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Parenthood Plus - October 29, 2010

Friendly Fire?

Mary Tillman is the mother of Army Ranger Pat Tillman, who was killed in Afghanistan. She wrote the book Boots on the Ground by Dusk, which detailed her attempt to find out the truth about her son’s death and exposed a cover-up by the Pentagon and the White House. Mary Tillman dedicated the book to “all military families, who are seeking to understand the sacrifices their sons and daughters have made. They too are entitled to the truth from their government.”

Pat Tillman was arguably the most famous soldier serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was an outstanding professional football player with the Arizona Cardinals, who passed up a multi-million dollar contract to join the U.S. Army in 2002. Tillman’s family had a legacy of military service and he felt compelled to fall in step after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack against America.

Tillman had movie-star good looks and an incisive and curious mind. He was a free spirit and a risk-taker. He did not subscribe to any religion, yet he was deeply spiritual. He was married to his high school sweetheart, Marie, and, with her support, enlisted in the Army, along with his younger brother, Kevin. Her two eldest sons advised their mom of their decision on Mother’s Day, May 9, 2002.

When the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2002, Pat Tillman said, regarding his decision to enlist, “Sports embodied many of the qualities I deem meaningful. However, these last few years, and especially after recent events, I’ve come to appreciate just how shallow and insignificant my role is ... It’s no longer important.”

Tillman expected to serve in Afghanistan, but did not anticipate the war in Iraq, where he spent his first tour of duty, although he was uneasy about fighting in what he considered to be an illegal war. Sometime later, while in a canyon in Afghanistan, he was killed by gunfire. His death on April 22, 2004 was first attributed to an ambush by enemy forces. A nationally televised memorial service was then held to honor him on May 3, 2004.

As more details became known regarding the circumstances of his death, it was clear that he was not ambushed by the enemy but was killed by “friendly fire” - fratricide. Official documents later revealed that the Army withheld this information from the public and the family until sometime after the memorial service.

In the intervening years Pat’s mom doggedly searched through thousands of pages of heavily redacted testimony in order to get to the truth. Regarding her tireless search, she observed, “This isn’t about Pat, this is about what they did to Pat and what they did to a nation. By making up these false stories, you’re diminishing their true heroism. [The truth] may not be pretty, but that’s not what war is all about. It’s ugly, it’s bloody, it’s painful. And to write these glorious tales is really a disservice to the nation.”

Although the Tillman story was more well-publicized than many other accounts of war, in the days and months to come more and more soldiers will be returning home to Long Island. Sadly, some families will be left with only emptiness and grief. According to the Veteran’s Health Alliance of Long Island (VHALI), of the 1,000,000 veterans who live in New York State, 174,000 of them live on Long Island. In fact, Long Island is second only to San Diego in the percentage of veterans among its citizens.

In all cases we owe veterans and their families our understanding and support.