The parents of a former American football star killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan yesterday accused the Pentagon of propagating a false account of his death to stir up patriotic fervour back home.
Pat Tillman became a national icon last year when it was reported that the sports superstar who had turned down a multi-million-dollar contract to join the army after the terrorist attacks of September 2001 had been killed by enemy fire.
The account of his death on a barren hillside in Afghanistan was like a heroic, boys’ comic story. He was said to have been charging up a hill to attack Islamist diehards, bellowing orders to fellow Rangers, when he was mown down in an ambush.
But as with another stirring tale of valour at war – that of Private Jessica Lynch, whose capture in the invasion of Iraq was fantastically embroidered by the authorities – the truth was much more prosaic. Tillman was shot dead by Rangers in his own platoon who mistook him for the enemy. Army investigators deemed it an act of “gross negligence”.
His parents, who learned the truth weeks after a nationally televised memorial service, broke their silence yesterday, accusing the Pentagon of telling “outright lies” to his family and the nation.
“All the people in positions of authority went out of their way to script this,” his father, Patrick Tillman, a lawyer from San Jose, told the Washington Post. They “interfered with the investigation, they covered it up. I think they thought they could control it, and they realised that their recruiting efforts were going to hell in a hand-basket if the truth about his death got out.”
Tillman’s decision to drop his celebrity life in the Arizona Cardinals American football team to join up with his brother was a coup for the army’s image and recruitment. But his death – coming as support for the Pentagon’s post-September 11 record was falling along with enlistment levels – would have been a public relations disaster.
Soldiers at the scene knew instantly that Tillman was killed by American bullets as he sheltered behind a boulder. Gen John Abizaid, the American overall commander in the region, knew within days. But Tillman’s fellow Rangers were told not to talk about it “to prevent rumours”.
His mother, Mary, yesterday told the newspaper that the Bush administration capitalised on the false account to counter the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal then unfolding. “I think there’s a lot more yet that we don’t even know, or they wouldn’t still be covering their tails.
“If this is what happens when someone high-profile dies, I can only imagine what happens with everyone else.”