The Bush administration and the Pentagon came under fire today for creating false myths of military heroes, and the criticism came from unlikely sources -- one of the heroes, and the family of another.
Former Army Ranger Kevin Tillman, who enlisted in the military along with his pro-football star brother, Pat, in 2002, charged the Pentagon with telling "deliberate and calculated lies" after his older brother was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan in April 2004. And he speculated that the facts were known by the White House long before his family learned the truth of Pat's death five weeks after it happened.
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing was titled "Misleading Information From the Battlefield, and it began with Private Jessica Lynch saying that administration stories about her war heroics were false. Despite stories leaked to the media that she went down fighting when she was captured in March 2003, in reality her weapon jammed and she prayed for help
"I'm still confused as to why they chose to lie and try to make me a legend when the real heroics of my fellow soldiers that day were, in fact, legendary," Lynch said in her testimony this morning. "The American people are capable of determining their own ideals for heroes, and they don't need to be told elaborate tales."
Kevin Tillman was far more critical, as was his mother, Mary Tillman. He read an abridged version of the Silver Star award his brother was awarded posthumously: "Above the din of battle, Cpl. Tillman was heard issuing fire commands to take the fight to an enemy on the dominating high ground. Always leading from the front, Cpl. Tillman aggressively maneuvered his team against the enemy position on a steep slope. As a result of Cpl. Tillman's effort and heroic action, the trail element of the platoon was able to maneuver through the ambush position of relative safety without suffering a single casualty." Tillman said that the story "inspired countless Americans, as intended. There was one small problem with the narrative, however: It was utter fiction."
Tillman today speculated that his brother's myth was created to change the headlines.
"It shifted the focus from the grotesque torture at Abu Ghraib … to a great American who died a hero's death," he said.
He charged the Pentagon with falsifying information to achieve those ends -- "writing up a field hospital report, stating that Pat was 'transferred to an intensive care unit for continued CPR' after most of his head had been taken off by multiple 5.56 rounds … stating that a giant rectangle bruise covering his chest that sits exactly where the armor plate that protects you from bullets as being, quote 'consistent with paddle marks' from a defibrillator.' These are not misleading comments," he charged. "Falsifying soldier witness statements for a Silver Star is not a misstep," Tillman said. "These are intentional falsehoods that meet the legal definition for fraud."
Pat Tillman's mother, Mary, said these "smoke screens" diminish what true heroism is. "It may not be pretty, it may not be out of a John Wayne movie, but that's not what war is all about," she said. "It's ugly, it's bloody, it's painful."
Army Specialist Bryan O'Neal -- an eyewitness to Tillman's death -- testified that he was commanded to keep that information quiet from Tillman's family. "I was ordered not to tell [them] what happened," O'Neal said.
And the Tillmans wondered today how high up the misinformation campaign went.
A week after Tillman died -- and a month before his family learned the truth -- an urgent P4 military memo was sent to three top generals, warning them it was "highly possible … Tillman was killed by friendly fire."
Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal sent the memo after hearing the president might mention Tillman in a speech, "which might cause public embarrassment if the circumstances of Cpl. Tillman's death become public."
Noting a Pentagon e-mail from April 28 about White House speech writer John Currin seeking information about Tillman for the president's speech at the White House Correspondents' Dinner a few days later, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., suggested that it was more than just a coincidence that when "the president spoke at the Correspondents' Dinner, he was careful in his wording.
"[President Bush] praised Pat Tillman's courage but carefully avoided describing how he was killed," said Cummings. "It seems possible that the P4 memo was a direct response to the White House's inquiry. And if that is true, it means that the White House knew the true facts about Cpl. Tillman's death before the memorial service and weeks before the Tillman family was told."
Kevin Tillman added, "It's a bit disingenuous to think that the administration did not know about what was going on, something so politically sensitive."
The White House today said it could find no evidence to suggest that the president was informed of that memo at the time. The Pentagon has yet to discipline anyone for spreading any of this false information.