A three-star general was rebuked and may lose a star and a half-dozen other brass took it on the chin last week for their part in misleading the public and the family of Pat Tillman in the aftermath of his accidental death three years ago in Afghanistan. The military had gone so far as to fabricate a medal citation for Tillman to divert attention from the true cause of his death.
Tillman was a genuinely heroic figure, leaving a lucrative professional football career to enlist. But the circumstances of his death, at the hands of his own men, evidently weren’t suitably heroic for his superiors, so they cosmetized the facts. Tillman’s celebrity and persistent, skeptical family combined to help bring the actual story to light.
My guess is that there is a lot more tinkering with the truth about combat deaths than the military cares to admit, and not always for bad reasons. The fact is that the battlefield is a hazardous workplace where accidents are common and where it’s sometimes understandable why the military would want to make the death of a loved one less painful by not being fully candid. In my infantry outfit during World War II it was widely understood that casualties attributed to “snipers” were almost always due to weapons fired by our own troops.
The first night after our outfit landed on Leyte in the Philippines one of our men was shot through the chest when he arose from his foxhole and was mistaken in the blackness for a Japanese infiltrator. No one was reprimanded, and I’m reasonably sure the victim’s family was not told the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. How necessary was it, after all, for them to know that a jittery GI shot their loved one as he left his foxhole to urinate? White lies are tolerable under some circumstances.
That bloody opening night was followed by many more accidental shootings. When large numbers of on-edge soldiers carry loaded weapons, stuff, as Donald Rumsfeld might say, happens. The toll became so high that I went on patrol with my rifle’s safety on to keep from adding to the carnage. Prudent but probably foolhardy given the neighborhood.
A carelessly fired rifle can do only so much damage; misdirected mortars and artillery are far more deadly. Once, the six heavy mortars in our outfit were lined up side-by-side and firing round after round in support of infantry hundreds of yards forward when word came back that shells were landing on our own troops. A glance at the mortar tubes showed why: five were aligned while the sixth pointed up at a sharply higher angle, sending its rounds short. The corporal responsible was visibly upset, but there was no finger-pointing and no one said a word. You can be sure that families of the victims were not notified of the blunder.
Even after the shooting on Leyte ostensibly stopped a GI sitting next to me during a card game took a stray bullet to his head from out of the blue.
The citation for Pat Tillman’s Silver Star described what supposedly happened at the time of his death: “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.”
There was no ambush, of course, no enemy fire, and any maneuvering was to keep Tillman and his men from the “kill zone” created by their fellow GIs. There is nothing shameful about death by friendly fire, but those who treated it that way tarnished Tiilman’s death by making of it a work of fiction.
This recollection first appeared Aug. 5th in the Chicago Tribune.