What African-Americans Can Learn From Pat Tillman

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Pro-football player turned Army Ranger who was killed in Afghanistan in April of 2004, Pat Tillman, is the subject of a riveting documentary that opens this weekend called The Tillman Story. Initially, the family was told that Pat was killed by enemy fire, but after months of investigation and a botched cover-up by the US military (under the command of the now retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal and the Bush administration), it was determined to be friendly fire. While the The Tillman Story dispels much of the mythos surrounding Pat Tillman, the focus is the family’s Herculean effort to find the truth about Pat’s death.
Over a year, Pat’s mother, Dannie Tillman, pores over nearly 3000 pages of army documents detailing the events of the fatal day in the Afghan mountains and how the army handled the death. She then demands—and is granted—a formal Congressional hearing. Watching her painstaking search begs the questions: Are fratricide cases typically swept under the rug? And what about other families who’ve lost loved ones in war and who are not satisfied with the stated cause of death? The Tillman Story is about friendly-fire as much as it is about how these deaths are investigated.
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One compelling statistic from the film: 1/6 (16%) combat deaths are a result of friendly fire. And while the Army claims the rate has dropped significantly since the Persian Gulf War (due to technological advances) from 10-14 % to .78 per cent, most experts agree this number is low. It also stands to reason that these cases inordinately affect African-Americans since they are disproportionately represented in the military. According to US Census Bureau the percentage of African-Americans in the US is 12.9% as compared to 17.3% serving in the military (according to the US Department of Defense).

So if a family suspects a cover-up, who has the power to challenge the government? It seems that people of privilege at least fair better.

“There is no doubt that Tillman’s were able to do what other families in the same position couldn’t,” explains Amir Bar-Lev, the film’s director. “Because of Pat’s celebrity, the Tillman family had access to people—and power—that most wouldn’t, like John McCain,” (who is seen in the film at Pat’s funeral). Bar-Lev also insists that Dannie Tillman is well aware of this. “She’s the first to say that this film isn’t about Pat, it’s about our country.”
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In 2008, Salon.com published a story about the deaths of two soldiers, 31-year-old African-American Pfc Albert Markee Nelson and 21-year-old Pfc Roger Suarez-Gonzalez who died (together) in Ramadi, Iraq. Both families were told that their son’s died from an enemy mortar attack, but when a 52-minute video surfaced (one of the soldiers had a helmet camera turned on during the raid), it showed the deaths were in fact friendly-fire.

Interestingly, few media—mainstream or alternative—outlets picked up on the story (which in some cases is the only way families can get attention) and the parents of the two soldiers, Jean Nelson-Feggins and Roger Suarez, say they still haven’t gotten satisfying answers from the military.

“Even after the video, the army insists that my son was killed by enemy fire,” explains Roger Suarez Sr. from Lady Tamales, from the restaurant he owns Carson City, Nevada.

In a story that ran in the Associated Press in 2008, Jean Nelson Feggins insists she was not alerted to the video by the military but that she learned of it from Salon.com. What’s more, she was suspicious of a cover up from the start.

There are no winners in this game. At the end of The Tillman Story, Dannie Tillman and her family aren’t any clearer on Pat’s death than they were in 2004. The US Department of Defense concluded it was friendly fire, but to this day, no one has taken responsibility for the cover-up. What is clear is that having the leverage to challenge the system can go at least part way in bringing closure and moving forward.

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