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Shepperd: Army did Tillman family a disservice

Story Highlights

• Shepperd says Army should have been more forthcoming from the outset
• Army originally said Tillman died from enemy fire
• Tillman received the Silver Star for gallantry in combat
By Don Shepperd
CNN
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Editor's note: Maj. Gen. Don Shepperd, USAF (Ret.), is a CNN military analyst. He offers his analysis of what went wrong with the Pat Tillman case.

(CNN) -- When I was a young boy, my father told me, "Son, when you have an ethical dilemma, tell the truth no matter how much it hurts, and do the honorable thing."

It was good advice -- advice I carried with me throughout my military career and throughout my life.

It's also sound guidance the Pentagon should have followed in the Pat Tillman case. They could've avoided this whole mess -- investigations, accusations of cover-up and an outraged family -- by simply telling Tillman's family and the public from the outset what happened in Afghanistan on April 22, 2004.

Tillman was a Horatio Alger headline in reverse -- Millionaire Becomes Middle-Class! He was everything we all admire: A rich, handsome pro athlete in the prime of his career who gave it all up for his country. A story full of courage and patriotism, pride and pathos, and then it all turned sour.

The facts are not in dispute: Tillman, a professional football player for the Arizona Cardinals gave up a $3.6 million contract in 2002 for the life of an Army Ranger. He was sent to Afghanistan. He was killed in combat. He received the Silver Star for gallantry in combat -- and then it gets complicated.

It was made even more complicated by the Army's original depiction of how he died, a detailed description that said he was killed in a firefight with the "well-armed enemy" while rallying his team in support of ambushed comrades. We now know he was killed by friendly fire.

Three separate Army investigations confirmed further facts: On April 22, 2004, Pat Tillman was part of a Ranger platoon in a bad area of Afghanistan that split into two parts, Serial 1 and Serial 2. One of their vehicles had broken down. The two parts took different routes.

Serial 2 came under attack. Tillman and Serial 1 heard shooting, saw smoke and tracers, and heard broken radio transmissions that indicated their buddies were in trouble. When they returned to help, they were shot at. Tillman was killed along with an Afghan guide, and two others were wounded, by Serial 2, men from their own outfit. The men involved knew it immediately, headquarters suspected it late that evening, and it was "confirmed" the following day.

Three investigations were conducted between April and November 2004. Later, it was determined all the investigations contained inaccuracies and deficiencies. However, they all came to the same conclusion: It was friendly fire, fratricide, that killed Pat Tillman, no doubt.

Tillman's family was informed of his death. The commander of Army Special Operations Command attended the ceremony in San Jose, California, on May 3, 2004. A Navy SEAL spoke. Although the formal investigation results had not been approved through the Army chain of command, the Army knew that there was reasonable suspicion of fratricide, and the family was not notified as required by Army regulations. The mess understandably started when the Tillman family became aware of this. They felt violated, that they had been lied to, and suspicions of a cover-up abounded.

Adding to the carnage is controversy over the Silver Star, the nation's fourth-highest military decoration, the third-highest award for valor. The citation accompanying the award contained false information. It implied Tillman was killed by enemy fire. It had to go through many levels of review and approval.

The Army is now trying to put this debacle to bed. They have investigated the entire matter again for both criminal and disciplinary action. As a result nine officers, including four generals, have been referred back to the Army for further action. It won't be pretty.

Military men and women face ethical dilemmas all the time, even more so in war. I practiced my father's advice whenever I faced such dilemmas. At one point, I had to look a father in the eye and tell him his son screwed up in an aircraft accident and killed not only himself, but other innocents as well.

I recently wrote a book, "Bury Us Upside Down," about my fighter outfit in Vietnam. I received an uncomfortable e-mail from the son of one of the deceased pilots mentioned in the book.

"All my life I have been told my father was a hero and was shot down by enemy fire in Vietnam. I read your book and find out the wings came off his airplane. We even received a letter and a medal. What is the truth?" he said.

I wrote him back and later looked him in the eye. With a lump in my throat I told him the truth: "I knew your father and he was a hero. But he was not shot down. The wings came off his aircraft."

The Army should have looked Tillman's family in the eye and sensitively told them the truth from the outset, or at least the possibilities of fratricide that were under investigation at the time.

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Retired Maj. Gen. Don Shepperd says the Pentagon should have been more forthcoming with what happened.

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