A book is hardly needed to spread the story of Pat Tillman.
The nation and world have been inundated with four years of reports on his life and death, his gridiron glories, indomitable spirit, military service and betrayal.
We know the undersized overachiever became an All-Pro player with the Arizona Cardinals, then gave up a multimillion-dollar contract to serve his country after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. We know that Tillman was killed by fellow soldiers on an Army Ranger mission in Afghanistan, an event that was the subject of six investigations.
Amid millions of written words, Americans might wonder: What more is there to tell?
Yet Mary Tillman, who is to appear tonight on 60 Minutes, has written 330 additional pages. The book, Boots on the Ground by Dusk: My Tribute to Pat Tillman, with journalist Narda Zacchino, describes a family’s behind-the-scenes quest for truth spliced with flashbacks about the soldier’s life and exploits.
More than a mother’s teary paean to her fallen son, it is a mystery novel, a war story, an indictment, a political diatribe, a catharsis. It is an unanswered question: Why did my son die?
“I wrote the book so the public would have a better understanding of Pat as a person,” Mary Tillman said in an e-mail. “I also felt it was important to frame, in context of the events, the many layers of lies our family has been presented in the last four years in order that people better understand what it feels like to have a family member’s service disrespected by his or her government.”
After April 22, 2004, the facts and fable became so tangled that truth may never emerge.
What has been proven beyond doubt is that Tillman was struck in the forehead by three bullets as he pleaded for comrades to cease fire, screaming and waving his hands. The Army knew it was a friendly-fire death within days but claimed he was shot while charging up a hill in the face of enemy fire. His Silver Star commendation, a charade, was approved by Congress and signed by President Bush.
“Corporal Tillman put himself in the line of devastating enemy fire as he maneuvered his Fire Team to a covered position from which they could effectively employ their weapons on known enemy positions,” the commendation says. “While mortally wounded, his audacious leadership and courageous example under fire inspired his men to fight with great risk to their own personal safety, resulting in the enemy’s withdrawal and his platoon’s safe passage from the ambush kill zone.”
There was no enemy fire, military investigators admitted later. No enemy present at all.
The Tillmans suspected deceit early on and relentlessly pursued facts with help from all kinds of allies: from Sen. John McCain to retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark, from a New Zealand journalist to a Washington, D.C., psychoanalyst.
The book, layered with intimate family memories, describes how Mary “Dannie” Tillman and others employed political pressure to expose culpability ascending up the Army ranks.
The Tillmans came to believe that draping Pat’s death in glory was a propaganda ploy devised at a critical time in the war effort. U.S. casualties were rising, and reports of torture at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq were surfacing. Mary Tillman goes even further, questioning whetherher son was purposefully murdered by the government and whether a subsequent whitewash reached former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, if not the White House.
Boots on the Ground by Dusk, published by Modern Times with a Monday launch date, already has been criticized because of such speculation. An advance review by Publisher’s Weekly gives Mary Tillman credit for a story “bravely told” but says her credibility is sabotaged by conspiracy theories and unanswered questions.
None of the soldiers criticized in the book and in the Defense Department’s investigation could be reached for comment for this article.
Marie Tillman, Pat’s wife, refuses to comment on his life, death or aftermath. She is now chairwoman of the Pat Tillman Foundation, raising funds for scholarships to Arizona State University.
Kevin Tillman, Pat’s brother and fellow Ranger, has consistently shunned interviews but published a devastating condemnation of America’s political leadership for abandoning truth, honor and justice to terrorism fears.
To date, at least a dozen soldiers and officers have been found accountable in connection with Tillman’s death and the subsequent cover-up. The Defense Department’s Inspector General’s Office found that the chain of command made “critical errors” leading to fraudulent accounts of what happened, compounded by a series of botched investigations.
The probe resulted in policy changes for handling evidence after a soldier’s death and for notifying family members. Congressional hearings led to public disclosures and criticism, but no one has faced criminal charges.
The campaign is not over for Mary Tillman. She persists with the tenacity of a rifle team leader in Alpha Company, 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, Pat’s unit.
In the book, she writes about unraveling the truth even as it compounds anguish:
“Pat was honest and incorruptible; he would be offended and outraged about the actions taken in the aftermath of his death. We owe it to Pat to find out who is behind these deceptions, and how high it goes.”
Excerpts from Boots on the Ground by Dusk: My Tribute to Pat Tillman, by Mary Tillman with Narda Zacchino:
(Pvt. Bryan) O’Neal heard what sounded like running water coming from the rock, and then he realized he was covered with blood.
Pat had been shot three times in the head.
Richard Tillman, after hearing contradictory accounts of what happened to his brother from Lt. Col. Jeffrey Bailey:
“I’ll tell you something more strange,” Richard says, lifting his face as he blows cigarette smoke out of the corner of his mouth. “After listening to this (expletive) at Dad’s, I said to Bailey on the way here, ‘I don’t care what anyone says. I think my brother was (expletive) murdered.’ ”
Mary Tillman speaking with the Army coroner about inconsistencies in the autopsy:
My frustration is mounting, and I feel as though I want to cry. “Why would Pat have been defibrillated?” I ask. “He essentially had no head, and he had been dead at least two hours before getting to the field hospital.”
“Ma’am,” he says self-righteously, “we normally don’t fault someone for trying to save someone’s life.”
Those held accountable
No officers or soldiers have been subjected to criminal prosecution in connection with Pat Tillman’s death or subsequent misstatements. Officers disciplined or found accountable included:
• Lt. Gen. Philip R. Kensinger Jr., censured for failure of leadership, false statements to investigators, and failure to notify the Tillman family.
• Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, found accountable for inaccurate accounts leading to Tillman’s Silver Star.
• Brig. Gen. Gina Farrisee, found accountable for oversight failure in the awarding of the Silver Star.
• Lt. Col. Jeffrey Bailey, found accountable for mishandling discipline of soldiers involved in the friendly-fire death.
• Brig. Gen. Gary Jones, found accountable for inadequate investigation of fratricide.
• Brig. Gen. James C. Nixon, found accountable for failing to notify the family of fratricide.
• Capt. William “Satch” Saunders, reprimanded for inadequate command and control of subordinates.
• Maj. David Uthlaut, reprimanded for dereliction of duty and expelled from the Rangers for failure to meet standards.
Four soldiers involved in the friendly-fire death also were disciplined:
• Sgt. Greg Baker, punished for dereliction of duty and failure to command and control the fire of his unit.
• Spcs. Stephen Ashpole, Steve Elliott and Trevor Alders received extra duty and were expelled from the Rangers for failure to exercise sound judgment and firing discipline.
Sources: Department of Defense Inspector General’s report; Associated Press reports
What the investigations found
After U.S. Army Ranger Pat Tillman’s death, the military released a series of contradictory accounts. In the years since, six inquiries and Mary Tillman’s story have brought many problems to light, and many questions remain unanswered.
• Tillman’s unit was split up while on a mission in a danger zone, an action that violated Army protocol and created a situation where American soldiers fired on one another.
• Early reports claimed that Tillman was shot while leading a charge in the face of enemy fire and that eight hostile combatants were killed. No enemy soldiers died, nor was there evidence that any had been present.
• The Army later said Tillman was shot by comrades during an uninterrupted outburst of gunfire. Witnesses said Tillman was not killed in the first volley; he hid behind a rock and released a smoke grenade to show his location. The shooting stopped but resumed as Tillman stood to wave and scream for a ceasefire.
• Army officers claimed Tillman was 100 to 250 meters from his comrades. The distance later was estimated at 35 to 65 meters, or as close as 115 feet.
• Members of the outfit were ordered not to tell Army Ranger Kevin Tillman what happened to his brother even though he was in the same unit on the same mission.
• Investigators claimed a friendly Afghan soldier traveling with Tillman was prone on the ground, firing his rifle, when killed. The Afghan was shot numerous times in the chest.
• Tillman’s bullet-riddled uniform and vest were incinerated three days after he was killed, in violation of Army policy requiring the preservation of evidence. Tillman’s journal also was burned.
• Medical records said that Tillman was administered CPR upon arriving at a military hospital several hours after his death. Tillman was instantly killed by bullets that removed a significant portion of his brain.
• The Army initially said Tillman was killed by enemy fire despite evidence that three U.S. rounds struck his forehead. Coroners refused to sign an autopsy for three months because of the inconsistencies.
• Tillman family members were told no bullet fragments were removed from the wound; later, the family was told that fragments that could have identified the shooter were extracted but not tested.
• A report on the first military investigation, which found that Tillman was killed by comrades acting with gross negligence, was lost. Numerous soldiers and officers altered their statements in subsequent interviews.
• Although Army officials knew Tillman died from friendly fire within a few days, his family was not notified for five weeks. During that period, a fictional account was created for Tillman’s Silver Star, an honor normally given only to those killed by enemy fire.
- Dennis Wagner
Sources: Department of Defense Inspector General’s report; Arizona Republic and other news archives; Boots on the Ground by Dusk.