
"In the case of the death of Cpl. Patrick Tillman, the Army made mistakes in reporting the circumstances of his death to the family,’’ Brooks said. ‘‘For these, we apologize. We cannot undo those early mistakes."
Brooks said the Army has "actively and directly" informed the Tillman family regarding investigations into his death and has dedicated a team of soldiers and civilians to answering the family’s questions through phone calls and personal meetings.