American deaths in the Middle-East are often mysteries too. In fact, it was the US military itself that blew fairy dust in our eyes to obscure the facts about one case -- the death of pro football player-turned-Army Ranger Pat Tillman at the hands of his own platoon. Much like victims' families proved instrumental in convening the 9/11 Commission, Tillman's family, still in the dark after three investigations, has induced the Pentagon to launch a fourth.
As an off-the-record conversation with a family member made clear, the circumstances of Pat Tillman's death remain an open wound. But it could have been disinfected and sewn up long ago if the Army hadn't failed to treat it before slapping a bandage on it.
Even worse for the Army, the latest investigation has split into two as if in a fit of mutant mitosis. The criminal probe into whether a case for negligent homicide can be made branched off into a review of whether the Army intentionally attempted to deceive the public about Tillman's death.
Worse, no longer is Tillman's an isolated case. The June 2004 deaths of Army Specialist Patrick McCaffrey and Second Lieutenant Andre Tyson near Balad, Iraq were originally attributed to an ambush. But a military investigation recently revealed the two had been shot by Iraqi civil defense officers. Denial may be second nature to the Army, but covering up adds to its eventual embarrassment by exponential leaps.
Pat Tillman -- the Gift That Never Even Started Giving
Army command probably couldn't believe its luck when Pat Tillman turned his back on a lucrative NFL deal to join the Army and avenge 9/11. Characterized as "virtuous, pure and masculine" by Ann Coulter, he was just what the doctor ordered for an already ailing war. When he died, keeping his myth alive obviously became a top priority, especially since poster-girl Jessica Lynch had thrown the bit.
Besides, a friendly fire incident is embarrassing enough. But, as Haditha implicates members of the storied Marine Corps, Tillman's death compounds in shame because it was committed by an elite corps like the Rangers. The public is left wondering if our troops are as ill-prepared for battle as the Department of Defense was for post-war Iraq.
Also, as Rob Collier pointed out in his September 2005 San Francisco Chronicle article, "Family Demands the Truth," the most comprehensive piece yet on Tillman's death, Abu Ghraib was poised to go public. The last thing the Army needed was yet more bad publicity.
Finally, Army brass couldn't have failed to notice that the orders a base commander issued to Tillman's platoon were, at best, cavalier. By confining the incident to the lower ranks, they hoped to it incident at arms length.
Key to this strategy was limiting the charge to negligent homicide. But it didn't help when Tillman's father, Patrick, posed this rhetorical question to The New York Times: "If it really were an accident, why hide it?" In other words, if the "negligent" is stripped from "homicide," what will we find exposed underneath?
Actually, Captain Richard Scott's initial investigation was hard-hitting. But since then he's become concerned because those involved have altered their stories in subsequent investigations -- distances have grown longer, dusk has inched closer to nightfall. Thus far the Army has issued only administrative reprimands, demoted and fined one soldier, and dismissed three other from the Rangers.
Beware the Killer Blogs
Meanwhile, despite its gaping holes, the case has eluded anything more than a token examination by those tarred with the label "conspiracy theorists." But if the Army fails to come clean on the fourth investigation, the Internet may finally appoint itself judge and jury. While the Army may rank that low on its list of concerns, it might be surprised to find that an Internet attack, however gnat-like, comes in swarms impossible to evade.
FromTheWilderness.com's Mike Ruppert, the man who personally made conspiracy theories respectable with his anti-9/11 Commission Report Crossing the Rubicon, has already initiated an investigation. Along with his point man, former Special Operations sergeant Stan Goff, he's been provided access to the documents -- "heavily redacted," of course -- that Pat Tillman's mother received from the Army.
A quick review of the events of April 22, 2004, as described by Steve Coll in his breakthrough Washington Post series, "In the Kill Zone," might be in order. Stationed in Afghanistan, the Blacksheep Platoon of Company A, 2nd Ranger Battalion, to which Tillman belonged, was pursuing the Taliban and al Qaeda along the Pakistani border.
When one of its Humvees broke down, Platoon Leader Lieutenant David Uthlaut appealed to the Tactical Operations Center in Bagram for a helicopter to airlift the disabled Humvee. The news that a helicopter was unavailable was conveyed to him by an anonymous commander. His name was "redacted," but speculation has centered on Captain William Bailey or regiment commander Lieutenant Colonel Jeffrey Saunders.
Worse, out of apparent concern the platoon would fall behind schedule, he or another member of the command, despite Uthlaut's objections, ordered it divided into two groups. One would forge ahead while the other towed the vehicle.