An Army Ranger who was with Pat Tillman when the former football star was cut down by friendly fire in Afghanistan said Tuesday a commanding officer had ordered him to keep quiet about what happened.
The military at first portrayed Tillman’s death as the result of heroic combat with the enemy. Army Spc. Bryan O’Neal told a congressional hearing that when he got the chance to talk to Tillman’s brother, who had been in a nearby convoy on the fateful day, “I was ordered not to tell him what happened.”
“You were ordered not to tell him?” repeated Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
“Roger that, sir,” replied O’Neal, dressed in his Army uniform.
The revelation came as committee members questioned whether, and when, top Defense officials and the White House knew that Tillman’s death in eastern Afghanistan three years ago was actually a result of gunfire from fellow U.S. soldiers.
The committee also heard from Jessica Lynch, the former Army private who was badly injured when her convoy was ambushed in Iraq in 2003. She was later rescued by American troops from an Iraqi hospital, but the tale of her ambush was changed into a story of heroism on her part.
Still hampered by her injuries, Lynch walked slowly to the witness table, took a seat alongside Tillman’s family members and said the heroism belonged to others who fought in Iraq, such as her roommate Lori Piestewa, who died in the same ambush in which Lynch was captured.
“The bottom line is the American people are capable of determining their own ideals of heroes and they don’t need to be told elaborate lies,” Lynch said.
Tillman’s death received worldwide attention because he had walked away from a huge contract with the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals to enlist in the Army after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
His family was initially misled by the Pentagon and did not learn the truth for more than a month. Tillman was awarded a Silver Star based on fabricated accounts — who fabricated them still isn’t clear after several investigations.
“We don’t know what the secretary of defense knew, we don’t know what the White House knew,” Waxman said. “What we do know is these were not a series of accidents, these stories. They were calculatedly put out for a public relations purpose. … Even now there seems to be a cover-up.”
Kevin Tillman was in a convoy behind his older brother, a former NFL star, on April 22, 2004, when Pat Tillman was mistakenly shot by other Army Rangers who had just emerged from a canyon where they’d been fired upon. Kevin Tillman didn’t see what happened. O’Neal said he was ordered not to tell him by then-Lt. Col. Jeff Bailey, the battalion commander who oversaw Tillman’s platoon.
“He basically just said, sir, that uh, ‘Do not let Kevin know, he’s probably in a bad place knowing that his brother’s dead,'” O’Neal testified. “He made it known that I would get in trouble, sir, if I spoke with Kevin.”
O’Neal said he was “quite appalled” by the order.
Bailey’s superior officer, then-Col. James C. Nixon, has testified to the Defense Department’s inspector general that he ordered that information on the facts of Tillman’s death be shared with as few people as possible so that the Tillman family would not learn those facts through news media leaks. That, in turn, shaped Bailey’s guidance to his troops.
The Army said initially that Tillman was killed by enemy gunfire while trying to help another group of ambushed soldiers. The family was not told what really happened until May 29, 2004, a delay the Army blamed on procedural mistakes.
Kevin Tillman and Tillman’s mother, Mary Tillman, also testified Tuesday but were not in the room when O’Neal spoke.
After the hearing, Mary Tillman approached O’Neal, introduced herself, embraced him and sobbed.
Kevin Tillman, in his testimony, accused the military of “intentional falsehoods” and “deliberate and careful misrepresentations” in the portrayal of his brother’s death.
“Revealing that Pat’s death was a fratricide would have been yet another political disaster in a month of political disasters … so the truth needed to be suppressed,” the brother said.
“Our family will never be satisfied. We’ll never have Pat back,” Mary Tillman testified. “Something really awful happened. It’s your job to find out what happened to him. That’s really important.”
Last month the military concluded in a pair of reports that nine high-ranking Army officers, including four generals, made critical errors in reporting Tillman’s death but that there was no criminal wrongdoing in his shooting — a conclusion the family has disputed. The Army is reviewing the actions of the officers.
In questioning what the White House knew about Tillman, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., cited a memo written by a top general seven days after Tillman’s death warning it was “highly possible” the Army Ranger was killed by friendly fire and making clear his warning should be conveyed to the president. President Bush made no reference to the way Tillman died in a speech delivered two days after the memo was written.
A White House spokesman has said there’s no indication Bush received the warning in the memo written April 29, 2004, by then-Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal to Gen. John Abizaid, head of Central Command.
Questioned by Waxman, Defense Department Acting Inspector General Thomas F. Gimble said he did not believe the memo ever went to the White House.
Gimble said that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld sent him a letter around the time Rumsfeld left office last December saying he hadn’t known Tillman’s death was from friendly fire until around May 20, 2004. Abizaid told Gimble he was traveling in the war theater and didn’t see the memo saying Tillman’s death was possibly friendly fire until after Tillman’s memorial service.
Mary Tillman dismissed the suggestion Abizaid hadn’t seen the memo as “ridiculous,” and said she believed Rumsfeld must have known. “The fact that he would have died by friendly fire and no one told Rumsfeld is ludicrous,” she said.
The committee had wanted to hear from retired Lt. Gen. Philip Kensinger, who was in charge of Army special operations and came under the heaviest criticism from military investigators for misleading information about Tillman’s death.
Kensinger’s attorney sent Waxman a letter last week saying that if Kensinger were called to testify he would refuse to answer questions, citing his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
Associated Press writer Scott Lindlaw contributed to this report from San Francisco.
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