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Atheist in a Foxhole: The Tillman Story

Pat Tillman pictured as a soldier, and NFL linebacker

I watched an interesting documentary last week, The Tillman Story.  Pat Tillman played NFL football for the Arizona Cardinals, and unexpectedly quit the NFL and enlisted in the army rangers following the September 11 attacks.  I knew he had been killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan in 2004, and there was a coverup, but didn’t really know all the details.

The film interviews many of Tillman’s family, friends and fellow troops.  Private First Class (PFC) Bradley O’Neal described his surprise at seeing Pat Tillman reading the Book of Mormon.  O’Neal noted that Tillman wasn’t religious at all (a huge understatement, Tillman is an atheist), but Tillman said he respected religious people.  O’Neal offered to answer any questions Tillman had because O’Neal is a Mormon.

The are still decrepencies in how Tillman was killed, but here’s what likely happened.  Tillman’s unit stopped when one of the vehicles broke down.  After hours went by, someone decided to split the unit in half, send one unit ahead while the other half stayed behind to fix the vehicle.  Tillman’s group headed into a canyon.  Due to the high canyon walls, they lost radio contact with the second unit.  Both units heard an explosion.  Tillman’s unit did not know the second unit had started into the canyon, and the second unit believed the sound may have come from the Taliban.  However, nobody saw a Taliban fighter, and O’Neal believed the sound may have come from an accidental discharge of a weapon, completely unrelated to the Taliban.

The stage was now set for disaster.  The second unit irresponsibly started shooting at the first unit.  Tillman, O’Neal, and at least one other soldier headed up the canyon on foot.  O’Neal recalls praying out loud, and Tillman told him to stop, saying he wanted O’Neal to focus on the situation and avoid spacing out and getting shot.  O’Neal said he was grateful for Tillman’s admonition.  After a brief pause in shooting, Tillman and another soldier were killed from a barrage of machine gun fire, but O’Neal lived to tell the tale.

Everyone immediately knew that Tillman had been killed by friendly fire, but the military, wanting to avoid bad publicity about it’s most well-known enlisted man, concocted a story that Tillman had been killed in an ambush by the Taliban, and began a coverup.  Troops responsible for Tillman’s death destroyed evidence by burning his uniform, body armor, as well as his diary.  Soldiers who witnessed the incident were commanded to remain silent under threats that speaking would damage careers.  Seven days after Tillman’s death, a memo was sent to all generals advising them that Tillman was killed by friendly fire, rather than an ambush that was still being reported in the media.  Even at Tillman’s funeral, the military lied about his death.  The incriminating memo was sent to 5 star General Abizaid, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and even President Bush.  Bush’s speech writers told Bush to avoid describing the fake details of Tillman’s death in case the true story became public.  The film strongly implies that President Bush was aware of the false news story of Tillman’s death and coverup.

The military promised to give Tillman’s family transcripts of all parts of the investigation into Tillman’s death, and tried to overwhelm them with the volume of information.  The family was given thousands of pages of interview and radio transcripts in an apparent attempt to drown them in information.  With the help of others, Tillman’s mother uncovered the truth and coverup, and his father sent a letter outlining potential criminal wrong doing by the military, prompting another investigation and congressional hearings.  This time, the military decided to pin the coverup on a retired three star general, shielding higher ups from responsibility.  The retired general had no chance to defend himself, and was punished by taking away one of his stars.  (He was interviewed in the film as well.)

Tillman’s father is still frustrated by the military’s stonewalling, and still has questions about his son’s death, but feels he’s taken this as far as he can.  What are your thoughts about the possibility that the Bush administration’s covered up Tillman’s death?  What are your thoughts about O’Neals involvement in this unfortunate affair?  Does this dispel the myth that “there are no atheists in foxholes”?


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