by Jan Baughman
(Swans - November 1, 2010) Most people are familiar with the Pat Tillman story: the handsome professional football player who gave up a lucrative career after 9/11 to enlist in the Army with his brother Kevin to fight the War on Terror, becoming an "All-American" poster child for patriotic sacrifice and military recruitment -- to the extent that when he enlisted, Donald Rumsfeld sent a memo to an Army Secretary stating that Tillman was special and they might want to keep an eye on him. Few are familiar with The Tillman Story -- the captivating documentary by Amir Bar-Lev that reveals the propaganda, cover-up, and yet unanswered questions behind the fratricide, or "friendly" fire, that ended his life at the age of 27 in Afghanistan.
On April 22, 2004, Tillman's platoon was traveling through a canyon when a fateful decision was made to separate the vehicles into two groups. His group -- in front -- came to a stop, having heard shots from below and thinking those following were under ambush. Tillman, along with Specialist Bryan O'Neal and others, set off on foot to assess the situation and began receiving fire. According to O'Neal, his last words were screams of "I'm Pat Fucking Tillman" -- he knew exactly who was doing the shooting. His brother Kevin was in a trailing vehicle and arrived at the scene to find his brother dead. Kevin was stripped of his weapon, quarantined, and sent home. How far away his fellow troops were is a matter of conjecture; the official word is that he was shot from 100 yards but forensic evidence suggests it could have been as few as 10. The shooting actually decapitated him, though the Army records indicate that CPR was performed and that he died later. His body armor and uniform were burned (against military protocol) and his diary disappeared. There were strict orders not to reveal the truth to the family; instead, the military concocted a story of Tillman's bravery in a hostile exchange of gunfire near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, and awarded him posthumously the Silver Star and Purple Heart.
The real Pat Tillman story is told through a series of interviews with the Tillman family, most notably Pat's mother Dannie who sensed that the truth about her son's death was being obscured and worked relentlessly to uncover the facts. Kevin did not participate but for the clip of his powerful testimony before the House, and one is left wondering whether it was the trauma of witnessing his brother's death or the military code of silence that influenced his decision. Upon meeting the family, one concludes that it was simply too painful. Kevin has stayed out of the spotlight and said little about his brother's death but for a powerful essay he wrote in October 2006. Also appearing are Pat's father; his younger brother Richard; Bryan O'Neal and another soldier and friend of Pat's, Russell Baer, who have differing views on the events surrounding his death; and Stan Goff, an Army Special Forces veteran turned antiwar activist whose knowledge of the system and hours of assistance helped Pat's mother uncover the facts behind the thousands of pages of redacted records the Army sent to her in the hopes of burying her inquiries.
Even in death the military tried to commodify Pat, wanting a public burial at Arlington Cemetery even though Pat had indicated in his enlistment papers that he did not wish to have a military funeral. Instead, a nationally televised outdoor service was held in his hometown of San Jose, California, attended by his military colleagues aware of and involved in the cover-up along with myriad politicians lauding his heroism. In one of the more compelling scenes in which propaganda collides with truth, John McCain offers a eulogy, assuring we'll see Pat again when God reunites us all with our loved ones, and Maria Shriver gives an ill-conceived speech referring to Pat being "home, and safe"; neither bothering to realize that they are speaking to a family of atheists. Shriver is followed by Pat's youngest brother Richard, who walks to the podium, beer in hand and completely despondent, and rejoins, "...just make no mistake -- he'd want me to say this -- he's not with God, he's fucking dead -- he's not religious so, thanks for your thoughts, but he's fucking dead." (See this powerful scene in an excerpt of Bill Maher's interview with Richard Tillman.)
Also covered in this documentary is the story of Jessica Lynch -- another Hollywood-style propaganda tool manufactured to insert a feel-good narrative into an increasingly unpopular war. Tillman, while on tour in Iraq, was one of the troops sent to "rescue" Lynch -- a high-stakes operation that was delayed...until the cameraman arrived. (He takes a moment in the midst of the alleged mayhem that he is filming to ask her to smile for her family.) While in Iraq, Tillman was noted to have said that "this war is so fucking illegal," and one has to wonder what his diaries contained that they have never surfaced. Sadly, he was given the option of an honorary discharge halfway into his service, after he returned from Iraq, but he declined. He did not want special treatment.
After three years of searching for information and eventually thanks to a letter that Pat's exasperated father (and attorney) sent to the military (concluding, "In sum: fuck you and yours"), the investigation into Pat's death was escalated and ultimately led to a congressional enquiry on both the Tillman cover-up and Lynch propaganda. This is the one scene in which we hear from a devastated Kevin Tillman, who spoke compellingly on behalf of the family to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, chaired by Henry Waxman. Then, one after another, Air Force General Richard B. Myers, General John P. Abizaid, Army General Bryan D. Brown, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, testified, answering a total of 82 times that they "did not recall" -- whether being advised of Tillman's death or receiving memos related to the fratricide and its cover-up. This "special person that they were to keep an eye" on had mysteriously vanished from their collective memory. At the end of the testimony, the four shake hands, pat backs, smiles on their faces, as the Tillman family sees the door close on their final attempt at the truth. The House committee concluded that:
The pervasive lack of recollection and absence of specific information makes it impossible for the Committee to assign responsibility for the misinformation in Corporal Tillman's and Private Lynch's cases. It is clear, however, that the Defense Department did not meet its most basic obligations in sharing accurate information with the families and with the American public.
A group of lower-ranking officers, including Lt. Gen. Philip Kensinger, then commander of U.S. Army Special Operations, was scapegoated for "mishandling" the information surrounding Tillman's death.
As difficult, heartbreaking, appalling, and frustrating as this story is, the documentary is not completely dark, thanks in particular to the character of the Tillman family and Pat in particular. Their warmth, humor, and general irreverence results in many uplifting and amusing scenes -- the military clearly messed with the wrong family. But the fact that the military and the government would engage in such systemic abuse with a high-profile service member leaves one wondering, among the many unanswered questions about Pat's death, how many "ordinary" troops are killed by fratricide with little notice. It should come as no surprise that the figures are difficult to come by. In the above-referenced interview with Richard Tillman, Bill Maher indicates that friendly fire accounted for 21% of deaths in World War II, 39% in Vietnam, and 52% in the Gulf War but references to these statistics are not provided. An Army report entitled U.S. Army Fratricide Incidents during the Global War on Terror (11 September 2001 to 31 March 2008 concluded that friendly fire accounted for 24 percent of those killed in action in Desert Storm.
Whichever figures are accurate, the numbers are appalling. And in addition to fratricide deaths there is an increase in suicide among returning veterans. Additionally, a recent study -- not by the military but by Aaron Glantz of the San Francisco Bay Citizen -- revealed a surge in deaths, in addition to suicide, by vehicle and motorcycle accidents, drug overdoses, and other causes among Afghanistan and Iraq war veterans.
An analysis of official death certificates on file at the State Department of Public Health reveals that more than 1,000 California veterans under 35 died between 2005 and 2008. That figure is three times higher than the number of California service members who were killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts over the same period. The Pentagon and Department of Veterans Affairs said they do not count the number of veterans who have died after leaving the military.
The tragic death of Pat Tillman was avoidable, as is the damage that perpetual war is inflicting on the troops fortunate enough to return alive. "We Support Our Troops" bumper stickers decorate automobiles running on the fuel for which we fight; when questioning the legality or morality of war, one is immediately consider anti-troops, purposefully shutting down any debate. But the so-called "support" for those troops stops at the bumper sticker when their lives are exploited for propaganda, covered-up in death, or simply neglected when their service is no longer required. The Tillman Story does a wonderful job of exposing this hypocrisy. It is for that very reason that few are familiar with the real story.
Visit http://tillmanstory.com/site/ to watch the trailer and for more information.
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