General Stanley McChrystal Continues to Elude Accountability for Covering Up the Fratricide of Pat Tillman

In 2009, when President Barack Obama nominated Lieutenant General Stanley McChrystal to lead U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, McChrystal was summoned to the U.S. Senate to be grilled by the Armed Services Committee. Although he was regarded as an innovative and uncommonly effective leader, McChrystal was expected to face tough questions about two incidents that had occurred on his watch as head of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC): the torture of detainees in 2003 at the secret facility in Iraq known as Camp Nama, and his prominent role in the cover-up of Pat Tillman’s death by friendly fire in Afghanistan a year later. During the hearing, as it turned out, no Senator challenged McChrystal’s testimony or probed very deeply into either of these matters, and the Senate unanimously confirmed his nomination.

Following his appointment (which made him a four-star general), McChrystal was the subject of numerous profiles in the news media, most of them adulatory. In an October 5 Newsweek article, Evan Thomas referred to the general as a “Zen warrior… with a disarming, low-key style, free of the bombast and sense of entitlement that can come with four stars…. He has great political skills; he couldn’t have risen to his current position without them. But he definitely does not see himself as the sort of military man who would compromise his principles to do the politically convenient thing.”

A close examination of the Tillman scandal, however, reveals that immediately after Tillman’s death, McChrystal knowingly submitted a package of fraudulent documents to the Secretary of the Army in order to conceal the fact that Tillman was killed by friendly fire — a revelation that would have been damaging to the Bush administration during the run-up to the 2004 presidential election.

Pat (left) and Kevin Tillman in 2003. Photo credit Donald Lee/The Weinstein Co.

Tillman, an Army Ranger, was accidentally gunned down by fellow Rangers on the evening of April 22, 2004. Lieutenant Colonel Jeffrey Bailey, the commander of the Second Ranger Battalion, visited the site of the calamity the following morning and then called his boss, Colonel James Nixon, to notify him that Tillman had been killed by friendly fire. “There was no doubt about it,” Bailey emphasized.

Before the day was out, Nixon notified the highest ranking generals in his chain of command — General John Abizaid, Lieutenant General Philip Kensinger Jr., and McChrystal — that Tillman’s death was a fratricide. According to Army regulations, this information should have been immediately shared with the Tillman family. Instead, the Army embarked on a lengthy, elaborate campaign to conceal the truth and persuade both the family and the public that Tillman was killed by enemy fire. Soldiers were ordered to lie about the cause of death. His uniform, body armor, and other key pieces of forensic evidence were burned.

At the time Tillman was killed, McChrystal was only a one-star general, but as commander of JSOC he ran the most covert branch of the U.S. Armed Forces. Brilliant, intensely driven, and willing to bend rules to get results, thirteen months earlier he’d commanded the Navy SEALs, Delta Force operators, and Army Rangers who’d rescued Jessica Lynch from her captors in Iraq. Vice President Richard Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld held McChrystal in the highest esteem, and regularly bypassed the chain of command to communicate with him directly. He was trustworthy. He got stuff done. He didn’t suffer from the “slows,” as Rumsfeld characterized the risk-averse tendencies of some of McChrystal’s superior officers.

The day after Tillman’s death, high-ranking officers in the Ranger Regiment started paperwork to give Tillman a Silver Star, the third highest military decoration for valor that can be awarded to a member of the U.S. Armed Forces. McChrystal was put in charge of writing and expediting the medal recommendation so that the medal could be announced in advance of a nationally televised memorial service for Tillman scheduled for May 3, 2004. As part of this process, McChrystal was shown the preliminary findings of a so-called Article 15–6 investigation that had been initiated the day after Tillman’s death, which included detailed eyewitness testimony from more than a dozen soldiers in Tillman’s platoon. Transcripts of these interviews described how Tillman, in order to protect a young private under his command, had exposed himself to a furious squall of bullets — hundreds of rounds from three machine guns firing simultaneously at close range. McChrystal determined, correctly, that the extraordinary valor of Tillman’s act was in no way diminished by the incontrovertible fact that the deadly fusillade had come from Tillman’s American comrades.

An M249 Squad Automatic Weapon — known as a SAW gun — at an American combat outpost in eastern Afghanistan. Pat Tillman was killed with a SAW gun fired by a member of his Army Ranger platoon on April 22, 2004. Photo copyright © Jon Krakauer

On April 28, 2004, six days after Tillman’s death, McChrystal reviewed a final draft of the medal recommendation, signed it, and emailed it to the acting Secretary of the Army. The recommendation package bearing McChrystal’s signature consisted of four documents: a one-paragraph “award citation” that summarized Tillman’s courageous deed; a five-paragraph “award narrative” that offered a more nuanced account of his actions; and two brief statements from soldiers who witnessed those actions. Astoundingly, none of these documents mentioned, or even hinted, that Tillman was killed by friendly fire.

As Brigadier General Howard Yellen later testified, “For the civilian on the street, the interpretation would be that he was killed by enemy fire.” The award citation alleged, for example, that “Corporal Tillman put himself in the line of devastating enemy fire,” when actually there was never any enemy fire directed anywhere near Tillman’s position during the incident. The witness statements — which also suggested he was killed by the Taliban — were not signed, and the two soldiers whose names were attached to them later testified under oath that both statements had been fabricated out of whole cloth, apparently by one or more members of Silver Star recommendation team under McChrystal’s supervision.

On June 2, 2009, during McChrystal’s confirmation hearing, Senator John McCain asked the general to explain why, five years earlier, he had submitted the spurious Silver Star recommendation.

Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal testifies during his Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearing, June 2, 2009. (Wilson/Getty)

Stammering, McChrystal replied that “we sent a Silver Star that was not well written — and, although I went through the process, I will tell you now that I didn’t review the citation well enough to capture — or, I didn’t catch that, if you read it, you can imply that it was not friendly fire.” McChrystal asserted, in other words, that he somehow failed to notice that all the documents in the medal recommendation bearing his signature had been carefully crafted to suggest Tillman was killed by the Taliban instead of American soldiers, and were plainly meant to deceive.

During a presentation on October 3, 2009 in Mesa, Arizona, to promote Where Men Win Glory, my book about Tillman, I described the testimony cited above and expressed skepticism about McChrystal’s truthfulness. Afterward, while I was signing books, a young Army veteran approached me and said that he had served under McChrystal, admired him immensely, and took issue with my accusation that his former commander had dissembled to the Senate, or knowingly participated in any sort of cover-up. Based on what he had seen, the veteran insisted, McChrystal was a man of unimpeachable integrity. I countered that McChrystal’s words were taken verbatim from a transcript of the Senate hearing, and then added, “General McChrystal is known to be meticulous, a perfectionist. He doesn’t tolerate sloppiness or excuses. Do you really believe that he would sign his name to such an important, high-profile document without first reading it carefully enough to realize it was bogus?”

The ex-soldier frowned thoughtfully before answering. “No,” he admitted, looking pained. “For him to do something like that, he’d have to be under incredible pressure.”

On April 28, 2004, the same day McChrystal sent the Silver Star recommendation to the Secretary of the Army, he received word from Rumsfeld’s office that a White House speechwriter was working on a speech in which President Bush would be praising Tillman at the annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner three days hence. Because the true cause of Tillman’s death had been restricted to a tight cadre that did not include the Secretary of the Army or the president’s speechwriters, McChrystal fretted that the speech might inadvertently include something that would make the president look like a liar should the truth about Tillman be leaked.

To forestall such a gaffe, one day after submitting the falsified medal recommendation, McChrystal e-mailed a high-priority personal memo (known as a “Personal For” memo, or simply a “P4”) to General John Abizaid, the commander of all troops in Iraq and Afghanistan; General Bryan Brown, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command; and Lieutenant General Kensinger, commander of the U.S. Army Special Operations Command. “Sir, in the aftermath of Corporal Patrick Tillman’s untimely yet heroic death in Afghanistan on 22 April 04,” McChrystal stated, “it is anticipated that a 15–6 investigation nearing completion will find that it is highly possible that Corporal Tillman was killed by friendly fire. This potential finding is exacerbated by the unconfirmed but suspected reports that [the president of the United States] and the Secretary of the Army might include comments about Corporal Tillman’s heroism and his approved Silver Star medal in speeches currently being prepared…. I felt that it was essential that you received this information as soon as we detected it in order to preclude any unknowing statements by our country’s leaders which might cause public embarrassment if the circumstances of Corporal Tillman’s death become public.”

Many months later, after the cover-up unraveled and the Tillman family pressured government officials and the Army to reveal who was responsible for it, McChrystal would spin the P4 memo as proof that he never intended to hide the fact that Tillman was killed by friendly fire. This assertion is manifestly false. At the time McChrystal emailed the infamous memo, Generals Abizaid and Kensinger had already known for six days that Tillman’s death was a fratricide, and General Brown almost certainly knew as well. If McChrystal had truly wanted to stop the cover-up, all he needed to do was pick up the phone and tell the Secretary of the Army that the Silver Star recommendation he had just received was not truthful and should be withdrawn.

The real intent of McChrystal’s P4 memo seems to have been to alert his superiors that someone needed to warn President Bush and Secretary Brownlee that the 15–6 would confirm Tillman’s death by friendly fire, increasing the likelihood that the truth might be exposed one day. McChrystal never uttered a word to suggest that the fratricide should be disclosed to the American public — he simply endeavored to warn key speechwriters at the White House and Pentagon that they needed to finesse their statements about Tillman to provide the president and secretary with deniability as the cover-up went forward.

In the speech Bush gave at the correspondents’ dinner two days later, he lauded Tillman for his courage and sacrifice, but pointedly made no mention of how he died, suggesting that McChrystal’s memo had been read and heeded by the president and/or his advisers.

McChrystal, who was promoted from one-star brigadier general to two-star major general nine days after Tillman’s death, was a fiercely ambitious officer. If his falsification of the Tillman Silver Star recommendation had been exposed, his meteoric Army career would have ended ignominiously before he ever received his third and fourth stars. Why, then, did he take such a risk?

In June 2009, near the end of McChrystal’s confirmation hearing before the Armed Services Committee, it momentarily appeared as though some light might finally be shed on the matter when Senator Jim Webb had the opportunity to interrogate McChrystal about the Tillman episode. McChrystal began his testimony to Webb by confessing, “We failed the family. And I was a part of that, and I apologize for it.” But then he changed his tone and reiterated the same patently disingenuous claims made by virtually every officer who participated in the cover-up: “It was not intentional…. I didn’t see any activities by anyone to deceive.”

A moment later, however, McChrystal said something that perhaps inadvertently revealed the reason he and dozens of other officers and enlisted soldiers had embarked upon an elaborate web of calculated deception. “To provide context,” he explained to Webb, American troops were engaged “in the first battle of Fallujah in Iraq around the same time Tillman was killed.”

Context is crucial if one hopes to make sense of the Tillman cover-up, and McChrystal’s fleeting mention of Fallujah is especially germane in this regard. On April 22, 2004, the day Tillman was shot in Afghanistan, Fallujah had been roiling with extreme violence for three weeks. The strife was sparked when Iraqi insurgents ambushed a convoy guarded by four paramilitary contractors working for Blackwater USA. After they were killed in a grenade attack, the bodies of the four Americans were set on fire, dragged through the streets of Fallujah by a mob, and then hung from a bridge over the Euphrates River. In response, 2,000 American Marines launched an assault on the city, initiating furious urban combat that continued until U.S. forces were pulled out of Fallujah on May 1, by which time twenty-seven American troops were dead, and more than ninety had been wounded. The commander of one of the insurgent factions, a previously unheralded figure named Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi, emerged after the battle as a hero to Sunni Iraqis for forcing the Americans to withdraw from the city, transforming him from a nobody into a dangerous foe.

Compounding the bleak news from Fallujah, a week before Tillman’s death CBS News notified Donald Rumsfeld and General Richard Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that 60 Minutes II was about to air a program about the torture and abuse of Iraqi captives by U.S. soldiers at a prison called Abu Ghraib. On April 28, the same day McChrystal emailed his fraudulent Silver Star recommendation to the Secretary of the Army, CBS aired the Abu Ghraib program, and the aftershocks reverberated around the world, adding significantly to the Bush administration’s growing difficulties in Iraq. The president was facing an increasingly tough campaign to win a second term in the White House, and the election was barely six months away. When Tillman was killed, White House perception managers saw an opportunity to divert the nation’s attention from the spate of bad news.

Pat Tillman

The Bush administration had been trying to make Tillman an inspirational emblem for the Global War on Terror ever since he’d walked away from a $3.6 million National Football League contract to enlist in the Army after 9/11. But Tillman had rebuffed these efforts by adamantly refusing to do any media interviews. Following Tillman’s death, there was nothing to prevent the administration from using his celebrity to advance its agenda. On April 23, the day after Tillman perished, approximately two hundred e-mails about him pinged back and forth between White House officials, including staffers from Bush’s reelection campaign, who suggested to the president that it would be advantageous for him to respond to Tillman’s death as quickly as possible. By 11:40 a.m., a statement about Tillman had been drafted and forwarded to Press Secretary Scott McClellan and Communications Director Dan Bartlett, who immediately approved the press release on behalf of President Bush and then disseminated it to the public.

While he was alive, Tillman had been the object of tremendous public fascination, and White House officials guessed that presenting him as a fallen war hero would initiate a torrent of reverential press coverage. They were not disappointed. Thousands of tributes to Tillman appeared in all manner of media over the days and weeks that followed. On April 25, just two days after the initial White House press release, a “Weekend Media Assessment” compiled by the Army chief of staff’s Office of Public Affairs reported that stories about Tillman had generated the greatest interest in the Army since the president’s “Mission Accomplished” speech the previous May, adding that the Tillman stories “had been extremely positive in all media.” On April 30, when the Army announced that Tillman had been awarded the Silver Star for bravery under enemy fire, public admiration for Tillman shot through the roof, launching yet another round of favorable press. For as long as the cover-up was sustained, the administration reaped substantial benefits.

Presumably, if it had been disclosed at the outset that Pat Tillman was killed by American soldiers instead of the Taliban, the press coverage would have been no less voluminous, but its effect on the nation’s mood would have been very different. This is the context in which the Tillman cover-up, and General McChrystal’s central role in that cover-up, must be considered. It lends weight to angry assertions by the Tillman family that McChrystal brazenly lied when he testified that the Silver Star recommendation was not intended to deceive. While appearing before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform in 2007, Kevin Tillman testified, “The deception surrounding this case was an insult to the family, but more importantly, its primary purpose was to deceive a nation. We say these things with disappointment and sadness.”

Kevin Tillman testifying at the House Oversight and Government Reform hearing on April 24, 2007

Kevin, Pat’s brother, was a member of the same Ranger platoon as Pat when the fratricide occurred, yet the Army lied to Kevin about the cause of Pat’s death for more than a month. And although General McChrystal was one of the principal authors of this falsehood, he has never been held accountable. Instead, McChrystal retired from the Army in 2010 with his four stars intact, an annual pension of at least $150,000, and an undeserved reputation as an exemplary leader — which he’s aggressively leveraged to receive millions of dollars from government consulting contracts, corporate board appointments, and a teaching position at Yale University.

This piece is adapted from my book, Where Men Win Glory: The odyssey of Pat Tillman.

After Pat’s death his widow Marie Tillman and his closet friends established the Pat Tillman Foundation to honor his remarkable life.

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Author of Into the Wild, Into Thin Air, Classic Krakauer, and Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town. www.instagram.com/krakauernotwriting/

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Jon Krakauer

Jon Krakauer

Author of Into the Wild, Into Thin Air, Classic Krakauer, and Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town. www.instagram.com/krakauernotwriting/

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