By Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 5, 2006
The Army is opening a criminal investigation into the "friendly fire" death of former NFL player Pat Tillman to examine whether negligent homicide charges should be brought against members of his Ranger unit who killed him in Afghanistan nearly two years ago, according to defense officials.
Pentagon officials notified Tillman's family on Friday that a review of the case by the Defense Department's inspector general has determined that there is enough evidence to warrant a fresh look, after initial investigations that were characterized by secrecy, mishandling of evidence, and delays in reporting crucial facts about what had happened.
The inspector general's review was launched in August after bitter and public complaints by the Tillman family that the Pentagon had failed to hold anyone accountable for the April 22, 2004, shooting or to fully explain its circumstances. Mary Tillman has expressed deep frustration about what she calls a succession of "lies" she has been told about her son's death.
The Army originally reported that Tillman was killed in a firefight with enemy forces in the rugged mountains of Afghanistan near the Pakistani border, and officials heralded his heroism with a tale of how he was charging a hill against the enemy when he was shot. Weeks later, after a nationally televised memorial service, the Army revealed that he had been gunned down by members of his own unit who had rounded a corner in a Humvee and mistook him and a coalition Afghan fighter for the enemy.
Mary Tillman said yesterday that she believes evidence of a crime has existed all along, and that the family's repeated calls for a criminal investigation were ignored until now. "It is completely obvious that this should have been done from the very beginning," she said. "The military has had every opportunity to do the right thing, and they haven't. They knew all along that something was seriously wrong, and they just wanted to cover it up."
Patrick Tillman Sr. expressed skepticism that the new investigation will yield additional answers. "I think it's another step," he said. "But if you send investigators to reinvestigate an investigation that was falsified in the first place, what do you think you're going to get?"
The loss of Tillman -- a popular Arizona Cardinals football player before he joined the military in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks -- rattled the Army in part because of the controversy over the nature of his death and the interactions with his family. Another friendly fire incident, in Iraq, just days after Tillman's death was also followed by delays in notifying family members and confusion about what had happened. Army officials have been working to improve the information flow to the families of soldiers who die in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Col. Joseph Curtin, an Army spokesman at the Pentagon, said the Army will open an investigation to examine whether soldiers violated military law when they failed to identify their target before opening fire on Tillman's position.
Although there have been several military investigations into the Tillman shooting, this will be the first criminal investigation. A defense official said that it will probably focus on potential charges of negligent homicide, which means investigators will try to determine whether soldiers fired recklessly without intending to kill their fellow soldier.
"We want to do the right thing for the family," Curtin said. "We owe it to the family. We owe them the truth."
Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman, said yesterday that the Defense Department has not come to any conclusions about the case, nor has it determined that there is evidence of wrongdoing. He said the inspector general's findings indicate, instead, that a criminal investigation of a possible negligent homicide should have been opened at the time of the incident and that proper procedures were not followed. He said the Army criminal investigation could yield the same conclusions as the earlier probes.
Although it took weeks for the Army to reveal publicly that Tillman's death was fratricide, the first Army investigator who looked into the shooting discovered within days of the incident that Tillman had been killed by fellow Rangers, in what he concluded was an act of "gross negligence," according to documents obtained by The Washington Post. Soldiers admitted emptying their high-powered weapons at an Afghan Militia Force soldier working with the Rangers and then on Tillman's position without knowing what exactly was in their sights. The Afghan soldier was also killed, while a U.S. soldier hiding near Tillman, behind a rock, survived.
The investigator later complained to Army officials that, in subsequent investigations, he felt the military chain of command had allowed soldiers to change their stories to protect individuals, and that the punishments did not square with his finding of gross negligence. Seven soldiers were given various administrative punishments for violations such as dereliction of duty; a team leader was cited for failing to effectively command and control the fire and movement of his Rangers.
Since the U.S. invasion, 215 American troops have died in Afghanistan and in adjacent Pakistan and Uzbekistan, 133 of whom were killed in action, according to Pentagon figures updated Friday.