Hon. John McHugh
Secretary of the Army
Congratulations on your recent confirmation to the post of Secretary of the Army. We are especially pleased that you were willing to take on such an important position in such a difficult time, and to cross party lines to work for a Democratic president. For the sake of our nation and for the men and women who have been sent to war far from home, we wish you well.
You must have a ton of reading to do these days, but I want to ask you to take an evening to look at one very important piece of work, the latest book by Jon Krakauer. Krakauer writes about extraordinary people who meet their end in unusual ways. There was the climb of Everest in Into Thin Air, and the kid who hiked solo into the Alaskan wilderness in Into the Wild.
Now Krakauer has turned his intense gaze on the Army, specifically on the life and death of Pat Tillman, the NFL player who chose to join the Army after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman was published on Sept. 15 by Doubleday, and anyone who cares about the lives of those we put in harm’s way should read it.
Like many of us, Pat Tillman thought that the war in Afghanistan was a war of necessity. Unlike most of us, he chose to put his life on the line in support of that belief. He was among the tens of thousands of troops on the ground left scratching their heads when they were deployed not to Afghanistan, where Osama bin Laden was still on the loose, but to Iraq, where the perpetrators of 9/11 had never set foot. Like our current commander-in-chief, Tillman believed that the war in Iraq was a war of choice, and a bad choice at that.
Nonetheless he followed his orders, went to Iraq and eventually to Afghanistan. As the Army’s best known enlistee, he was even given the chance to cut his Army service short and return to his lucrative football career. He declined, and on April 22, 2004, he was killed in action.
What Krakauer recounts, Mr. Secretary, is a deeply disturbing account of how the Army, the Pentagon and the Bush White House hid the true story of Pat Tillman’s death, and manipulated the story for partisan ends. Initially we were told that he died in an enemy ambush. Many weeks later, after Tillman had been promoted and awarded the Silver Star posthumously, we learned that he had been killed by friendly fire.
Tragic, but understandable. However, the lie about friendly fire is just the beginning of the deception. From there, Krakauer relates, the story only gets worse. He outlines the deliberate cover-up of the cause of Tillman’s death. His research includes hundreds of White House e-mails making clear that the Bush administration made a conscious decision to portray Tillman’s death as a heroic sacrifice rather than a bungled operation. He calls it a conspiracy concocted to draw attention away from the looming quagmire in Iraq in a time when Bush’s re-election prospects were uncertain.
One of your predecessors, former Army Secretary Pete Geren, called the Tillman episode a “perfect storm of mistakes, misjudgments and a failure of leadership.” Pat Tillman’s family, including his brother Kevin, who served in his platoon, respectfully, forcefully and emphatically disagrees. Five years down the road it is abundantly clear that they are not going to go away.
They are calling for an investigation that goes deeper into the politics of the case, and isn’t afraid to name names. It won’t be easy. Surely you know that the Army general now in charge of Afghanistan, Stanley McChrystal, is up to his hips in this matter. Krakauer blames him as much as anyone in uniform for the manipulation of Tillman’s sacrifice.
It’s up to you to untangle this mess, and to repay the Tillman family’s sacrifice with bravery befitting their son’s example. We don’t need another investigation that supports the cover-up. We need you to show the courage to follow the facts in this case to wherever they lead.
Your district has given many soldiers to both of the wars our country is now engaged in. Perhaps more than anyone in the Congress or this administration you have seen the youthful photos of the fallen and felt the grief of their families. At each funeral for the fallen, the flag covering the coffin is presented to the family on behalf of a “grateful nation.” If Krakauer is correct, the Bush administration used that flag as a blindfold. Mr. Secretary, this nation would be grateful to you if you would promise his family, and all of our families, that you will get to the bottom of this case.
Those who knew Pat Tillman speak of his life as a quest for integrity. Please help his family to continue that quest.