July 2008 – Book Review: Pat Tillman’s “Boots on the Ground” – One Mother’s Courage

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By Jack Neworth

It’s probably fitting that July 4th is only days away as I review a book about Pat Tillman, a charismatic NFL star who left a 3.6 million contract and a new wife to fight for his country after Sept. 11. His enlistment was such a huge story of patriotism he received a congratulatory letter from Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld. 

Unfortunately, Pat Tillman was killed in Afghanistan on April 24, 2004, at the age of 27. The entire country grieved as his memorial service was broadcast on national television. When his convoy was ambushed Pat had charged up a hill, and forced the enemy to withdraw, thus saving the lives of his fellow rangers. The army posthumously awarded him a Silver Star. The only problem was they had made up the entire story. 

Four weeks later after Pat’s death, Kevin Tillman who was in the same platoon but was not present when his brother was killed, was told by his sergeant that Pat was killed by “friendly fire.” Pat’s mother, Mary, heard the shocking news from a reporter who assumed she knew already. 

Boots on the Ground By Dusk: My Tribute to Pat Tillman (co-authored by Narda Zacchino) is Mary Tillman’s compelling account of her quest for the truth about her son’s death. It outlines the ensuing cover-up, which, after four years, seven military investigations and two congressional hearings, still leaves many unanswered questions. 

“Friendly fire” is a fact of war. Outright lies from the military, generally are not. From the very beginning Mary Tillman was suspicious of the government’s story. “It was so contrived, it sounded like a John Wayne movie.” However, it was not the first time this administration fabricated a story about its soldiers. 

On March 23, 2003, Pfc. Jessica Lynch, a 19-year-old supply clerk, was captured by Iraqi forces in a firefight during which she emptied her weapon rather than surrender. The truth was she had been rendered unconscious when her truck turned over and had not fired a single shot. A week later we were told Lynch was heroically rescued from an Iraqi hospital. But, in fact, the hospital had been abandoned and was empty of any personnel. 

Why did this government lie so often? In Tillman’s case, his death occurred during the month the Abu Ghraib scandal broke. In addition, the recent rebellions in Najaf and Fallujah handed the US forces their first tactical defeat. This was the worst month to date in Iraq in terms of casualties and the President’s approval rating was dismal. The government needed to rally the country behind a failing war so Pat Tillman’s death was seen as the perfect propaganda.

The “story” might have worked, were it not for the Tillman family’s unflagging efforts to get at the truth. Pat’s death was, at best, a result of gross negligence and incompetence, and, at worst, a sinister cover-up by high-ranking officials willing to lie to a soldier’s family and the public in exchange for higher approval ratings. Worse yet, Pat’s death might have been murder. He was an outspoken atheist and critic of the war in Iraq, neither of which was popular in his unit. 

The book title comes from the order received by Tillman’s commanding lieutenant, that they were to split the convoy in two and “have boots on the ground by dusk.” The order was given far away from the battlefield and was strongly objected to by the lieutenant. The latest story is that the order was in fact “by dawn” and was somehow misunderstood. 

Most cover-ups fail because of inconsistencies. Tillman’s uniform, body armor and journal were destroyed. Why? Tillman’s head was nearly blown off and yet records from the field hospital indicate he was given CPR and defibrillation. The Afghani soldier killed next to Tillman was shot eight times in the chest and yet the official report says he was prone at the time of the shooting.

It is incomprehensible how a government asks its citizens to serve in its military when its leader opposes GI benefits, when its wounded are treated with inferior care (Walter Reed) or when it lies to the grieving families. It is perhaps fitting this is written so recently after a former press secretary said of the current president that he was not “open and forthright,” and that he had relied on “propaganda” to sell the war. It is also worth noting that Donald Rumsfeld, who wrote to Pat when he enlisted, did not send a word to the Tillmans upon Pat’s death.

The determination and courage of Mary Tillman and her family is remarkable. Pat sacrificed everything for honor and country. Boots on the Ground by Dusk: My Tribute to Pat Tillman is important reading for anyone who values those principles.

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