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Lessons to be learned from Pat Tillman’s death

Posted by John Reed on

The death of former-NFL football player, Army Ranger specialist fourth-class Pat Tillman in Afghanistan by friendly fire and its aftermath teach a number of important lessons.

(He was posthumously “promoted” to corporal. I put “promoted” in quotation marks because both a spec 4 and a corporal are E-4s. Corporal is a Korean War and earlier rank that was rarely seen in the Army when I was there. The rank was made most famous by Corporal Radar O’Reilly of the M*A*S*H* TV series. The second most famous corporal ever was Adolf Hitler who was a highly decorated German Army corporal in World War I. Typically when I was in the Army during Vietnam, a corporal was a buck sergeant who had gotten demoted for getting into some trouble. In other words, it was a rank you got demoted down to, not promoted up to. The difference between a spec. 4 and a corporal is that a corporal is supposed to command four or five troops whereas a spec. 4 is just more knowledgeable and better paid than a private.)

Not a grief counselor

I am not a grief counselor. I have no desire to communicate to Tillman’s family about this. They are grieving and they need to deal with that as best they can.

My purpose is to examine the public record of the Tillman death and its aftermath to find lessons that can be learned to make the Army better. That is quite different from what one would do at a memorial service for Tillman, so please do not judge this article by the standards of such services.

To put it another way, I cannot help the Tillman family, but what I write might be able to prevent other families from suffering what the Tillman family has.


I was not there so I cannot make definitive statements about what Tillman did or why or what he should have done.

Nevertheless, I can make pertinent observations that might help other soldiers or Marines in future combat actions.

‘Fog of war’

The so-called “fog of war” is well known. But some of its detailed implications are not.

Once a fire fight starts, there is typically much dust, smoke, small-arms fire, explosions, yelling, and sensual overload. There are also often some general facts that bear on behavior of friendly forces.

Location assumptions

For example, let’s say that when the fire fight begins, the good guys are on the south side of a road and the bad guys are on the north side. It would be imprudent for any of the good guys to cross that road to the north side without first making sure that the other good guys ALL know that he is doing so and exactly where he is crossing and going. The same would apply to other large dividers like rivers, woods versus clearing, and hill top versus valley.

I have seen several TV re-enactments of the Tillman death and have read a number of written accounts of it. Reportedly, the Americans and their Afghan allies were on a road at the bottom of a shallow valley. They were fired at by two groups of Taliban who were on the tops of two hills. So at the beginning of the fire fight, the good guys apparently adopted the assumption that the good guys were down at the bottom of the valley and the bad guys were on the tops of the hills.

Tillman’s group was separated some distance from the other American and Afghan allies. When the shooting started, Tillman’s squad leader staff Sergeant Mattthew Weeks immediately ran up an adjacent hill that did not have any Taliban on top of it Taking Tillman and others in his squad with him.

No one can say for sure, but I suspect that Tillman’s squad leader, if he had it to do over, would have expended far greater effort to make sure that every American in all American groups in the area knew they was going up that hill before they went there.

Distance between Tillman and the guy who killed him

I seem to recall that the Sports Illustrated story said the guy who killed Tillman was only 40 feet away from him—in broad daylight, in a war where the U.S. forces dress totally differently (desert cammies with helmet and full battle dress including bullet-proof vest) from the enemy (Afghan style civilian clothes). Go figure.

The 4/21/07 San Francisco Chronicle has a page one photo of the actual scene of the incident. In the foreground is the rock behind which Tillman took cover just before he was killed. Four U.S. military personnel are standing around it. The one closest to the rock appears to be about 6 feet tall. In the photo, he is 2 3/4 inches tall. In the background on a dirt road at the bottom of the shallow hill is a humvee. I surmise this is the location of the Humvee that shot Tillman because the caption describes the photo as being of a reenactment by the U.S. personnel who were there. The humvee in the photo is 7/8 inch long. The distance from the back of the rock to the humvee in the photo is 4 3/4 inches.

I am sure there is a way to calculate the distance between the two knowing the actual and photo lengths of the soldier, the vehicle, and the photo length of the distance between them. I may just go to a humvee dealer and move back until the length of a humvee is 7/8 inches then pace off the distance from me to it.

It looks like Tillman could have thrown a rock and hit the humvee in the photo. Just going by looking at the photo, I would guess that the distance was about 50 yards.

Army medical examiners (guys who perform autopsies) said Tillman had three M-16 bullet holes close together in his forehead which they said meant he was shot from 10 yards away.

A Ranger who was near Tillman when he was killed, Sergeant Bryan O’Neal, testified in Congress that the killers were close enough for him to recognize who they were—not more than 50 yards away but farther than 10 yards.

O’Neal also said that a chaplain whose name has been redacted from the official report that quoted him was wrong when he said Tillman berated O’Neal profanely about praying just before dying. How come the chaplain’s name was redacted but his libelous statements were circulated worldwide? Reveal the SOB’s name. I’ll bet there were plenty of public documents that said he was the chaplain of that unit before the incident. He may have been quoted in the media before the incident. He certainly has access to the media now, thereby making him a public figure for privacy-law purposes. Release the SOB’s name! The 7/27/07 AP story says O’Neal was lying next to Tillman when he was killed. Other news stories said Sp. 4 Jade Lane was the one in that position.

And while you’re at it, release the name of the Ranger who killed Tillman and the names of the chain of command above him. At present, the Army is protecting him far more than they protected U.S. military personnel like Tillman or those dying daily in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Jon Krakauer says in his book Where Men Win Glory that Tillman was shot by Trevor Alders from a moving vehicle from about 130 feet away. Krakauer says the time was 6:46 PM,not long before dusk in the steep mountains of Afghanistan on April 22, 2004.

A predator drone was above during the action filming it according to a civilian contractor at Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanista who was watching it as it happenedn. The Army says no such film ever existed.

Afghan in civilian clothes

Two guys were killed: Tillman and one of his Afghan allies. The Afghan ally was wearinga U.S. Army combat uniforg and armed with an AK-47 assault rifle.

The Taliban enemy who ambushed the convoy were wearing civilian Afghan clothes and armed with AK-47s and RPGs and mortars.

The Afghan who was killed next to Tillman was of the same skin complexion as other Afghans and had a full black beard which I believv is not permitted by U.S. soldiers and is certainly uncommon in U.S. society.

In this case, the Taliban were in civilian clothes and armed with AK-47s and so were the Afghan allies traveling with the Americans. That is an obvious bad idea. Looking like the enemy got one of the allies killed and probably contributed greatly to Tillman’s getting killed as he stood within a short distance from the Afghan.

Lesson: If you are an American, do not hang around in fire fights with guys who are dressed, bearded, and armed like the enemy.

This strikes me as a no-brainer.

Day-glo orange or olive drab?

It is traditional in the U.S. Army for our soldiers and Marines to wear olive drab- (or desert-) colored and/or camouflage pattern combat uniforms. The same is true for most other militaries. German soldiers wore gray uniforms in World War II.

But we have all seen civilian law-enforcement teams that wear jackets that clearly identify them as FBI or ATF or whatever. Those uniforms are most definitely not designed to hide like olive drab or camouflage patterns.

Why not put our military forces in day-glo orange uniforms to reduce the incidence of friendly fire casualties? Would such a uniform have saved Tillman’s life in this case? From what I have seen in the media, I suspect it would have.

Obviously, there are missions and there are missions. In some missions, like commando raids behind enemy lines, you are more worried about being discovered by the enemy than you are of friendly fire. But in other, probably MOST, combat situations nowadays, you are more worried about friendly fire than you are about being discovered by the enemy. This is especially true of the U.S. military which usually fights like a high-tech Roman legion with aircraft overhead and from numerous obviously U.S. vehicles like tanks and humvees.

On D-Day where friendly fire was a big danger, allied planes were deliberately decorated with numerous big white stripes. U.S. vehicles also had a big white star on the top of them to help identify them to friendly forces. These planes and vehicles were also painted olive drab which evidences a bit of schizophrenia. In Desert Storm, allied vehicles had a big red flag laid out flat on the tops of them.

I do not dispute that U.S. military personnel and vehicles and aircraft should sometimes be painted in camouflage colors and/or pattern. But I DO dispute that such colors or patterns are always appropriate. This is a case where the military should learn from the civilian law enforcement officials and dress AT TIMES in colors and patterns designed to make it easy for friendly forces to identify which side the U.S. personnel are on.

One or the other

I also DO dispute the notion that U.S. military personnel or equipment should ever be dressed or painted in a schizophrenic way that includes a combination of olive drab and/or camouflage AND some sort of prominent “We’re American” sign like the D-Day white stripes. U.S. military personnel should have at least two battle uniforms: one for stealth and one for friendly-fire avoidance. I suggest the stealth version be the traditional olive drab or camouflage and that the friendly-fire avoidance version be day-glo orange. No kidding. Such a uniform probably would have saved Pat Tillman’s life as well as the lives of many other less noted friendly fire casualties in other actions.

It might also be wise to do as some hunter’s clothing does and put day-glo orange on one side and olive drab or desert camouflage on the other of a reversible uniform. That way, if the battle did not go according to plan for a particular soldier and he found he needed to hide from the enemy, he could reverse his uniform to hide better.


U.S. military instructors and commanders love the old sayings, “Assumption is the mother of all screw-ups” and “ASSUME” makes an “ASS” out of “U” and “ME.”

The final act that led to Tillman’s death was his apparent assumption that the friendly forces who had been firing at him finally got the message others had been yelling to cease fire. I say that because when there was a lull in the firing, Tillman simply sat up as if it was over. It was at that time that he was killed.

My statement above that before you move to where the bad guys are in a fire fight you need to make sure that ALL your buddies know where you are going also applies to exposing yourself after a roar of friendly fire has been aimed at you. Again, I do not know, but I think it’s fair to assume that if Tillman had it to do over, he would have stayed behind cover until he had absolute total assurance that the guys who had been firing at him would no longer do so before he stood up.

Bravery versus prudence

I have read some accounts that Tillman’s squad leader’s action of immediately charging up the adjacent hill when the ambush began was brave and worthy of a medal. I was not there so I cannot say for sure. But in general, one must combine courage with intelligence.

Earlier today, I happened to see the movie The Longest Day on TV. The movie, which is based on the superb Cornelius Ryan book of the same title, is famous for its adherence to the actual facts of the D-Day battle.

I was struck by several scenes in the movie when all hell was breaking loose and the commander on whom the camera was focusing just stood there doing nothing. Rather, he was surveying the chaotic scene and obviously considering his options and trying to come up with the best one. This is in contrast to just charging toward the enemy or some other “brave” action.

The recent books Sea of Thunder and We Were One do an excellent job of discussing, based on actual battles, the need for both courage and caution. I would urge U.S. military personnel who find themselves in similar situations in the future to follow the example of The Longest Day commanders and soldiers and to consider the alternatives rather than charging into a situation whenever possible.

Tillman’s medals

As a result of this action, Tillman was posthumously awarded two medals: the purple heart and the silver star.

It appears obvious to me that Tillman did not earn the purple heart for the simple reason that it requires that the wound in question occur during action against an enemy. Friendly fire, as far as I can tell, does not count. I make no statement about whether it should and I am loathe to be taking back medals from a man who made the ultimate sacrifice in the service of his country. But the plain truth appears to be that he is not eligible for the purple heart and, indeed, that medal was awarded to Tillman as part of the Army cover-up of the circumstances of his death. Accordingly, for his family to accept it is arguably to participate in the cover-up.

A blue heart for friendly fire?

Perhaps the military should have another purple heart type medal for those who are wounded by friendly fire in the line of duty through no fault of their own. I suspect the military has never had such a medal because they think they can get away with the notion that such casualties are extremely rare. They are not. But their habit of covering them up is deeply ingrained. Don’t expect them to draw attention, with a medal, to something that they are trying to cover up any time soon.

I suspect it is standard but unofficial military policy for commanding officers to send home letters that say “your son died a hero” when, in fact, he was killed by friendly fire or even suicide. In the movie about Vietnam called Platoon Leader, the parents of a soldier who died from a drug overdose received a “your son died a hero” letter from the commanding NCO or officer.

The motivation for such lies is to help the grieving family deal with the death. But it also coincidentally serves the military’s purpose of covering up their own incompetence and the sometimes poor quality of their training, screening, and personnel. I suspect the motivation in the Tillman case was more to serve the Army’s purposes because Tillman’s extraordinary background had made him the most prominent enlisted man in the U.S. military.

An Army captain who has been in the current wars said,

When you quoted the criteria for purple heart, you stopped at number 7. If you go on to 8, it says, " (8) After 7 December 1941, by weapon fire while directly engaged in armed conflict, regardless of the fire causing the wound."
Meaning, friendly fire during an engagement with the enemy qualifies one to receive the award.

I am not sure that interpretation is correct but it might be.

Another reader sent me this:

Below is from Army Regulation 600-8-22
(Military Awards).

Members killed or wounded in action by friendly fire. In accordance with 10 USC 1129 for award of the Purple Heart, the Secretary of the Army will treat a member of the Armed Forces described in (a), below, in the same manner as a member who is killed or wounded in action as the result of an act of an enemy of the United States. (a) A member described in this subsection is a member who is killed or wounded in action by weapon fire while directly engaged in armed conflict, other than as the result of an act of an enemy of the United States, unless (in the case of a wound) the wound is the result of willful misconduct of the member. [Emphasis added]

Reed response: It depends on the meaning of the phrase “while directly engaged in armed conflict.” What Tillman was engaged in while being killed was trying to persuade his fellow “elite” rangers to stop shooting at him and his fellow American. His “weapons” were a smoke grenade and waving his arms. Doesn’t sound like “armed conflict.” The enemy that had originally attacked the second group of vehicles in Tillman’s platoon, but not Tillman’s first group of vehicles, had disappeared a half hour or more before

How many more readers are going to send me this section of the regulations? I need a court decision or other authoritative elaboration of the meaning of the phrase “while directly engaged in armed conflict.” The opinion of Joe Schmoe or even Captain Joe Schmoe don’t cut it.

Would someone please send me the name of the stupid, yet “elite,” son of a bitch who killed Tillman? I will have to research the legal issue of “private person” before publishing it, but that guy heretofore has been infinitely more protected than Tilllman. If U.S. military personnel are outted for being guilty of friendly fire, they will likely be more careful in the future. That would be a good thing. At present, the identities of Americanss who incompetenly kill fellow Americans is almost always covered up. A private person who commits a felony loses their private person status for discussions of that act. In civilian law, this sounds at the very least like manslaughter or negligent homicide.

Jon Krakauer say Trevor Alders killed Tillman in his book Where Men Win Glory. Krakauer also quotes from a five-page letter Alders wrote protesting his being thrown out of the rangers—his only punishment for killing Tillman. Krakauer expresses amazement that Alders seems to think he was the main victim of the incident, not Tillman. I will express amazement that any of these people want to remain in teh Army let alone the rangers.

Silver star?

I do not know whether Tillman’s posthumous silver star was awarded for what he did to try to stop his own men from firing at him and his two colleagues or for his following his squad leader up the hill earlier.

If it was for trying to stop the friendly fire, it probably does not qualify for a silver star. The silver star is the third highest U.S. Army medal for valor against the enemy after the Congressional Medal of Honor and the Distinguished Service Cross. The appropriate medal for risking one’s life to save the life of another in a situation not involving combat with the enemy is the Soldier’s Medal. The American Ranger who was next to Tillman when he got killed, PFC Bryan O’Neal, said that Tillman risked his own life to save his fellow Ranger’s. That meets the criterion for a Soldier’s Medal.But after I have read and seen multiple video accounts of the incident, I do not believe Tillman did that. I think he probably would have if the opportunity had come up, but he was pinned down behind a 12-inch-high rock and really had no great chance to do anything. He tossed a purple smoke grenade hoping teh friendlies would recognize that only Americans do that. And he waved his as to try to show they were friendlies. But he was trying to save himself as much as anyone else.

Of course, it would also appear that the main responsibility for his death and that of his Afghan ally should be borne by the Americans who killed them. They were clearly out of line blazing away while other Rangers were yelling for them to stop.

Soldiers in battle must listen, at least from time to time, for instructions from their superiors and colleagues. They cannot ignore communications directed at them for extended periods as Tillman’s killers apparently did.

If the Silver Star was awarded for charging up the unoccupied hill, it may be appropriate. Again, I was not there. And Tillman was only following his squad leader when he did that. If Tillman gets a Silver Star for that, so does everyone else.

But I must say that it sounds excessive for any of them to get the Silver Star for that let alone only Tillman.

It would appear that the military awarded Tillman the Silver Star mainly to try to put a positive spin on a disastrously awful event that reflected horribly on the competence of the Army. It also appears that the Silver Star was awarded more for his pre-military service celebrity status than for his actions that day in Afghanistan. Finally, it appeared that the Silver Star, like the Purple Heart, was part and parcel of the cover-up of the truth about what happened that day.

Now that the truth is out, the fact that the military has not withdrawn Tillman’s Purple Heart and Silver Star awards and maybe replaced them with a Soldier’s Medal is further evidence of military’s total lack of interest in truth and integrity and and their ultra high regard for public-relations and politics.

See my article on the U.S. military’s propensity to award medals improperly.

Types of friendly fire

Friendly-fire casualties can be divided into three categories:

A. accidental friendly fire or other accidents that injure another
B. accidentally self-inflicted friendly-fire casualties
C. intentional “friendly” fire

Category A is apparently what happened here is is probably the most common form of friendly-fire casualty. Category B is less well known.

The swift boat vets accused John Kerry of claiming an illegitimate Purple Heart that enabled him to end his tour in Vietnam. During Vietnam, you could go home if you had three Purple Hearts. As soon as he was eligible, Kerry invoked that privilege and left. The men from his swift boat who traveled around campaigning with him during the 2004 presidential elections had been left behind in Vietnam by him during the war. One author (John O’Neill) of the swift boat book (Unfit for Command) replaced Kerry on Swift Boat PCF 94, Kerry’s boat, as captain.

O’Neill and his co-author say they heard that one of Kerry’s Purple Hearts was for injury suffered when Kerry and another officer childishly tried to destroy a cache of enemy rice with hand grenades and failed to get away fast enough. If true, that would be a case of self-inflicted friendly fire and not eligible for a Purple Heart.

One of my West Point classmates reportedly died when he threw a grenade toward a suspected enemy (based on sound one presumes) in the dark in the jungle in Vietnam. Reportedly, the grenade hit a tree and bounced back where it killed the guy who threw it. If true, that would be another example of self-inflicted friendly fire.

There is no reason to believe Tillman’s friendly fire wounds were self-inflicted.


Intentional “friendly” fire was most commonly called “fragging” in Vietnam. Frag is short for fragmentation grenade. Fragging was throwing a frag grenade into an area where the person you were trying to murder was.

Another of my classmates from West Point was reportedly fragged to death by his own men. I did not know him at West Point, but he was the commander of the guard detail that was supposed to relieve me one weekend night at Camp Buckner at West Point. He slept through relieving me, which was all but unheard of among cadets (everyone sets an alarm clock), and cost me most of my time off. I was ready to frag him that night myself and therefore was not surprised when I heard someone else had done so.

Such murders do not require a fragmentation grenade. Shooting during a fire fight may be a more common way to do it.

I have seen no evidence that the man who killed Tillman did so deliberately, but if I were one of the investigators, it is a possibility I would feel I could not dismiss until I ruled it out through investigation. I would not assume it did not happen. Certainly many throughout history U.S. military personnel have been deliberately killed by their fellows using the fog of war and general lack of forensic investigation as a way to get away with murder.

After I wrote the above paragraph, a 7/27/07 Associated Press story said that the Army personnel who autopsied Tillman found three, close-together, M-16 bullet holes in his forehead. Only U.S. forces in Afghanistan use M-16s. The Army medical examiners thought such holes must have come from 10 yards away and that it was possible they were deliberately fired at Tillman by a Ranger who knew it was him. The Army medical examiners tried to get the Army to investigate whether Tillman was murdered by one or more of his colleagues but the Army, namely the Army’s Human Resources Command and the Army Criminal Investigation Division, initially refused to look into that possibility.

When they made inquires into that possibility later, the general tone was that Tillman was liked by all his colleagues.

Documents released by the Army revealed that Army lawyers exchanged emails at the time congratulating themselves for preventing Army criminal investigators from looking into the matter.

In my article on the dubiousness of many, if not most, U.S. military medal awards, I noted that there should be a close correlation between bravery medals awarded and the incidence of Purple Hearts and damage to military equipment in the same action for which the bravery has been cited. The Swift Boat veterans noted that when John Kerry got one of his his Silver Stars and Purple Hearts, no one else was hurt or awarded medals for bravery nor was any U.S. Navy equipment, like the swift boats, damaged by enemy fire.

Similarly in the Tillman incident, he got killed by his own men and awarded a Silver Star for bravery, and no one other than the two guys standing next to Tillman got wounded or cited for bravery and there was not a scratch on the U.S. military equipment at the scene.

‘Elite’ Rangers

Pat Tillman was a so-called “elite” Army Ranger when he was killed. The guys who shot him and his Afghan ally were his fellow “elite” Army Rangers. I am also a graduate of Army Ranger School. Pardon me if I do not see a lot of “eliteness” in the death of Pat Tillman.

I am not saying that Tillman and/or his fellow Rangers that day in Afghanistan were behaving below the normal “elite” standard of Army Rangers. Rather, I am saying, as I said on my Ranger Web page, that the Army and the media have overhyped special operations military personnel in general and Rangers in particular.

We had 57 days of training when I graduated; 63 days now I understand. Actually, it should have been 57 days of training. It was more like 25 days of training and 32 days of torture in the form of sleep and food deprivation. During the 57 days, we probably averaged about 2 3/4 hours of sleep a day; less if you just look at the patrols. That leaves 24 - 5 = 21 hours a day of training x 57 = 1,211 total hours of “training” and meals.

I coached six high school football teams. Our total practice for the season was about 200 hours. I guarantee you that my 14- and 15-year old football players learned far more about our offense, defense, and special teams in that 200 hours than my adult “elite” Ranger class learned about Ranger tactics in that 1,200 hours. Why? They were too busy torturing us and making us stand in too many lines to much to get as much teaching done as they could have and should have.

So neither Pat Tillman nor Alders who shot him in the temple were “elite” in any sense of that word as it is generally understood. My football teams were not “elite.” “Elite” military units are only “elite” when compared to other military units which is not much competition in the grand scheme of things. Most of the times I hear the word “elite” applied to some military unit I think, “I guess everything is relative.” The Thunderbirds and Blue Angels are elite. The faculty at West Point is elite. The paratroopers, Marines, SEALs, etc. are just some guys who endured a couple of months of extra, royal-pain-in-the-ass, military training, much of which was hazing-style harassment.

Negligent homicide

I wasn’t there. But based on media accounts and TV reenactments, I expect there might have been what civilians call negligent homicide or manslaughter on the part of the ranger who killed Tillman and his Afghan ally.

Tillman and Alders were just a couple of guys who survived a miserable 63 days in Ranger school and thereby learned a little bit about certain military tactics. Rangers are not supermen. According to Krakauer’s book, the bullshit superman image is part of what attracted Tillman to the Rangers and therefore is partly responsible for his death. If he knew the truth, that is that a Ranger is just someone who went through a God-awful ordeal for two months and came out about the same as before, he probably would not have bothered. He then would have served with a unit that was less high on their “elite” status and that was not trying to prove how John Rambo “elite” they were every minute of every day. The non-“elite” guys are more likely to try to get the job at hand done in some common-sense way.

The senior Ranger with the squad that killed Tillman, Staff Sergeant Greg Baker, may also be due for punishment for ignoring the cease fires or not taking more care to avoid firing at their own men. In fact, Baker was forced out of the rangers but that just meant going into the regular Army. He got no reprimand, no demotion, no fine, nothing.

The military found almost nothing wrong and meted out no real punishment. To the extent that the media and Congress force them to, they will mete out the most minimal possible punishment to he most junior personnel they can find. The military has a very long history of investigating itself, finding itself not guilty, or finding only the most low-ranking personnel guilty of only the most minor offenses, and handing out only the weakest punishment like a letter of reprimand in your file or letting the person retire out of the military—which is a punishment only in the warped view of the lifers.

Lt. General McChrystal’s cable

Tillman was killed on 4/22/04. On 4/29/04, Lieutenant General Stanley McChrystal (West Point Class of 1976) sent a high priority “personal for” cable about Tillman’s death to General John Abizaid (West Point Class of 1973). Abizaid retired from the Army in March of 2007. Abizaid said he did not get the cable for “10 to 20 days” because he was in Iraq when it was sent. I don’t know what that would have to do with anything. Four-star generals have plenty of staff and resources to make sure they get urgent cables delivered to them promptly wherever they are. Also, the San Francisco Chronicle says he was not in Iraq then. Rather, he was at the Centcom forward headquarters in Qatar at the time. Since Abizaid is the CentCom commander, Qatar was essentially his second office, the first being in Florida. I still say where he was physically on any given day is beside the point. Four-star generals who do not read their urgent cables for 10 to 20 days need to be replaced.

Some media types have treated the McChrystal cable as evidence that McChrystal was some sort of good guy whistle blower opposing the cover-up of the truth of how Tillman was killed.

Excuse me.

Whadya have to be—stupid nowadays to become a mainstream journalist? How’s about reading the damned cable. Here it is and I will analyze it line by line.

Actual words of the cable
My comments about them
Sir, in the aftermath of Corporal Pat Tillman’s untimely Does the Army have any types of death other than “untimely?” If not, why put such trite, superfluous words into a “personal for” private cable? It sounds like McChrystal was already figuring this cable was going to become public so he’s putting public relations phraseology into it to make himself look good if and when it does become public.
yet heroic death in Afghanistan on 22 April 2004 What did he think was “heroic” about it other than the fact that Tillman quit the NFL to be there?
it is anticipated that a 15-16 investigation nearing completion If he is already anticipating the finding of friendly fire, why is he still saying Tillman’s death was heroic? Wouldn’t Tillman’s death at the hands of his own Rangers be more accurately described by the other trite word that goes with “untimely”: “tragic?”
will find that it is highly possible You cannot use the word “highly” as an adjective to modify the word “possible.” Either something is possible or it’s not. “Highly possible” is like “We have a very full plane today.” Either it’s possible or it’s not. Either the plane is full or it’s not. There is no difference between “possible” and “highly possible” or between “full” or “very full.” Flight attendants talk that way to be as obsequious as possible. So do three-star generals. Obsequiousness by fight attendants is arguably necessary for an airline. It’s creepy for a high-ranking general. It sounds like he means highly “probable,” which would make sense, but he caught himself in mid-sentence and weaseled it back to “possible.”
that Corporal Tillman was killed by friendly fire. Everybody who was there when it happened knew that it was friendly fire within minutes of Tillman’s death. How did the notion ever arise that it was anything other than friendly fire? Why was any investigation necessary at all? Just ask the guys who were present when it happened how he died. It sounds like the investigation was begun for one purpose and one purpose only: to cover the asses of the brass for not immediately admitting it was friendly fire as in, “Oh, we couldn’t say it was friendly fire until the results of the investigation were in.” In fact, there was never any question about it.

At least this sentence has finally ended. They teach writing at West Point, but not everyone gets it. And this guy is only at the second highest rank in the U.S. military.

This potential He means “certain.”
finding is exacerbated by the unconfirmed but suspected reports “Unconfirmed but suspected reports” is the obsequious, awkward, diarrhea-of-the-mouth, bureaucrat version of the word “rumors.”
that POTUS That’s the government acronym for President of the United States. We normal people would have just said President Bush.
and the Secretary of the Army In other words, two really big shots who outrank us and who could end our careers in a heartbeat.
might include comments about Corporal Tillman’s This is the third time in two sentences he has used the phrase “Corporal Tillman.” Why not just call him Tillman after the first one? As with many ostensibly private communications in the government, Lt. Gen. McChrystal seems to be covering his ass with extremely respectful news release type language in anticipation of this cable becoming public.
heroism Why can’t POTUS and the Secretary comment about Tillman’s “heroism?” Lt. General McChrystal did in his first sentence. Why is Tillman “heroic” when McChrystal talks about him “privately,” but not when the President or the Secretary do publicly?
and his approved Silver Star medal Excuse me. In view of the fact that it is “highly possible” that he may have been killed by friendly fire, and the Silver Star requires “gallantry in action against an enemy,” how can such a medal be approved at this point? If the Army has to wait for the “15-16 investigation” that is “nearing completion,” why isn’t the Army waiting until the completion of that investigation to decide whether Tillman earned the Silver Star? Obviously, the awarding of the Silver Star is some sort of undeserved public relations move in furtherance of the cover-up of the circumstances of his death. Were they perhaps expecting that his family and the media would not want to ask any rude questions that might cost Tillman his posthumous Silver Star?
The potential that he might have been killed by friendly fire in no way detracts from his witnessed heroism or the recommended decoration for personal valor in the face of the enemy. Gee! It’s only five days after the incident that occurred on the other side of the planet from McChrystal’s Fort Bragg, NC location but McChrystal is absolutely certain about Tillman deserving the Silver Star, which normally requires a highly subjective assessment. However, he has to await the outcome of an investigation to determine whether Tillman was killed by friendly fire, which was a no brainer in this case. Apparently, public-relations efforts like awarding dubious medals require virtually no investigation or thought, but revealing unattractive truth, well, we gotta do a whole formal “15-16 investigation” before such an unnatural act.
in speeches currently being prepared, How does he know this? Do POTUS and the Secretary send a heads up to McChrystal, (Joint Special Operations Command), whenever they ask their speech writers to start work?
not knowing the specifics surrounding his death. As stated above, those present knew the specifics from the start. Who did not know the specifics and why?
I felt it was essential that you received this information as soon as we detected it “Detected?” The incident occurs. The commander of the unit reports it as soon as conditions permit to his superior and up the chain of command it goes until it reaches the Commander in Chief. Since this involved the death of the most famous enlisted man in the U.S. military since Elvis, I expect it would have traveled from the platoon leader to the President in about one hour—unless someone stopped it. The only reason anyone would need to “detect” it would be if someone in Tillman’s chain of command behaved criminally, like filing a false report.
in order to preclude any unknowing statements What is all this jive!? Why is this being discussed with Abizaid? Why not just make sure the entire chain of command knows everything immediately? Why would anyone have to take any extraordinary steps to achieve this “precluding” if everyone told the truth as the report moved up the chain?
by our country’s leaders Again, this guy sounds like he’s writing a speech—as if he expected this cable to end up in the newspaper, which is where I got it. You can see the cable at Why not just say “POTUS or SOTA” here?
which might cause public embarrassment That’s public embarrassment of the President and/or Secretary. Note that General McChrystal has not shown the slightest interest in this cable about Tillman’s family or the plain old truth or right and wrong. It’s all about McChrystal and Abizaid avoiding getting in trouble as a result of their bosses being embarrassed by repeating Army chain of command lies.
if the circumstances of Corporal Tillman’s death become public. Aha! Note the word “if.” In other words, at this point, the cover-up is ongoing. McChrystal figures it might succeed forever. But just in case it gets exposed, Plan B is to prevent the President or Secretary of the Army from saying anything that will make them look bad if the cover-up is found out.

McChrystal appears to be advocating the rather improbable course of having the President of the United States comment about the death of its most famous enlisted man in 50 years without mentioning the “heroic” early public reports of how he died or the award of the Silver Star for that “heroism.” Seems to me the media would jump on such omissions instantly. “Mr. President! Mr. President! Why didn’t you mention that Pat Tillman died a hero and was awarded the Silver Star?”

Further evidence of deliberate cover up is in a message from Lieutenant General Kensinger (Chief of Army Special Operations Command—West Point Class of 1970) to a lieutenant colonel whose name was redacted, warning that lieutenant colonel to, “safeguard the information against leaks.” ( Kensinger told Army investigators about 70 times that he could not remember what he did in the weeks after Tillman was killed. I don’t believe that.

Pentagon documents said that Kensinger repeatedly contradicted the testimony of other officers who were involved and often contradicted his own testimony—all while wearing a West Point ring with the word “honor” engraved on it I’ll bet.

Since the fact that Tillman was killed by enemy fire should have been made public as soon as it was known to the chain of command, what’s to leak?

Kensinger attended the Tillman funeral on May 3, 2004, and eulogized Tillman there but still failed to tell the family that Tillman died from friendly fire. The Army Inspector General’s report said that Kensinger testified falsely that he did not learn of the friendly fire nature of the death until after the funeral, but credible other sworn testimony said that he knew it was friendly fire on April 25, 2004.

The report recommended that McChrystal and Kensinger be disciplined. Kensinger was demoted for retirement-pay purposes. .

Would you like to know how McChrystal was ‘disciplined?’

On 5/11/09, McChrystal was promoted to four-star general, the highest rank in the U.S. military, and made head of Afghanistan. According to the 5/12/09 Wall Street Journal, the Pentagon inquiry about Tillman “didn’t result in any punishment of Gen. McChrystal.”

McChrystal is scum and so are the people who failed to punish him and who, unbelievably, promoted him. Pat Tillman deserved much better. His family deserves much better now.

Lt. Col. Jeff Bailey’s instructions to conceal the truth from Tillman’s brother and accompanying threat

According to a Media News story in the 4/25/07 San Ramon Valley Times, Spc. Bryan O’Neal was yards away from Tillman when he was killed. Hours later, Lieutenant Colonel Jeff Bailey ordered O’Neal not to tell Kevin Tillman, who was in the nearby area, that Pat was killed by friendly fire. Bailey added that O’Neal would get in trouble if he violated that order.

O’Neal gave this account to a Congressional committee. Lieutenant Colonel Bailey has not been disciplined for his part in the cover-up. He was promoted to full colonel. If you’re a jeff Bailey kind of guy, make a career of the Army. You’ll fit right in. If telling subordinates to cover up the death of a comrade and its reasons seems like sleazy scum bag behavior to you, choose another employer and career.

Destruction of evidence

In media accounts of the Tillman incident, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that official Army policy prohibits destroying or tampering with evidence pertinent to a friendly fire incident. I was not surprised to read that Army officers immediately ordered the destruction of Tillman’s clothing, bullet-proof vest, and personal pocket notebook. The army’s stated reason for the regulation-violating order: his things were bloody and therefore were “biohazards.” Right! I’ll bet that was the first time in history that the personal effects of a friendly-fire casualty were bloody.

The real reason the bullet-proof vest was destroyed appears to be that it had bullet holes that looked like they were caused by U.S. bullets (U.S. M-4 or SAW rounds) not 7.62 mm bullets (Russian or Chicom AK-47 rounds).

Documents examined by the media also indicated that soldiers who knew what had happened were ordered not to talk about it. Telephone and Internet service at Tillman’s base was cut off to prevent anyone on the base from communicating with the outside world. Guards were placed around the bed of the solider wounded next to Tillman to prevent him from talking to anyone. False statements were included in official documents about the incident including the Silver Star citation describing the events for which Tillman was awarded the Silver Star. For example, official accounts said that Tillman was taken to a military hospital within an hour of the wound and that CPR was performed but that he died after an hour. In fact Tillman died instantly, no CPR was ever performed on him,nor should it have been, and his body did not get to the Army hospital for two hours after he was shot. There was evidence that the Army officers involved discussed a public relations strategy with regard to the incident.

The military medical examiners and military coroner at Dover Air Force Base who received the body took months to analyze the case because the Army did not tell them friendly fire was suspected but they found evidence that it was friendly fire. They finally announced on 7/22/04 that the death could not have come from enemy fire.

It appears from the 4/21/07 Chronicle story that Tillman never fired his weapon during the incident. Only the Afghan ally did, resulting in his death and that of Tillman.

Not just officers

Enlisted Rangers were apparently part of the cover-up as well. One is quoted by the Chronicle as saying, “We just didn’t want to get anything, you know, bad said about the [75th Ranger] regiment or anything like that. We didn’t want the world finding out what actually happened.”

I’ll bet. That’s called a cover-up and it’s what happens when you combine inadequate training and incompetent execution of a mission with lack of character and the military’s centuries-old habit of using false statements to avoid consequences for their myriad screw-ups.

Not that smart

A number of people have indicated that they believed that the President and other top people made a conscious decision to use Tillman’s death to distract attention from Abu Ghraib and from the casualties that month in the war. I doubt that. The people who run the Army and the government are not that smart. Rather, more likely, it was just the Army doing their normal knee-jerk cover-up of anything that is the slightest bit embarrassing and that may hurt the career of some brass hat.

When I was on guard one night at Fort Bragg, I read the standing orders for the guard. One rule was if anything happened that might “cause the public to lose confidence in our military,” the press was to be excluded from the post, no comment was to be made, and the base commander was to be called immediately. In other words, it was standing operating procedure to commence a cover-up from the start if there was any chance anything happened that might need to be covered up. When in doubt, cover up.

The U.S. military is well described by the GI acronym SNAFU—Situation Normal, All Fouled Up. Because of bureaucracy, relatively weak personnel overall (see my article on why we need a draft), and a difficult, if not impossible, set of rules, the military screws up continuously. That, in turn, begets continuous, instinctive cover-ups to try to avoid responsibility for the screw-ups.

The Pat Tillman Memorial Anti-Fratricide Institute

The Army wants to honor Pat Tillman for his choosing them as the service in which he wanted to serve in preference to continuing as an NFL player. I’m fine with that. It’s a legitimate impulse.

My problem is with their doing so by giving him a Purple Heart he is technically not qualified for and a very dubious Silver Star. I suggest an honest alternative, namely that the U.S. military start a Pat Tillman Memorial Anti-Fratricide Institute in his honor.

As the name implies, the purpose of the institute would be to dramatically reduce the number of friendly-fire casualties. Since what you measure you manage, step one of the incident would be to start gathering data on the incidence and causes of fratricide and publishing that data. Thus far, the military has tried to sweep fratricide under the rug and dismiss it as a series of freak incidents. That’s a lie. Pat Tillman may have died because of the military’s past avoidance of admitting there was a problem—and taking adequate steps to reduce that problem.

Military history is replete with friendly-fire deaths including Stonewall Jackson and Mickey Marcus. They were both West Point graduates. Marcus’ life story was commemorated by the movie Cast a Giant Shadow.

There is a decent article on fratricide on Wikipedia. It lists numerous friendly fire deaths around the world and throughout history including World War II General Lesley J. McNair and the WW II U.S. submarine Dorado. Friendly fire pre-dates firearms and includes some arrows that killed the forces of the army that shot them.

According to the Wikipedia article, the trend is the wrong way. Weapons lethality has outstripped any improvement in fratricide avoidance—not that I am aware of much effort to reduce fratricide. Wikipedia says the percentage of our military who were killed by friendly fire in World War II and Vietnam was 16% and 14% respectively. In Desert Storm, it was 23%. In the latter “war,” the U.S. military killed more allied soldiers by accident than the Iraqi enemy did on purpose.

I hasten to add that I do not believe there are any reliable figures on friendly fire deaths in the World Wars, Korea, or Vietnam. I was in the Vietnam war and saw no interest by the brass in friendly fire deaths. They regarded them as an embarrassment about which the less said the better, not as something to be avoided by allocation of any additional resources.

Here are articles written by former ranger Stan Goff on the Tillman killing and cover-up.

I appreciate informed, well-thought-out constructive criticism and suggestions.

John T. Reed

Link to information about John T. Reed’s Succeeding book which, in part, relates lessons learned about succeeding in life from being in the military

John T. Reed military home page

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  • A three-round, tight, head-shot group delivered from an M249 (SAW) from 40 yards away? And you’re going to tell me that this was NOT the assassination of an NFL player/celebrity by an undersized runt whose only success in life was winning a Ranger tab?

    YES, the SAW is that accurate of a weapon. Always has been. NO, it is not impossible to use a SAW to put an aimed, three-round group into a target’s head at 40 yards. How do I know? Because I HAVE DONE IT BEFORE, albeit with a cardboard target in lieu of my subordinate’s cranium.

    If Pat had been the victim of someone blazing blindly away with an M249, the pattern of rounds that penetrated his body would have been vertical, if anything, based on the way machinguns fire and recoil. And the impacts would have been throughout his frame, not a grouping of three through his forehead.

    I was not there, and I am not in possession of empirical evidence, but I give it as my “fixed opinion” based on what has been established as fact re: the weapon system, the range, and the shot placement and grouping that Pat was assassinated.

    Whether this was Premeditated Murder or Manslaughter is immaterial . . . the subject was still put to death by his fellow Federal employee. Much like my West Point classmates were put to death by their Ranger Instructor in 1995. Coverup? Sure, why not? That’s what the Army does better than anything else . . . including winning our wars.

    Jeff on

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