Pat Tillman’s Unfinished Legacy

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The former Arizona Cardinals defensive back Pat Tillman died in 2004 because of a mistake, a military confusion in the canyons of Afghanistan about where the bad guys were. In service as an Army Ranger, Tillman was shot by another American in what the military calls “fratricide,” but what the rest of the nation knows as “friendly fire.” That was bad enough. But even worse was the military’s repeated failure to come clean about the cause of Tillman’s death.

In 2007, Rep. Henry Waxman summarized the military failures this way:

Specialist [Bryan] O’Neal was standing next to Corporal Tillman during the firefight. He knew immediately that this was a case of friendly fire and described what happened in an eyewitness statement he submitted up his chain of command immediately after Corporal Tillman’s death. But Specialist O’Neal told us something else. After he submitted his statement, someone else rewrote it. This unnamed person made significant changes that transformed O’Neal’s account into an enemy attack. We still don’t know who did that and why he did it. We just know that although everyone on the ground knew this was a case of friendly fire, the American people and the Tillman family were told that Corporal Tillman was killed by the enemy. And that doesn’t make any sense.

Today, my former colleague, the investigative reporter Mark Benjamin, has a new, highly disturbing story up at that clearly shows the Army still has a problem with transparency and credibility in the investigations of possible friendly-fire deaths. The story concerns the death of Pfc. Albert Nelson and Pfc. Roger Suarez-Gonzalez, two soldiers who were killed by a 2006 blast in Ramadi, Iraq.

Benjamin’s reporting, which includes a contemporaneous video of the attack, clearly shows 1) that immediately after the blast, several witnesses said they saw the fire come from an American tank, 2) that moments later the soldiers’ superiors put pressure on the soldiers to say the blast came from an Iraqi mortar, 3) that the investigation that ruled-out friendly-fire as a cause of the blast was overseen by the commander of the tank brigade accused of killing the soldiers, 4) that despite efforts by superior officers to silence dissent, several soldiers who witnessed the events continue to speak out, under fear of punishment, to say that the cause of the deaths was friendly fire.

“I was behind the tank that shot the house,” says one soldier. “I saw the tank fire. The way it was oriented, it was pointed in that direction.”

“It is f—— plain as day that the tank shot at the building I was in and killed two of my friends,” says another soldier who was in the building that was hit. “And then we were all asked to lie about it.”

If there is one lesson to be drawn from the Tillman scandal it is this: Commanders on the ground cannot always be trusted to investigate their own units. There were seven investigations of the Tillman case, and still we do not know all the answers, like for instance, who altered O’Neal’s statement. Three high-ranking officials, including the three-star general who commanded Army Special Operations forces after 2001, were reprimanded for their treatment of the Tillman case.

At the very least, the Army and Congress should revisit the deaths of Nelson and Suarez-Gonzalez. Their families have a right to know the truth that the Tillman family was so long denied.