The Army has not yet released its own nearly 2,000-page investigative report on the incident, prepared in response to questions from Tillman's family and from Senator John McCain, which includes interviews with soldiers in Tillman's unit who were with him when he died. But The Washington Post got a copy, and reports that the cover-up -- which "spared" Tillman's family from immediate knowledge of how he died, so that they felt bitterly betrayed when the truth came out -- went deeper and lasted longer than originally thought:
The first Army investigator who looked into the death of former NFL player Pat Tillman in Afghanistan last year found within days that he was killed by his fellow Rangers in an act of "gross negligence," but Army officials decided not to inform Tillman's family or the public until weeks after a nationally televised memorial service.
A new Army report on the death shows that top Army officials, including the theater commander, Gen. John P. Abizaid, were told that Tillman's death was fratricide days before the service. . . .
The documents . . . show that officers made erroneous initial reports that Tillman was killed by enemy fire, destroyed critical evidence and initially concealed the truth from Tillman's brother, also an Army Ranger, who was near the attack on April 22, 2004, but did not witness it.
Soldiers, seven of whom received administrative reprimands for their actions that day, describe Tillman's friendly-fire shooting as the tragic result of a typical "fog of war" situation, and say that while they are racked with painful regrets, they might well do the same thing again in the same situation. They also report that they felt ashamed and reluctant to let the world know what had really happened -- sentiments evidently shared by the Army brass:
Officers told the soldiers not to talk about the incident "to prevent rumors" and news reports.
"I mean, it's horrible that Pat was dead. Absolutely horrible. But it hurts even more to know that it was one of our own guys that did it . . .," one soldier told [investigating Brig. Gen. Gary M.] Jones. "We just, we didn't want to get anything, you know, bad said about the regiment or anything like that. That was my guess to what the whole thing was about. We didn't want the world finding out what actually happened."
As I read this, an analogy itched at my mind, and I just got what it is: the Catholic Church's handling of the revelations of child sexual abuse by priests. Not that there's any comparison between the messy tragedy that took Pat Tillman and the crimes committed by a small minority of priests. What's comparable is the institution's first reflexive response: to protect its own image and morale by burying the truth:
An investigation was immediately launched, and several documents show that the local chain of command was largely convinced it was fratricide from the beginning.
The next day, Tillman's Ranger body armor was burned because it was covered in blood and was considered a "biohazard." His uniform was also burned. Jones noted that this amounted to the destruction of evidence. . . .
An initial investigation found fratricide just days later. Top commanders within the U.S. Central Command, including Abizaid, were notified by April 29 -- four days before Tillman's memorial service in San Jose, where he was given a posthumous Silver Star Award.
The family learned about Tillman's fratricide over Memorial Day weekend, several weeks later.
Large institutions seem incapable of learning the lessons of Watergate: that "the cover-up is worse than the crime," or in this case, than the sordid, ordinary wartime tragedy that took down an extraordinary symbol of American heroism; and that, as Shakespeare said, the truth will out, with much worse consequences than if it had never been hidden. An unpleasant fact makes a small, clean hole when it enters, but like a soft bullet, after passing through all the layers of a lie it blasts a huge and ragged exit wound.
UPDATE, 5/23/05: Pat Tillman's parents speak out:
"The fact that he was the ultimate team player and he watched his own men kill him is absolutely heartbreaking and tragic. The fact that they lied about it afterward is disgusting," Mary Tillman told [the Washington Post].
Patrick Tillman Sr. blamed high-ranking Army officers for presenting "outright lies" to the family and to the public, The Washington Post said.
"They purposely interfered with the investigation, they covered it up. I think they thought they could control it, and they realized that their recruiting efforts were going to go to hell in a handbasket if the truth about his death got out. They blew up their poster boy," said Tillman, a San Jose, Calif. lawyer. . . .
In separate interviews, Tillman's parents, who are divorced, said they are do not believe they will ever get the full story . . . [Reuters]