Army Withheld Details About Pat Tillman’s Death

Army Withheld Details About Tillman’s Death (WaPo, A3)

The first Army investigator who looked into the death of former NFL player Pat Tillman in Afghanistan last year found within days that he was killed by his fellow Rangers in an act of “gross negligence,” but Army officials decided not to inform Tillman’s family or the public until weeks after a nationally televised memorial service. A new Army report on the death shows that top Army officials, including the theater commander, Gen. John P. Abizaid, were told that Tillman’s death was fratricide days before the service. Soldiers on the scene said they were immediately sure Tillman was killed by a barrage of American bullets as he took shelter behind a large boulder during a twilight firefight along a narrow canyon road near the Pakistani border, according to nearly 2,000 pages of interview transcripts and investigative reports obtained by The Washington Post.

The documents also show that officers made erroneous initial reports that Tillman was killed by enemy fire, destroyed critical evidence and initially concealed the truth from Tillman’s brother, also an Army Ranger, who was near the attack on April 22, 2004, but did not witness it.

Brig. Gen. Gary M. Jones prepared the report in response to questions from Tillman’s family and from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz). Jones concluded that there was no official reluctance to report the truth but that “nothing has contributed more to an atmosphere of suspicion by the family than the failure to tell the family that Cpl. Pat Tillman’s death was the result of suspected friendly fire, as soon as that information became known within military channels.” “Notifying families in a timely way that they have had a loved one killed or severely injured is complex and imperfect work. We can do better,” said Paul Boyce, an Army spokesman. “At the heart of every notification effort is a commitment to compassion and completeness in providing information as it is known to those who sustained the loss. That is what happened in the case of Corporal Tillman, and that effort continues to this day.”

As I noted back in December when the true nature of Tillman’s death emerged, it’s not unsurprising that the family was led to believe that Tillman died from enemy fire rather than accidental fratricide. I’d have expected Tillman’s squad leader and company commander to embellish the situation in the perhaps false belief that their version of the story would have been more comforting to the family. I am rather surprised, though, that this went up to the 4-star level.

Unfortunately, while he resisted it, Tillman was always more than just another soldier. Because he gave up millions of dollars and his NFL career in order to enlist, he had immense symbolic value. The temptation to distort the truth here was even greater than it is for a non-celebrity soldier. Because most Americans have a storybook idea of what war is like, people expect a hero to either come out of war unharmed or to die in a blaze of glory while taking dozens of enemy soldiers out with him. Unfortunately, real wars don’t come with scripts.

FILED UNDER: Afghanistan War, Military Affairs, Sports, , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. McGehee says:

    I am rather surprised, though, that this went up to the 4-star level.

    Very disappointing. It would go a long way to putting things to rights, confidence-wise, if Abizaid receives some kind of penalty for his role.

  2. Jim Henley says:

    The grimly wry part of the story is when the spokesman says “there was no official reluctance to report the truth” in the midst of a story about officials not reporting the truth.