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Getting to the truth of Pat Tillman’s death

It was an inspiring story of selfless heroism: A stubbornly patriotic football player walked away from fame and a multimillion-dollar contract when he joined the Army immediately after Sept. 11, 2001. It was also a story whose tragic ending brought a nation to tears and inflamed wartime passions: Spc. Pat Tillman had charged up a hill in Afghanistan under “devastating enemy fire,” according to his Silver Star citation, and was killed defending his fellow Rangers.

The problem with the story was that much of it just wasn’t true.

Shortly after Tillman’s death in an April 22, 2004, firefight, documents show that Army officials learned that he’d accidentally been killed by fellow Rangers. But those details were withheld from the public — and Tillman’s family — until well after the soldier’s highly publicized May 3 memorial service. In the meantime, he was built up by the Army and in the media as a war hero in a campaign that played out like a recruiter’s dream.

Filmmaker Amir Bar-Lev tries to paint a more complete portrait of the fallen soldier, and to chronicle the family’s struggle to uncover the whole truth in the documentary “The Tillman Story,” which opens in L.A. theaters on Friday. It was the football star’s refusal to comment on his motivations for joining up that left them open to so much interpretation, Bar-Lev says. “Nature abhors a vacuum and, in the same way, storytellers — media — abhor a vacuum. Everybody came in and said things for him. And the things they said would have embarrassed the hell out of him. They were actually the opposite of his perspective.”

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Russell Baer, a specialist with the Rangers who was close friends with both Tillman and his brother Kevin (who joined the service together in May 2002), says, “It would have been easy to say, ‘There’s an investigation and there’s a possibility of friendly fire.’ But they ran with this pumped-up narrative of this guy running up a hill, blah blah blah. Everything you saw in the media was completely … wrong.

“You also have to understand what was going on at that time: It was the worst month in the war yet, the most casualties; the Abu Ghraib prison scandal was just breaking,” Baer says. “The true story coming out would have damaged public support for the war. He was the most famous soldier and he was killed by the military. Of course they’re going to spin it and pray the family doesn’t do anything about it.”

But Tillman’s parents, Patrick and Mary “Dannie” Tillman, weren’t content to be fed a whitewashed account of the events and fought the military, leading to a congressional hearing, details of which a still-outraged Bar-Lev included in his film.

“You can’t imagine what kind of things were done with the family right there, with utter disregard for the fact that they’re right there in the room. We had to compress it, but it was absolutely in fairness and accuracy to what happened. There was a lot of glad-handing. I’ll tell you one thing we edited, a senator, I have this on tape, comes up to [former Defense Secretary Donald H.] Rumsfeld before the thing and says, ‘We’re going to be easy on you.’ I literally have that on tape. We got the raw tape from the networks, and they didn’t show any of this.”

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“The Tillman Story” recently received an R rating from the Motion Picture Assn. of America for the rough language often uttered on screen, a designation that doesn’t sit easy with the director. “It’s part and parcel of this unwillingness we have as a society to face what our soldiers do for us. The idea that we’re embarrassed in some way or it’s inappropriate for kids to know how soldiers talk when they’re being fired at, or how people talk when they’re grieving. It’s a slap in the face.”

For Staff Sgt. Bryan O’Neal, who was still a raw private under Spc. Tillman and is interviewed in the film, memories of his mentor as well as the events that followed his death still burden him.

O’Neal was with Tillman the night of his death. After reporting to his commanders what had happened, he was ordered not to tell Kevin Tillman that Pat had been killed by friendly fire.

“I wish I had a better understanding of why that decision was made because that has caused me years of pain; the fact that my initial story to Kevin was an orchestrated lie. I wish I had told Kevin the truth from the get-go. That way his family could have had at least the basic understanding of what happened from the beginning.”

When the 19-year-old Mormon first met Tillman, whom he calls “one of the more humble people I’ve met in my life,” Tillman happened to be reading the Book of Mormon. It turned out the burly soldier was an atheist interested in learning about other points of view. He was a square-jawed football star and Army Ranger who admired Noam Chomsky. O’Neal credits Tillman with challenging him to think critically, read more and embrace higher education.

Baer too speaks of Tillman’s intellect and open questioning. “We were on this bunker [in Iraq], watching bombs drop all around the city,” Baer recalls, “and he said, ‘This war’s so … illegal.’ It was the first time I had ever heard anybody question. He was a soldier in wartime, fighting in a war he really didn’t agree with and had some really critical thoughts about. Instances like that really challenged other people who didn’t think like that.”

That kind of questioning, Bar-Lev says, is exactly the point; it keeps a government answering to its citizens rather than acting in its own self-interest.

“There was an effort at the highest levels of government to manipulate the media about Pat’s death,” Bar-Lev says, citing a memo written by then-Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal that indicates top decision makers were aware of the true circumstances of Tillman’s death while they wove a very different narrative for the public. “People who do things like that shouldn’t be in charge of our troops,” says the director. “Their disrespect for the soldiers on the ground should make military families and the men and women who serve our country outraged.

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“The basic thing we owe the people who put their lives on the line for the country is the truth, and we owe their families the truth too. They can handle the truth.”

calendar@latimes.com


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