|This plaque honouring Pat Tillman at the |
National Infantry Museum perpetuates the fiction
that he was killed in an enemy ambush.
The files were huge and organized chronologically, so the search was somewhat difficult. But I found a few dozen clippings, spanning an interval of nearly five years. The story they told was so complicated and changed so often that I found it almost impossible to follow.
My main objective, as Holmes and I had discussed, was information which might be helpful to the family of Gareth Williams. And I tried to keep this in mind as I was reading. But I felt myself being overwhelmed with, and fascinated by, many other issues.
How and why had Pat Tillman died in Afghanistan? And what was behind the events that followed, in which his family repeatedly tried to find out what had happened to him, and the government told them -- and the world -- outrageous lies?
I found myself drawn to such questions, even though I felt I couldn't possibly answer them. But, despite my best intentions, I could not shake them, either.
Was Pat Tillman killed deliberately, to prevent him from airing his criticisms of the war in Iraq, and of the Bush administration? Or was he killed by accident, and if that were the case, why had the government gone to such lengths to conceal the truth from his family?
There was no doubt that the truth had been concealed, and a succession of cover stories had been fabricated. The files referred to seven different investigations, each of which had apparently revealed very little actual information, other than highlighting the flaws in its predecessor.
The truth of the story had been held back with remarkable tenacity. That much was clear to me. But what was the truth behind all the lies?
Would anyone ever find out? It seemed well beyond my humble powers.
I thought back to when Holmes had asked me to research the "Liquid Bombers," and remembered how he told me to simply find the information, and let him figure out what it all meant. But I was not satisfied to do so in this case.
So I gathered up all the relevant articles and put them in a folder of their own. Then I checked on Mycroft, and, finding him sleeping soundly, I returned to the flat, sat down with the folder, and began to read through all the clippings again.
The earliest clipping was dated Monday, April 26, 2004, four days after Tillman's death. Among various tributes to Tillman's courage and patriotism, it reported:
U.S. military spokesman Lt. Col. Matthew Beevers said Saturday that Tillman was killed Thursday night in a firefight at about 7 p.m. on a road near Sperah, about 25 miles southwest of a U.S. base at Khost.Subsequent events showed that these details were almost entirely false. There was no "ambush." There was no "sustained" fighting. No "enemy fighters" were killed, or even reported in the area. No enemy rounds were found at the scene. Only the date of Tillman's death was correct.
After coming under fire, Tillman’s patrol got out of their vehicles and gave chase, moving toward the spot of the ambush. Beevers said the fighting was “sustained” and lasted 15-20 minutes.
Beevers said Tillman was killed by enemy fire, but he had no information about what type of weapons were involved in the assault, or whether he died instantly.
An Afghan militiaman fighting alongside Tillman also was killed, and two other U.S. soldiers were wounded.
A local Afghan commander, Gen. Khial Bas, told The Associated Press that nine enemy fighters were killed in the confrontation.
Bas said six other enemy fighters were believed to have escaped.
Nevertheless, he was poshumously awarded a Silver Star and a Purple Heart, and promoted to Corporal. The Silver Star citation said:
During a ground assault convoy in Afghanistan Tillman’s platoon was split into two sections. Tillman was the team leader of the lead section when the trail section began receiving suppressive mortar and small arms fire. The nature of the cavernous terrain made it extremely difficult to target enemy positions and there was no room for the trail element to maneuver out of the kill zone.The claim that "Tillman's platoon was split into two sections" turned out to be true. But the rest of the story was pure fiction.
Although Tillman’s element was already safely out of the area under fire Tillman ordered his team to dismount and maneuver his team up a hill towards the enemy’s location.
As Tillman crested the hill he maneuvered his team into positions and himself with the M249 Squad Automatic Weapon (SAW) returned suppressive fire.
Through the firing Tillman’s voice was issuing fire commands to take the fight to the enemy on the dominating high ground.
Only after his team engaged a well-armed enemy did it appear their fires diminished.
While Tillman focused his efforts, and those of his team members without regard to his personal safety he was shot and killed.
The fiction had political value, which was heavily exploited, beginning almost immediately. A memorial service was held in California, and televised nationally. Pat Tillman's life -- sacrificed in an attempt to save the rest of his unit from enemy ambush -- was held up as a glorious example of courage, honour, and patriotism. And the Bush administration, mired in Iraq, with the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal breaking, desperate for some good news, basked in all the reflected glory and honour it could generate.
But the fiction could not be maintained indefinitely. It couldn't even be maintained for very long. The surviving members of Tillman's unit knew that things had not happened in the way they were described. They were all due to rotate back to the States when their tours of duty in Afghanistan were completed. And one of them was Pat's brother, Kevin.