Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal was forced to retire because of remarks he made to a Rolling Stone reporter. Having read the article that led to his departure, I feel strangely validated. “The Runaway General” described by journalist Michael Hastings is exactly the arrogant individual I believed him to be.
McChrystal was in charge of Joint Special Operations Command in 2004, when my son, Pat, was killed in Afghanistan. But I didn’t become aware of him until March 2007. That’s when someone anonymously sent an Associated Press reporter a copy of a high-priority correspondence. The memo was written on April 29, 2004, by McChrystal and sent to Gen. John P. Abizaid, Gen. Bryan Douglas Brown and Lt. Gen. Philip R. Kensinger Jr. Its purpose was to warn President George W. Bush and other officials to avoid making public comments about Pat’s heroic death at the hands of the enemy, because it was beginning to seem “highly possible that Corporal Tillman was killed by friendly fire.”
The memo went on to caution against “unknowing statements by our country’s leaders which might cause public embarrassment if the circumstances of Corporal Tillman’s death become public.”
We knew nothing about this memo at the time it was written. In fact, we did not learn until weeks after Pat’s memorial service that it was even possible he was killed by friendly fire.
The memo makes it clear there was no intention of telling the truth unless circumstances made it absolutely necessary. Much later, during Brig. Gen. Gary Jones’ investigation of Pat’s death, McChrystal was asked why we were kept in the dark.
“Question: Once you became aware that this was a possible fratricide, was there a conscious decision made not to tell the family of the possibility?”
“Witness: There was a conscious decision on who we told about the potential because we did not know all the facts. I did tell the senior leadership [long redaction] about the possibility prior to the memorial ceremony, because I felt they needed to know that before the ceremony. I believe that we did not tell the family of the possibility because we didn’t want to give them a half-baked finding.”
McChrystal says they didn’t want to give us a half-baked finding. Yet that is exactly what they did. Rather than being told there were questions about Pat’s death, we were presented with a contrived story, an absolute lie about how he had been killed by enemy fire.
What many people don’t realize is that Pat’s autopsy and field hospital report were very suspicious from the start. The autopsy gives a description of Pat’s body that led us to later question if the autopsy was even his, and the field hospital report contains language that suggests he was alive when he was brought back to the field hospital at Forward Operating Base Salerno. Yet soldiers’ statements indicated Pat was decapitated by the barrage of bullets, and he was deemed killed in action by the medic on the scene.
These horrifying discrepancies raised dire questions. Even the medical examiner called for a criminal investigation, but the adjutant general prevented it from going forward. By covering up the circumstances of Pat’s death, McChrystal and the rest of the chain of command may have, knowingly or unknowingly, covered up a crime.
McChrystal’s actions should have been grounds for firing him back then. That is why it was so disturbing to us when President Obama instead promoted McChrystal to the position of top commander in Afghanistan last year. At the time, I sent the president an e-mail and a letter reminding him of McChrystal’s involvement in Pat’s coverup. In the letter, I suggested McChrystal be “scrutinized very carefully” by the Senate Armed Services Committee. Pat’s father and I both gave statements to the media reiterating that McChrystal should be properly vetted. We had real knowledge of McChrystal’s questionable behavior, of actions that should perhaps have disqualified him from this position, and we felt it would be negligent not to do something. Our entreaties fell on deaf ears.
After McChrystal was forced to step down in June, I was contacted by several reporters and asked to give my thoughts about McChrystal, but I declined to comment. I hadn’t read the piece in its entirety, so it seemed inappropriate to respond. Now, though, I have read and thought about the article. Obama clearly had no choice but to relieve McChrystal of his command. But how sad that the president and Congress didn’t properly scrutinize the general a year ago.
People have asked, “Why is Pat so special that so much attention is given to his death”? I understand that question. Thousands of soldiers and Marines have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many of their families have also been lied to, yet those deaths have not received the attention Pat’s did. And Pat’s death continues to be in the news.
Pat’s story initially became news because he was well known for having played in the NFL. The government used his fame to create propaganda for the war. Pat is not more important or special than any of the others who have fought in these wars, but the truth of what happened to Pat — and to every soldier who has died — is important. The truth shines a light on systematic corruption, incompetence and lack of accountability in the military and in government.
Over the last five years, the Pentagon and Congress have had numerous opportunities to hold accountable those responsible for the coverup of Pat’s death. Each time they’ve failed. The government didn’t just lie to us; it lied to a nation.
Mary Tillman is the author of “Boots on the Ground by Dusk: Searching for Answers in the Death of Pat Tillman.” A documentary featuring her and other family and friends will open in theaters Aug. 20.