Exactly what sequence of events led to the death by friendly fire of Army Ranger Pat Tillman —the Arizona Cardinals and Arizona State University athlete who gave up a pro football salary to join the war on terrorism — remains uncertain.
And as long as they are, those who loved and respected Tillman will continue to question whether the Army was completely forthcoming about the death of a national symbol of willingness to serve his country at great sacrifice, compounded by the greatest sacrifice of all.
Tillman’s family announced this week that the Army had lied to them about the circumstances surrounding his death and that it is maintaining a cover-up about it to this day. The Army said it met frequently with family members and told them what they knew at the time they knew it — which in the days after Tillman’s death did not include information that he was killed by friendly fire.
And yet it seems that somebody knew something early on — perhaps those engaged in battle with Tillman that terrible day in April 2004, perhaps some of their superiors. As an investigation reported earlier this month by the Washington Post revealed, Tillman’s comrades knew almost immediately that they had killed him by mistake, and that they later burned his uniform and body armor.
Within days the truth did become known to top Army officials, the Post said, but they waited to reveal that fact until a formal investigation concluded. Tillman’s father told the Post the Army withheld the information because it might hamper their recruitment efforts. An Army spokesman admitted in a statement that it “made mistakes in reporting the circumstances of his death to the family. … For these, we apologize. We cannot undo those early mistakes.”
An apology is significant and proper. Nonetheless, Army officials owe the family no less than complete candor. If something was wrongly withheld about the truth of Tillman’s death — perhaps based on some degree of embarrassment upon learning that truth — then that information should be made public. Those responsible for any wrongful withholding of information should be held accountable. And if there is any culpability among those whose friendly fire resulted in Tillman’s death on the battlefield, then they should be held accountable as well.
If an independent investigation is the best way to resolve this situation, then so much the better.