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Originally published Wednesday, May 28, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Steve Kelley

Mother "gets out the word" on Pat Tillman

Imagine the anguish of losing your son in the war in Afghanistan. Really, it's impossible to imagine, unless it happens to you. Then imagine finding out...

Seattle Times staff columnist

Imagine the anguish of losing your son in the war in Afghanistan. Really, it's impossible to imagine, unless it happens to you.

Then imagine finding out, five weeks later, that his death was fratricide, or as the military euphemistically calls it, "friendly fire."

Imagine your son being maybe the highest-profile soldier in the war — an NFL player, who gave up a $3.6 million contract to do what he intensely believed to be the right and patriotic thing.

And now, understand the horror all of us should feel knowing that the circumstances of his death were covered up by the military, covered up by the Bush administration.

Imagine being the mother of Pat Tillman and understanding that you were lied to by the very country your son was willing to surrender his life for.

"It's weird because it's like he's died many times," said Mary Tillman, Pat's mother, who, with Narda Zacchino, has written a remarkable book, "Boots on The Ground by Dusk: My Tribute to Pat Tillman." "You get an image in your head of what happened and the story changes and changes again."

Over the protests of his mother, but ultimately with her blessing, he and his brother Kevin enlisted after the tragedy of Sept. 11. They weren't naïve. This wasn't some romantic notion. They knew the seriousness of this action and the dangers that were ahead of them.

But on April 22, 2004, Pat Tillman, a defensive back for the Arizona Cardinals before he became an Army Ranger, was killed in one of the many dangerous canyons near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

Perhaps you remember his memorial service in San Jose when the story of his death was told by military officials who portrayed him as a John Wayne-like figure charging up a ridge to protect his unit against the fusillade of deadly fire coming from the Taliban's automatic rifles.

"There was something about the story that always seemed very contrived," said Mary Tillman, sitting in the lobby of a downtown Seattle hotel late Tuesday afternoon.

Back then, the Bush administration needed a hero. The torture of the prisoners of Abu Ghraib was front-page news. The war in Iraq was going poorly. And, as casualties mounted, Bush's approval ratings plummeted.

Bush needed a hero, and Pat Tillman's death gave the administration the opportunity to spin a heartwarming yarn of courage it hoped would lift the country's spirit.

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The cover-up, as described in Mary Tillman's book, should send a shiver up the conscience of every citizen of this country.

Immediately after his death, Tillman's uniform curiously was burned, so was his military journal. The coroner who examined the body refused to sign off on the description of the death.

Mary Tillman believes the cover-up was known all the way through the chain of command. She believes then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was involved in it.

"Every time you ask anyone, 'Why did you make up a story?' They can't answer that," she said. "They give you a deer-in-the-headlights look. They lied at every level."

Tillman, like every soldier in harm's way, in Iraq and Afghanistan, was heroic. But his death was the result of gross negligence and the cover-up was a crime, not only against his family, but against this country.

"This story isn't just about the Tillman family, it's about all of us," Mary said. "This was a public deception."

This is an important book. Its tone is perfect. Tillman isn't maudlin. It isn't written with searing anger, although her anger is apparent. It isn't written to get even with anybody, or any body of government. It is passionate, accurate and relentless in its search for the truth.

"The purpose, for me, is to get the word out," she said. "This is a young person who was willing to give up his life for his country. He gave up a lot and he was treated with disrespect."

Mary Tillman didn't accept the lies. She and the members of her family, including Pat's brother Kevin, who was near his brother during the fatal skirmish, questioned authorities and sought answers to questions that made President Bush and the people below him very nervous.

The Tillmans devoured documents. They demanded information. They wouldn't go away. They haven't gone away.

"Soldiers lose their voice when they enlist," Mary Tillman said. "If your soldier is alive and well, be very vigilant with the military. Make sure your soldier has the right equipment. Make sure they're getting the right medical treatment.

"If you think your soldier is in trouble, if you feel they're not doing very well mentally, you have to be very dogged. Contact your congressman, your local media. You just have to keep pressing people. And if you're questioning how your soldier died, do the very same thing."

Mary Tillman wants us to know about her son. She weaves wonderful stories about the Tillman brothers' lives, while taking us through the heaviness of Pat's death.

"The fact Pat lived in our life is a happy thing and I wanted that to come out in the book," his mother said. "As I went through this, always I would ask myself, 'What would Pat do if it was one of us?' And I know he would be busting down doors.

"He was very human. He was raised in a very modest house. He got in trouble. He was a thinker. He had a tremendous work ethic and he was a lot of things that are very important. He was a wonderful man."

And Mary Tillman has honored her son in the kind of graceful way his country never did.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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About Steve Kelley
Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation.
skelley@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2176

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