Another Kind of Hero

September 5th, 2010

By Jan Barry

Former Arizona Cardinals football star Pat Tillman was posthumously awarded the Silver Star by the U.S. Army — for being killed by fellow Rangers on a mission in Afghanistan. The wrenching impact on his family of his death and promotion to poster boy for the War on Terrorism is the focus of a haunting new documentary, The Tillman Story.

From field commanders to President Bush, Tillman’s gruesome death in April 2004 triggered a rush to whitewash the facts to fit a Hollywood-style heroic war story line. “The real Pat Tillman, as described by his family and fellow soldiers, was not the gung-ho jock and homespun patriot the Army tried to paint him as,” noted Time Magazine’s review of this film. While he gave up a professional football career to enlist after 9/11, Tillman was highly critical of the invasion of Iraq, where he and his brother Kevin were deployed before getting sent on the fatal mission chasing the Taliban in Afghanistan.

“I’m Pat f—— Tillman!” he shouted at a fire team from his own platoon who gunned him down on an Afghan mountainside as he tried to wave them off, according to a fellow soldier interviewed in the film. Outraged family members were equally blunt once they discovered the official story was a Pentagon p.r. campaign conducted to dramatic drumbeats from the Bush White House. Public outcry by his mother Mary and father Patrick Sr., a lawyer, triggered a series of official investigations culminating in a 2007 congressional hearing.

Documentary director Amir Bar-Lev presents a cavalcade of television news footage of the super-patriotic paeans to a fallen hero, tellingly contrasted with sobering interviews with survivors, who initially were drowned out by waves of “fact-free doggerel from clueless media,” as Time Magazine movie critic Richard Corliss wrote.

“What I’ve come to learn while making this movie is what the military has that’s a stronger part of their arsenal than special ops is a team of publicists,” Bar-Lev said in an interview in Filmmaker Magazine. “All that matters is CBS, NBC and the rest getting the right sound bite into their mix, and they do that very readily.”

After a recent showing of the film at a New York theater, Bar-Lev told the audience that the Tillman family was wary of doing another round of interviews because they felt the news media had mindlessly echoed the Pentagon’s propaganda.

Nearly lost in the flag-waving media circus was the stunned, bitter voice of Kevin Tillman, who quit a professional baseball career to join the Army with his brother and escorted his body home from a botched patrol.

Adding to the family’s outcry, “in dramatic testimony to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Kevin Tillman accused the Bush administration of twisting the facts of his brother’s death to distract public attention from prisoner abuses at Abu Ghraib in Iraq,” the Denver Post reported in April 2007. “His voice shaking, Tillman said the official account of his brother’s death in 2004 was ‘utter fiction … intended to deceive the family and, more importantly, the American people.'”

In a blistering letter published on the Truthdig website in 2006, Kevin Tillman wrote of the war in Iraq that he and Pat served in: “Somehow the more soldiers that die, the more legitimate the illegal invasion becomes. Somehow American leadership, whose only credit is lying to its people and illegally invading a nation, has been allowed to steal the courage, virtue and honor of its soldiers on the ground.”

Another former Ranger who testified at the hearings, Bryan O’Neal, said he was ordered by a commander not to tell Kevin that Pat Tillman was killed by friendly fire. In the documentary, O’Neal somberly describes how his life was saved by Tillman’s attempts to stop their fellow soldiers from shooting at them.

“I felt that I was going to die,” O’Neal said in a 2007 interview with ESPN, which dug deep into the array of official deceptions. “In fact, I knew it. I was positive while it was happening. I felt what he did, the actions he took and then sacrificing himself the way he did, are really the main factors why I walked off of the area alive.”

The ESPN report continued: “In the days just after the firefight, O’Neal gave an account of Tillman’s actions to Army officials preparing a document that recommended Tillman for the Silver Star, the Army’s third-highest distinction for combat valor. Since that document remains classified, O’Neal is unable to comment on it. However, he confirmed to the findings of a later investigator that his account in that case was altered so that it indicated Tillman had been killed by enemy fire, a version of the story the Army let stand for a month after the gun battle.”

A central thread of the film is what happened in the wake of a memo, leaked to the Associated Press, by then-Major General Stanley McChrystal to top military commanders shortly after Tillman’s death. The memo, written before the Silver Star citation approved by McChrystal citing enemy fire was announced, warned that it was “highly possible” Tillman was killed by friendly fire and that this should be conveyed to President Bush before he made public statements on the incident. At the congressional hearings three years later, none of the Pentagon brass on the distribution list could remember seeing this memo.

“Somehow lying is tolerated,” Kevin wrote in his letter of protest over the conduct of the War on Terrorism as well as his brother’s death. “Somehow being politically informed, diligent, and skeptical has been replaced by apathy through active ignorance. Somehow the same incompetent, narcissistic, virtueless, vacuous, malicious criminals are still in charge of this country. Somehow this is tolerated.

“Somehow nobody is accountable for this.”

For more information:

The Fog of War,” Filmmaker Magazine

Deceit surrounding death of Tillman spawns disgust,” The Denver Post

Pat Tillman Investigation, ESPN

Kevin Tillman letter, Truthdig

Review: The Tillman Story‘s Bitter Truths,” Time

(This article was also posted at EarthAirWater.)

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9 Responses to “Another Kind of Hero”

  1. Clarissa |

    Great post!! More and more of my students from our economically devastated area don military uniforms because there is no other way for them to pay for college and no other career prospect awaits them. Most of them have no idea what the war in Afghanistan is all about. None of them can find Iraq on a map. My heart overflows with pity for those poor kids, many of whom will end up dying simply because they weren’t offered any viable choice by the society we made for them.

  2. Tom Carter |

    Deaths and injuries from friendly fire are a fact of life in combat, and that isn’t ever going to change. I’ve been personally involved in friendly fire incidents a number of times, both as the target and the shooter. It happens because combat is frantic, confusing, very disorienting, and frightening. It’s often a major problem to know where your own forces are and where the enemy is, and sometimes you take fire from forces that you can’t identify as either friend or foe. Decisions to fire usually have to be made in a split second with limited information, and it’s often very difficult to know what to do. Nothing is more crushing to a soldier’s spirit than learning that he’s fired on friendlies, and it’s many times worse if friendlies were killed or wounded. Training and good leadership can reduce the number of incidents, but they will always happen, and every soldier with combat experience knows it.

    That being said, I’m dumbfounded by the Army’s performance in the Tillman case (also the case of Jessica Lynch, but that wasn’t nearly so tragic). I don’t personally know of a single case where a friendly fire death was officially lied about or misrepresented, and I never knew an officer who would go along with something like that. This whole sordid affair is a major disappointment for me and, I’m sure, for virtually every professional soldier.

    The Silver Star awarded to Tillman is also very questionable. Decorations for valor and Purple Hearts can be legitimately be awarded for things that happen as a direct result of enemy action, but this really stretches it. Tillman’s actions seem to have been heroic in attempting to save himself and those with him, but they might have been more appropriately recognized by the Soldiers Medal.

    For those who haven’t seen it, here’s Tillman’s Silver Star citation:

    The President of the United States of America, authorized by Act of Congress, 9 July 1918 (amended by act of 25 July 1963), has awarded the


    for gallantry in action on 22 April 2004 against an armed enemy while serving as a Rifle Team Leader in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. 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. 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. Corporal Tillman’s personal courage, tactical expertise, and professional competence directly contributed to this platoon’s overall success and survival. Through his distinctive accomplishments, Corporal Tillman reflected great credit upon himself, the 75th Ranger Regiment, and the United States Army.

  3. Tom Carter |

    Clarissa, I think you’re overstating the situation quite a bit. No doubt there are some volunteers for military service who are like those you describe, but most know what they’re doing and why. They volunteer for a variety of reasons, including patriotism, a desire to serve their country, a chance to better themselves through training and experience, and the benefits that come from service in the military. All of those are legitimate reasons, and those who volunteer for military service do so for all of them in whatever mix.

    Seems you may be letting a personal dislike of the military and low regard for American society color your perceptions. If you spent any significant amount of time with American military forces and came to understand their dedication to duty, their pride, and their remarkable skills you might have a different view. And I’d advise against offering them your pity; it would be rejected, and probably not in a very friendly way.

  4. Brian |

    Clarissa, if you want to get a better idea of what is on the minds of our soldiers than what you can conjure up in your classroom, you might read a book like “Lone Survivor” by Marcus Luttrell. He’s a former SEAL and was on the ground in Afghanistan.

    As Tom said, save your pity because those guys don’t want it, and they most assuredly don’t need it. Why you would even bring up “lack of economic opportunity” on an essay written about a former NFL football player is beyond me, and is actually laughable.

    I worked with a bunch of prior service guys when I was a cop in Houston, and they all became cops for the same reason they went into the military – to “protect and serve.” The dangers of the job were, at worst, a minor concern. To a man, they love this country and want to protect it in any way they can from “the bad guys.”

    You should get out a bit more.

  5. Clarissa |

    Brian: so you know better than I do what my students think and feel because you read a book? 🙂 And I should get out of the classroom more to know what my students experience? 🙂 Yeah, let’s learn about life exclusively from books and not from actual people. 🙂

  6. Clarissa |

    “Why you would even bring up “lack of economic opportunity” on an essay written about a former NFL football player is beyond me, and is actually laughable.”

    -Can you explain to me, then, why I see the military recruitment truck on my campus in Southern Illinois all the time when I never saw it in all my years at Yale and Cornell?

  7. Brian |

    Are you in Canada or southern Illinois?

    My point about Luttrell’s book is that the guy was on the ground over there, as opposed to what you might be extrapolating from your time at whatever schools where you’ve worked.

    In addition, you’ve conveniently ignored what I said about the attitude of the men and women I served with in the police department of the 4th largest city in the country, men and women who were actually in the military.

    Exactly how many people do you know, personally and closely, that have risked their lives, every day, for the things they believe in?

  8. Brianna |

    @Clarissa – maybe because the military isn’t so stupid to recruit in a place where the students almost to a man (and woman) have been educated to think that the American military is the most evil organization in existence. Why bother recruiting at the kind of university that will happily invite people like Ahmadinnerjacket in as a distinguished speaker while reviling American military and political figures?

  9. Clarissa |

    “@Clarissa – maybe because the military isn’t so stupid to recruit in a place where the students almost to a man (and woman) have been educated to think that the American military is the most evil organization in existence. ”

    -Nice spoilt girls and boys at Yale never say a bad word about the military. They pay lip service to all the things Brian said in his last comment. Of course, it doesn’t mean that they are willing to risk their own richly provided for lives for any of that.

    “Are you in Canada or southern Illinois?”

    -I’m a citizen of Canada who right now lives in Southern Illinois.

    “Exactly how many people do you know, personally and closely, that have risked their lives, every day, for the things they believe in?”

    -I’m sorry, I don’t understand your question and I don’t do pomposity very well. What kind of beliefs require daily risk of death? Why discuss it in such a pompous way? What’s so good about risking one’s life every day? And how does that have anything to do with the topic under discussion?

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