Friendly fire death of Pat Tillman not accurately reported to Tillman's family.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Army officials who investigated the friendly fire death of Pat Tillman, who played defense with the Arizona Cardinals for four seasons before joining the Army Rangers in 2002, have said that nine officers, including four generals, will face "corrective action" for missteps in the aftermath of Tillman's death, according to senior defense officials. Although a separate investigation found no evidence of criminal negligence by the officers, Tillman's family has said the Army investigation suggests a conspiracy and vows to pursue a congressional investigation into how the death was handled.

Tillman was killed in April 2004 near the Pakistan border after his platoon was ordered to split into two groups and one of the units began firing. His death drew worldwide attention in part because he had turned down a multimillion-dollar contract extension with the Cardinals after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Two members of the University of North Texas military history faculty agree that the problem with Tillman's death was not the accident itself that killed him, but that it was not accurately reported to Tillman's family.

Dr. Adrian Lewis, a former member of the 2nd Ranger Battalion, says he has witnessed many accidents with live ammunition.

"I have seen soldiers shot when they got too far ahead of the firing line. I have seen soldiers wounded employing hand grenades, mortars, and other explosives. Accidents will take place. They are unavoidable," says Lewis, the chairman of UNT's Department of History.

Instead of telling Tillman's family that he was killed by his fellow Rangers, the Army initially reported he was killed in a conventional ambush. Lewis said the Army probably made that decision for several reasons.

"First, there may have been an effort to protect those soldiers involved in the accident. Men with substantial investments in their careers can lose everything in a moment in these situations," he says. "Second, there may have been an effort to protect the unit and its reputation."

He also says the Army may have tried to protect Tillman's family by making him a hero.

"Family members would prefer to believe that their loved ones were killed in combat against the enemy as opposed to an accident," Lewis says.

Once the initial lies in a friendly fire incident begin, he says, it is difficult to stop.

"All levels of command feel responsible for protecting their units. Still, the Army obviously made mistakes in not informing the family. This, however, does not mean that hearts were not in the right place. Sometimes you can do the wrong thing for very good reasons. I suspect that is what happened here," Lewis says.

Dr. Geoffrey Wawro, director of UNT's Military History Center and the Major General Olinto Mark Barsanti Professor of Military History, agrees that friendly fire deaths, while tragic, are inevitable, "particularly in close-in fighting, such as what occurred in the Afghan mountains."

Friendly fire is normally taken for granted, Wawro says, but Tillman's background as a professional football player led to his death being evidence of the "CNN effect" - "constant real-time media coverage that focused, in this case, on the death of a celebrity."

"The pressure to cover up the real causes of Tillman's death would have been enormous. His death at American hands was not only sad - it was an indictment of American efficiency and precision, so the death had to be varnished over at even the highest levels," Wawro says.

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