Tillman's family wants the truth, but in their own way

NEW YORK -- Mary Tillman doesn't want any more congressional hearings or official inquiries.

She still doesn't believe she's been given anything close to satisfactory answers as to how her son died or why the circumstances of his death were reported incorrectly for so long. But she knows it's unhealthy to keep pushing, and Pat Tillman wouldn't have wanted that for his family.

Of course, if new information were to come out because of the documentary that will be released this month, the Tillmans would take up the cause again. Yet that's not why they agreed to cooperate with the making of "The Tillman Story," which opens in limited release Aug. 20.

The film chronicles how the Arizona Cardinals safety abandoned NFL riches in 2002 to join the Army Rangers. He was killed in Afghanistan in April 2004 -- in an enemy ambush, the military told the world. It wasn't until five weeks later that it was revealed he was a victim of friendly fire.

His mother sees the story as far bigger than that of one very famous solider.

"It's happening to other soldiers," Mary Tillman said Thursday in a phone interview with The Associated Press. "It's a systemic problem."

Tillman's family raised objections last year when Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal was facing Senate confirmation to lead military operations in Afghanistan. It was McChrystal who approved paperwork awarding Tillman a Silver Star although he suspected Tillman had been killed by friendly fire, according to Pentagon testimony later obtained by the AP. In 2007, the Army overruled a Pentagon recommendation that McChrystal be held accountable for his "misleading" actions.

Mary Tillman conceded she felt "validated" in her perception of McChrystal when she read his comments in the Rolling Stone article that ended his military career. She said she didn't necessarily believe his role in the handling of Pat's death disqualified him from the position, but that he needed to be questioned about his actions.

"By vetting him properly, it also sends him a message," she said. "That message was never sent. He was left with the belief he could do what he chose."

Mary Tillman spent years poring over documents and pushing for deeper investigations into her son's death and the aftermath. She said filmmaker Amir Bar-Lev first approached the family at the 2007 congressional hearings. Pat's widow, Marie, embraced the project as a way to end misconceptions about his life and death.

Part of what was so heartbreaking for Tillman's family about the initial portrayal of his death was that it turned a complicated, conflicted person into a one-dimensional myth.

"He wasn't treated as a person, really," Mary Tillman said.

Russell Baer knew the real Pat Tillman, serving with him and his brother, Kevin. He was interviewed extensively for the documentary.

"It's so funny for people to wrap their heads around this family that's trying to demystify their son, who's been put up on this pedestal, who's this hero figure, " Baer told The Associated Press. "They're like, 'That's not who he was. Remember him for who he was. For all the great things that he was, he wasn't that.'"

Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press

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