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Why Pat Tillman’s Parents Are No Longer Silent


To kill with no pain
Like a dog on a chain
He ain’t got no name
But it ain’t him to blame
He’s only a pawn in their game.

Bob Dylan

When former Arizona Cardinals football player turned Army Ranger Pat Tillman died in Afghanistan, sonorous bugles moaned from coast to coast. We were told he died a “warrior’s death” charging up a hill, urging on his fellow rangers. His funeral was a nationally televised political extravaganza with Senator John McCain among others delivering eulogies over his open grave. His Commander in Chief George W. Bush took time during last fall’s Presidential campaign to address Cardinals fans on the Jumbotron at Sun Devil Stadium. Republican Rep. J.D. Hayworth was one of many singing Tillman’s praises. “He chose action rather than words. He lived the American dream, and he fought to preserve the American dream and our way of life.”

At the time, I wrote a small column stating that Tillman who refused “hundreds if not thousands” of offers by the Pentagon to shill publicly for the “War on Terror” would be repulsed by all the attention. I wrote that to Bush, McCain, and their pro-war ilk, Tillman was proving far more useful dead than alive. He had joined the Rangers for ideals like freedom and justice, but he fought in a war for oil and empire. I wrote that in death he was little more than a “pawn in their game.”

This observation didn’t click with the pro-war/occupation camp, as hate mail and death threats poured into my sleepy newspaper. People claimed that the bipartisan war brigade was celebrating his heroism, not exploiting his death – and by not simply standing and saluting, I deserved a similar fate.

I want to know how the hate mongers and internet thugs feel now, knowing that they were duped about Tillman’s death. Duped like the country was duped about WMDs. Duped into cheerleading a war that’s made the world a more dangerous place and accomplished little more than a new generation of mass graves, containing 100,000 Iraqis and 1,600 US soldiers as Bush and his chickenhawks smirked knowingly in the background.

I can only wonder if those so protective of Pat Tillman’s memory will exhibit a fraction of the bravery being shown by Pat’s parents Patrick and Mary. The divorced couple has decided to go public with their fury at a government that lied over the body of their dead son

Patrick and Mary now know that Pat did not die at the hands of the Taliban while charging up a hill, but was shot by his own troops in an instance of what they call “fratricide.” Patrick and Mary now know that Tillman’s men realized they had gunned him down “within moments.” They know that the soldiers in an effort to cover up the killing of the All American “poster boy” – burned Tillman’s uniform and body armor.

They know that over the next 10 days, top-ranking Army officials, including the all too appropriately titled “theater commander,” Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, hid the truth of Tillman’s death, while Pentagon script writers conjured a Hollywood ending. They know that the army waited until weeks after the nationally televised memorial service to even clue them in about “irregularities” surrounding their son’s death. They know that the concurrent eruption of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal may have played a role in the cover-up, as the army attempted to avoid a double public relations disaster.

“After it happened, all the people in positions of authority went out of their way to script this,” Patrick Tillman said earlier this week to the Washington Post. “They purposely interfered with the investigation, they covered it up. [T]hey realized that their recruiting efforts were going to go to hell in a handbasket if the truth about his death got out. They blew up their poster boy.”

Mary Tillman, like her ex-husband and son, a fiercely private person, spoke with a frankness that should put dissembling military planners to shame. “It makes you feel like you’re losing your mind in a way,” she said. “You imagine things. When you don’t know the truth, certain details can be blown out of proportion. The truth may be painful, but it’s the truth. You start to contrive all these scenarios that could have taken place because they just kept lying. If you feel you’re being lied to, you can never put it to rest.”

Now the Tillmans, consciously or not, are lending their voice to a growing chorus of military family members determined to speak out against this war. New organizations, like Gold Star Mothers for Peace and Military Families Speak Out, are made up of people handling their grief by refusing to be political props and instead making a country bear witness to their pain.

“Every day is sort of emotional,” Mary Tillman said. “It just keeps slapping me in the face. To find that he was killed in this debacle — everything that could have gone wrong did — it’s so much harder to take. We should not have been subjected to all of this. This lie was to cover their image. I think there’s a lot more yet that we don’t even know, or they wouldn’t still be covering their tails. If this is what happens when someone high profile dies, I can only imagine what happens with everyone else.”

It is exactly for “everyone else” dying throughout the Middle East, that we must follow the Tillmans example and regard silence as a luxury we can no longer afford.

DAVE ZIRIN’s new book “What’s My Name Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States” will be in stores in June 2005. Check out his revamped website You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by e-mailing Contact him at


















DAVE ZIRIN is the author of A People’s History of Sports in the United States (The New Press) Contact him at

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