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Tillmans level unfriendly fire at Pentagon

Outraged at what they call malfeasance in the handling of their son's death, they seek a congressional inquiry.

March 28, 2007|David Zucchino | Times Staff Writer

The family of U.S. Army Ranger Pat Tillman has angrily rejected the Pentagon's latest explanation of his 2004 death in Afghanistan from friendly fire as a "travesty," accusing the military of "a conspiracy to deceive" and of exploiting Tillman to bolster recruiting efforts.

"Once again, we are being used as props in a Pentagon public relations exercise," the Tillman family said in a statement released Tuesday, one day after military officials met with them to discuss the most recent review of the case.

Tillman's mother, Mary Tillman, told National Public Radio in an interview that officials on Monday accused the family of being "abusive" toward the military -- which she did not deny.

"We got to the point where we were extremely rude to them, but they ... were just lying," she said.

She said she told the military: "You know, lying is a form of abuse, and we've been lied to for three years."

The Tillmans demanded a congressional investigation into what they say is sweeping malfeasance and a coverup. Democratic Rep. Michael M. Honda, who represents the Tillmans' San Jose district, asked the House Armed Services Committee on Tuesday to hold hearings.

The case has pitted the Tillmans against the military since Pentagon officials waited five weeks to disclose that Tillman had been killed by his own men. The military let the Tillmans bury their son believing that he had been killed by insurgents during an ambush, and awarded him a Silver Star based on a phony narrative.

The Pentagon has admitted that the notification procedure was plagued by "critical errors." Nine high-ranking officers, including four generals, face possible charges for mishandling either the notification or a series of investigations of the affair.

But the Army declined Monday to press charges in Tillman's death, portraying the incident as a tragic mistake caused by the fog of war.

The Tillmans scoffed at what they said was Pentagon officials' characterization of the mistakes as "missteps."

"These actions are malfeasance," their statement said. They said some of the military's explanations had "the powerful odor of intentional minimization to a level just below criminal."

The family said its rejection of the Pentagon version of events stemmed from "the relentless pattern of the Bush administration of deception, evasion and spin" in the war on terrorism.

Mary and Patrick Tillman said their son was killed by "a combination of shoddy leadership and clear violations of the rules of engagement, as well as violations of the law of land warfare."

Acting Army Secretary Pete Geren issued an apology to the Tillmans at a Pentagon news conference Monday. He said the Army failed in its duty to tell the truth to families of fallen soldiers and thus compounded the Tillmans' grief.

Geren asked Gen. William S. Wallace, who oversees Army training, to review the actions of the nine officers and to report on possible punishments. The Army's latest investigation sharply criticized now-retired Lt. Gen. Philip R. Kensinger Jr., who commanded Army special operations in 2004.

Tillman, a corporal who gained national attention when he gave up a National Football League career to join the Army after the Sept. 11 attacks, was killed April 22, 2004, during an operation along the Pakistan border. A unit of Rangers and other U.S. Special Forces and CIA paramilitaries known as Task Force Omaha, based outside Khowst and accompanied by Afghan militiamen, was concentrating on finding "high-value targets" that spring.

The Army has concluded that Tillman was accidentally shot during chaos and confusion after a gunfire ambush by insurgents in a steep mountain canyon.

An Afghan militiaman assigned to Tillman's unit took cover alongside Tillman after the ambush, according to the Pentagon. The militiaman apparently fired his assault rifle, prompting return fire from U.S. soldiers in a section of the unit that had earlier split off from Tillman's section, the military concluded. Their shots killed both men. Moments later, a U.S. lieutenant and specialist also were wounded by friendly fire.

Afghan police and militia commanders told a Times reporter who visited the site of Tillman's death in December 2004 that U.S. soldiers had overreacted to an explosion -- either a land mine or roadside bomb -- and fired wildly at Tillman and others. They said there was no evidence that insurgents opened fire in the canyon that day.

A Pentagon report said there was no enemy fire at Tillman's position, but the military continues to insist his unit was the target of enemy fire in the canyon.

Tillman's Silver Star citation, which the Army now concedes was "misleading," suggested that Tillman was shot by the enemy as he moved to lead an assault on an enemy position. "While mortally wounded, his audacious leadership and courageous example under fire inspired his men to fight," the citation read.

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