Pat Tillman Saga Far From Over

Well, they went pretty far up the chain of command in the Pat Tillman case, all the way up to Lt. Gen. Phillip Kensinger, who was in charge of Special Forces until he retired last year. Army Secretary Pete Geren announced an unusually sharply-worded censure of Gen. Kensinger for "mistakes, misjudgments and a failure of leadership." Still to come is a decision on whether the general will be stripped of his third star, which would mean a reduction in his retirement pay from $9,400 a month (!) all the way down to $8,500.

It’s pretty clear that the government wants this to be the end of public discussion and public scrutiny of the way it handled the case of the former NFL player who gave up a multimillion-dollar contract to enlist in the Army Rangers shortly after 9/11. Secretary Geren said this report, which concluded there was no cover-up, just a series of mistakes (that all trended in the same direction, I might note) would be the seventh and the last into Tillman’s death.

When Pat Tillman enlisted he was treated by most of the media as the kind of exemplary American we all should want to emulate, and when he was killed in Afghanistan in 2004 that was the first story that was put out – of a heroic but tragic encounter with Taliban militants. It wasn’t until five weeks later, after a funeral replete with appropriate patriotic and heroic trappings that the Pentagon told his family what most of those close to the incident from the outset figured – that he was killed by "friendly fire" (that hideous military euphemism) by Americans.

But even that is almost certainly not the whole truth, which is one reason this is not likely to be the end of the story.


Only last Friday the Army released more information, in response to a Freedom of Information request from Associated Press, about Cpl. Tillman’s death that raises questions that the official reports to date have simply not answered. Most fascinating, as the AP wrote, is the fact that "Army medical examiners were suspicious about the proximity of the three bullet holes in Pat Tillman’s forehead and tried without success to get the Army to investigate whether the former NFL player’s death amounted to a crime." Now the Army says it has conducted such an investigation, including asking others in his units whether he was sufficiently disliked that somebody might have killed him on purpose. But it concluded – surprise – that it was accidental.

Among other interesting tidbits: "There was no evidence at all of enemy fire at the scene – no one was hit by enemy fire, nor was any government equipment struck." Army attorneys exchanged congratulatory e-mails for keeping criminal investigators at bay and assuring that the conclusion didn’t require criminal punishments, only administrative ones. And in his last words before being killed, Tillman told an apparently panicky comrade to stop "sniveling." The soldier to whom this was supposedly said, however (according to the testimony of a chaplain), Sgt. Bryan O’Neal, says Pat would never have used a word like "sniveling," though he was kinda harsh.

The medical examiners said that the pattern of wounds in Tillman’s forehead suggested an M-16 at close range, something like 10 yards. But O’Neal says he didn’t see anyone that close. "Another key issue raised in the transcripts involved never-before mentioned snipers who were apparently there when the firing broke out, got out of their vehicle and walked alongside the convoy, cutting up the canyon firing," according to the AP story.

Could these snipers be evidence of some of the more paranoid theories circulating in the blogosphere, suggesting that the military knew Pat Tillman was deeply disillusioned with the war, planned to speak out publicly after his hitch was up, even talked about meeting with Noam Chomsky, and had him killed? Pat Tillman’s brother has confirmed the disillusioned part. I don’t know enough to have a solid opinion on this, but the Army investigations don’t answer the questions to the satisfaction of a reasonably impartial observer.


Fired Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld certainly didn’t do much to reassure skeptics at a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Tuesday. He didn’t "recall precisely how I learned that he was killed. It could have been internally; it could have been through the press." Or maybe he received a message through a tinfoil helmet. But he was sure as shooting that there was no cover-up and no culpability.

Former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Richard Myers couldn’t recall how he learned but came back with the lame comment that "I don’t think there’s any regulation that would require me to do anything, actually." Gen. John Abizaid, former commander of Middle Eastern forces, said he thought he remembered getting a classified message about April 29 that it was friendly fire rather than hostile fire, but he didn’t seem to remember much else.

At the end of the hearing Committee Chairman Henry Waxman of California was frustrated: "You’ve all admitted that the system failed; none of you feel personally responsible. Somebody should be responsible."

Lt. Gen. Kensinger had been subpoenaed, but apparently it wasn’t served and he didn’t show up. Maybe Rep. Waxman will have to hold another hearing – or ten.


As respectable a commentator (though I know some would disagree) as Andrew Sullivan is fascinated, as he commented in his blog earlier this week:

"The motive? I don’t know. It’s still likeliest it was an accident. But there’s some mysterious testimony in the SI report about nameless snipers. A reader suggests the following interpretation:

"’News this weekend said that there were “snipers” present and the witnesses didn’t remember their names. I believe that’s code in the Army – these guys were Delta. In the Tillman incident, these snipers weren’t part of the unit and they were never mentioned publicly before. That’s a key indicator that they weren’t supposed to be acknowledged.

"‘If you’ve ever read Blackhawk Down, Mark Bowden explains how he grew frustrated because interviewed Rangers kept referring to “soldiers from another unit” while claiming they didn’t know the unit ID or the soldiers’ names. It took him months to crack the unit ID and find people from Delta who were present at the fight.

"Randy Shugart and Gary Gordon, the Delta operators who earned Medals of Honor in Mogadishu, have always been identified as snipers, too.

"‘If my theory is correct, the Delta guys could have fired the shots – a three-round burst to the forehead from 50 yards is impossible for normal soldiers and Rangers, but is probably an easy shot for those guys. But because Delta doesn’t officially exist and Tillman was a hero, nobody in the Army would want to have to explain exactly how the event went down. Easier just to claim hostile fire until the family forced them to do otherwise.’

"This makes some sense to me, although we shouldn’t dismiss the chance he was murdered. Tillman was a star and might have aroused jealousy or resentment. He also opposed the Iraq war and was a proud atheist. In Bush’s increasingly sectarian military, that might have stirred hostility. I don’t know. But I know enough to want a deeper investigation."

What did the president know and when did he know it? The familiar question becomes increasingly relevant. Any patriotic American should want the same answers.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).