John Smallwood | Tillman death tragic, but not criminal

Posted: March 28, 2007

PAT TILLMAN is an American hero. He represents the best of what love and pride for our nation are all about.

Tillman was so affected and angered by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, that he surrendered a multimillion-dollar contract with the Arizona Cardinals to enlist with the U.S. Army.

In 2004, Tillman, a member of the elite Army Rangers, made the ultimate sacrifice for our country.

And without question, there are those in the Army who did an extreme disservice to his heroism by trying to cover up the circumstances of his death and lying to his grieving family and the public.

That Tillman was killed by "friendly fire" and not the enemy in Afghanistan makes his death only more tragic, not less heroic.

That nine high-ranking Army officers, including four generals, as determined by the Defense Department, felt it necessary to dance around with the facts speaks only of their cowardice.

Obviously, avoiding the issues that would come with a high-profile friendly-fire death superseded the honor of being truthful.

But Tillman's family wasn't happy with the findings given to them Monday.

"The truth is not what we received," they said in a prepared statement yesterday. "Now we ask the assistance of Congress and the press."

While the Tillman family's reaction is understandable, after years of stonewalling from the Army, how could they not accept any finding without an aura of skepticism?

What bothers me, however, is the stance that the Tillman family's statement maintained.

Even though the investigation went down the extraordinary road of saying criminal violations might have been committed by the officers who provided misleading information during the investigation, Tillman's family seems angered that there was no finding of criminal wrongdoing in his death.

Basically, the Army would not press charges against Tillman's fellow Rangers - the ones who opened fire on him.

They accepted the soldiers' defense that Tillman's death was caused by a chain of tragic mistakes in the "fog of war."

That did not sit well with the family.

"The characterization of criminal negligence, professional misconduct, battlefield incompetence, concealment and destruction of evidence, deliberate deception, and conspiracy to deceive and not 'missteps,' " the Tillman family's statement said. "These actions are malfeasance.

"This attempt to impose closure by slapping the wrists of a few officers and enlisted men is yet another bureaucratic entrenchment."

I agree that those who participated in the coverup after Tillman's death should be reprimanded. Defense Department investigators, in fact, recommended that the Army take action against those officers.

But Tillman's fellow Rangers? I can't go there.

As tragic as the results were, they were simply soldiers who made mistakes while performing the same duties that Tillman was.

They were at war, chasing an enemy that was trying to kill them.

The Rangers were soldiers in a life-or-death struggle. They believed they were shooting at the enemy when Tillman and a member of the Afghan military were killed.

A different decision here or a different one there, and perhaps the outcome would have been different and Tillman still would be alive; perhaps Tillman would have been with the Rangers who delivered the deadly friendly fire.

But in the field, with their lives on the line, soldiers don't have the benefit of hindsight. I can only imagine the guilt those Rangers must carry knowing they accidentally killed one of their own.

"We determined that neither a negligent homicide or aggravated assault occurred in the shooting deaths and woundings of Corporal Tillman and others," said Brig. Gen. Rodney L. Johnson, of the Army Criminal Investigation Command.

That might be impossible for the Tillman family to ever truly accept, but death by friendly fire is a tragic, yet inevitable part of war.

Friendly-fire death happened before Tillman was killed, and it will happen again.

War is a terrible business where death can come in many ways.

Pat Tillman died a hero, but the Rangers who accidentally killed him are heroes, too.

All of them were trying to protect and preserve our nation when a tragic error occurred.

The manner in which Pat Tillman died is extremely sad, but not criminal. *

Send e-mail to

smallwj@phillynews.com.

For recent columns, go to

http://go.philly.com/smallwood.

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