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Tillman Probe Hits Army for Mishandling Details

Pentagon investigators have found that Army Ranger Pat Tillman's entire chain of command made critical errors in the aftermath of his death by friendly fire.

They have recommended the Army consider action against the officers.

Acting Inspector General Thomas F. Gimble said that those officers "bear the ultimate responsibilities for the inaccuracies, misunderstandings and perceptions of concealment that led to our review."

But Gimble said he doesn't believe there was a cover-up.

Pat Tillman was famous for deciding to leave his NFL career behind to join the Army Rangers with his brother after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

He died on the afternoon of April 22, 2004, after his platoon got split up in the mountains of southeast Afghanistan.

In the waning daylight, part of the platoon came under enemy fire. Tillman went to give help, and other members of the platoon mistook him for the enemy.

He and an Afghan soldier aiding him died in the gunfire.

Army investigators have determined the shootings were an accident.

But acting Inspector General Gimble said Tillman's chain of command didn't immediately report that Tillman's death was suspected to be by friendly fire, even though clear evidence of that emerged the next day.

Because his superiors failed to report it as a suspected friendly fire incident, the Army didn't get to conduct legal and safety investigations that would have been independent of Tillman's command.

Instead, Tillman's commanders conducted two internal investigations.

Investigators found those inquiries "lacked credibility and contributed to perceptions that Army officials were purposefully withholding key information about Tillman's death."

Six months passed before anyone outside Tillman's command looked closely at the incident.

Pentagon investigators also looked at why it took the military 35 days to tell Tillman's family that it was investigating whether his death was caused by friendly fire.

Army rules require officials to let families know information about their loved one's death "as it becomes available."

Gimble said investigators found evidence that the general heading U.S. special operations command misled both investigators and Tillman's family about the friendly fire investigation.

That commander, Lt. Gen. Philip R. Kensinger, represented the Army at Tillman's memorial service 11 days after his death and could have informed the family about the friendly fire concerns, but did not. Kensinger retired last year.

Finally, the investigators looked at the circumstances under which Pat Tillman was nominated for a Silver Star. That award notes soldiers who act with courage under enemy fire.

The report says the Army justified the Silver Star with information that Tillman "performed heroically in the face of, and was killed by, enemy fire."

No one notified the officials who award the Silver Star that Tillman was suspected to have died by friendly fire.

Acting Army Secretary Peter Geren said that Tillman's Silver Star would stand, but that the army would correct the record. And he apologized for the Army's mistakes.

"We as an Army failed in our duty to the Tillman family, the duty we owe to all the families of our fallen soldiers: Give them the truth, the best we know it, as fast as we can," Geren said. "Our failure in fulfilling this duty brought discredit to the Army and compounded the grief suffered by the Tillman family."

The army will decide if its officers committed any crimes and, if so, how they will be held accountable.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Libby Lewis
Libby Lewis is an award-winning reporter on the National Desk whose pieces on issues of law, society, criminal justice, the military and social policy can be heard on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Day to Day, Weekend Edition Saturday, and other NPR shows.