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Soldier said he was told to keep quiet on details of Tillman's death

By Johanna Neuman, Times Staff Writer
1:05 PM PDT, April 24, 2007

WASHINGTON -- A soldier who fought under Cpl. Pat Tillman, the former NFL player who was killed in action in Afghanistan, testified today that he was told by higher-ups not to report that Tillman was killed by friendly fire.

"I was ordered not to tell," said Spc. Bryan O'Neal, who said Lt. Col. Jeff Bailey cautioned him not to inform Tillman's brother Kevin, who was also in the military and serving in a nearby convoy.

"He basically just said, 'Do not let Kevin know, he's probably in a bad place knowing that his brother's dead,' " O'Neal said. "He made it known I would get in trouble" if he told.

Earlier today, in dramatic testimony before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Kevin Tillman accused the Bush administration of twisting the facts of his brother's death to distract public attention from the prisoner abuses at Abu Ghraib.

The U.S. Army fabricated a story of his brother's heroism in action, knowing he was killed by friendly fire, Tillman said. Authorities constructed not only a story of combat action -- accompanied by a silver medal � but lied about his medical care, saying he was transferred to a field hospital for continued medical care for 90 minutes after the incident, when the back of his head was blown off.

"These are deliberate and calculated lies" and "a deliberate act of deceit," Tillman said.

His voice shaking, Tillman said the official account of his brother's death in 2004 was "utter fiction � intended to deceive the family and more importantly the American people."

He said the incident that led to his brother's death was "clearly fratricide" and described the account of a soldier standing next to his brother who reported the slain soldier's last words, "I am friendly, I am Pat (expletive) Tillman."

Tillman charged that other U.S. combat deaths had also been twisted to fit Pentagon public relations needs. In his brother's case, he said, "crucial evidence was destroyed," the autopsy was "not done according to regulation" and eyewitness testimony "disappeared into thin air."

The reason for the manipulation, he said, is that "they shifted the focus from the grotesque abuse of Abu Ghraib to a great American who died a hero's death."

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles), committee chairman, said he called the hearing into Tillman's death -- as well as the exaggerated reports of Pvt. Jessica Lynch's heroism -- because "our government has failed them" and hoped "in some small way � this hearing can begin to right those wrongs."

Pledging to pursue the investigation, Waxman said the administration's five investigations to date are "apparently not enough." Referring to the military's efforts to portray Tillman as a combat hero, he added, "I come from Hollywood. I expect showbiz in Hollywood, not from the military."

Through their questions, members of the committee zeroed in on who in the military had ordered the friendly fire aspect of Tillman's death withheld from the public -- and even the family -- for almost a month.

O'Neal testified that he was ordered to write an account of the incident on a computer, but that he never printed it out and does not know who changed his words for the citation that led to Tillman's being awarded a Silver Star. Pentagon Inspector General Thomas Gimble, who investigated the Tillman matter and issued a lengthy report putting the blame on four generals and five other officers, said he did not pursue that question.

"It was somewhere in the approval chain that it got edited," he said. "We can't put a face to who did the keyboard changes to it."

Navy Chief Stephen White gave a eulogy at Tillman's memorial service outlining the basics of the Pentagon's cover story on the death, describing the soldier's heroism in saving the lives of others. He testified that he was told the story by another soldier, whose name he could not recall.

"I'm the guy who told America how he died, and it was incorrect," White told the committee. "That does not sit well with me. It's leadership by example from here on out." Noting that he had a wife and two sons, White added that if anything happens to him, "I want them to know exactly how I died." Asked who let him down, White added, "My military."

Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Ct.) asked military officials what the punishment was for covering up a friendly fire incident. Noting that pilots who land on the wrong runway are fired "even if no one gets killed," he asked whether anyone would be punished for quashing facts of Tillman's death. "That's out of my lane," said Brig. Gen. Rodney Johnson, who conducted the Army's criminal investigation of the Tillman case.

And Waxman said he found it hard to believe that the three generals who were finally informed that Tillman was killed by friendly fire had not conveyed that news to the secretary of Defense or the president.

"We still don't know how far up this went." Waxman said. "We don't know what the secretary of Defense knew, what the White House knew.� Even now there seems to be a coverup."

Tillman's death commanded worldwide headlines because the former Arizona Cardinal safety volunteered for service after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"Pat wanted to leave a positive legacy," his brother said. Calling the death a tragedy, Kevin Tillman said that "the attempt to hijack his virtue is simply horrific" and he asked the committee to find how his brother died and who lied to cover it up. "Anything less than the truth is a betrayal of those values," he said.

Mary Tillman, Pat's mother, also testified, saying she was "appalled" by comments from Lt. Col. Ralph Kauzlarich, an officer in Tillman's unit, suggesting that the family was not at peace with the death because they are atheists who believe their son is now "worm dirt." Waxman suggested to military officials that Kauzlarich's comments should be punished as "conduct unbecoming an officer."

Noting that the family has been asked repeatedly "how can we be appeased," Mary Tillman said the question "makes me sick." Her son died, she said, for his country. Saying that war is "ugly, bloody," she urged Congress to "find out what happened to Pat and these other soldiers," and urged the military to stop "diminishing their true heroism" with cover stories.

Lynch, who was taken prisoner while in Iraq and rescued by U.S. troops, also testified to how her own story became a touchstone for heroism. Saying there were real heroes during the fighting -- including her friend, a Hopi soldier named Lori Piestewa who was killed in action, Lynch wondered why U.S. officials hyped her story, "why they lied and tried to make me a hero."

Lynch said the public is capable of discerning the truth. "The truth of war is not always easy," she said. "The truth is always more heroic than the hype."

Republican Tom Davis (R-Va.) agreed, asking, "If the first casualty of war is the truth, what happens when the wound is self-inflicted?"




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