Mary Tillman is still waiting for someone to be held accountable for the initial cover-up of the friendly-fire death of her son, NFL-star-turned-soldier Pat Tillman, four years ago in Afghanistan.
“Someone started this deception, and it didn’t start at the three-star level,” Tillman told TODAY’s Meredith Vieira Tuesday in New York.
Tillman has just published a book, "Boots on the Ground by Dusk: My Tribute to Pat Tillman," in which she reports that she believes that the cover-up after Pat Tillman’s death on April 22, 2004, reached to the highest levels of the Pentagon.
“... I believe Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld knew Pat was killed by fratricide and permitted the cover-up,” she wrote. “It is not believable that a man known for his propensity to micromanage would not want to know what happened to his most high-profile soldier. I informed the committee that Pat received a personal letter from Rumsfeld shortly after he and his brother enlisted, commending him for his commitment to serve. Pat was obviously in Rumsfeld's consciousness."
The most famous soldier
Tillman left a multimillion-dollar contract with the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals to enlist in the Army after the Sept. 11 attacks. Posted to Afghanistan with his brother, Kevin, the second of Mary and Patrick Tillman’s three sons, he was the armed forces’ most famous soldier.
On the night he was killed, his commander was ordered to split his forces — a move he protested — and proceed to another position to have “boots on the ground by dusk.” The officer who issued the order later said he said “dawn,” and not “dusk.”
Tillman’s family was initially told he had died a hero, charging enemy troops after his unit was ambushed. He was awarded a Silver Star, given to the family by President Bush. Mary Tillman believes that the story was invented because there was a lot of bad news coming out of Iraq at the time and the Army did not want more bad news to hit the newspapers back home.
The story changes
“The Abu Ghraib prison scandal was breaking at that time. Things were in an uproar in Fallujah. There were more casualties in the month of April 2004,” Mary Tillman told Vieira. “It would just look bad to have their most high-profile soldier killed by their own troops.”
But five weeks later, the Army reported that Tillman had actually died by friendly fire. Mary Tillman has spent the years since trying to cut through conflicting reports and misinformation to discover what really happened to her son.
She said the military finally saw that it had no choice but to tell the truth. The original autopsy report did not refer to any of her son’s distinguishing characteristics, she found; it even described a wedding ring that did not remotely fit the description of the one Pat Tillman wore.
“The coroner wouldn’t sign the autopsy,” she said. Also, the soldiers Pat Tillman served with were due to come home soon, and the Army realized that they would be asked about Tillman and would report what they all knew as soon as he died — that he had been killed by friendly fire. “They were in a position where they had to tell us, but I believe they wanted to cover it up.”
Mary Tillman dug into the many reports filed on the case and kept finding inconsistencies. Because there were so many false statements, there were times that she believed her son might have been murdered.
‘An act of gross negligence’
“I used the word ‘murder’ in the book several times, because of the way the information was presented to us,” she told Vieira. “That’s the sad part of telling lies. You see certain information, and when you string it all together it can point to a direction. But it may be the wrong direction. So, yeah, it entered our minds, and ... in fact, every person who has gone through the documents says it crosses their mind. But I don’t believe that anymore. I think it was an act of gross negligence.”
Tillman does not blame the soldiers involved in the incident, even though in the book she indicates that they did not follow the rules of engagement. She said they were young, and, never having been in that position herself, she finds it impossible to judge them.
“I think we have to let that go at this point,” she told Vieira. “I do think that there are people higher up who need to be held accountable.”
The Army insists it did not try to deceive anyone.
“They said it was missteps and errors. And I think there were some missteps and errors, but every protocol that was to be followed was ignored in Pat’s situation,” Tillman said. “In the Inspector General’s report, the first investigative officer was told by his JAG officer not to tell the medical examiner that Pat was killed by friendly fire, but the medical examiner and the coroner could tell by Pat’s wound pattern he was not killed by an AK-47, which is what the enemy carries.”
Tillman said she wrote the book because similar misinformation is still being passed on to the families of other soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“This is still happening,” she said. “The other thing that’s important is Pat’s death was a lie on the country, not just to our family.”