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Panel Focuses on Tillman, Lynch Combat Reports

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

On Capitol Hill today, a House committee is trying to find out why the Army gave out misleading information in two high-profile incidents. One of them involves former National Football League star Pat Tillman who died in Afghanistan, killed by friendly fire.

An Army Ranger testified today that he was told by his commander to hide the cause of death from Tillman's family especially from Tillman's brother Kevin, who's also an Army Ranger. Here's what U.S. Army specialist Brian O'Neal told the committee.

Pfc. BRIAN O'NEAL (U.S. Army): I wanted right off the bat to let the family know what had happened especially Kevin because I worked with him in a platoon. And I was quite appalled when we were - I was able, actually able to speak with Kevin. I was ordered not to tell him what happened, sir.

Unidentified Man: You were ordered not to tell them.

Pfc. O'NEAL: Roger that, sir.

SIEGEL: The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee is also looking into misleading information that was given out in the case of Army specialist Jessica Lynch, whose convoy was ambushed in Iraq early in the war.

NPR's John McChesney has been at the hearing and he joins us now. And, John, what else did Brian O'Neal and others say about the Pat Tillman case?

JOHN McCHESNEY: I think, Robert, some of the most damning information that came out today was about the Silver Star Award that was given to the family at the memorial service for Pat Tillman. O'Neal went on to say that a statement supposedly made by him about Pat and how Pat was killed was completely fabricated, that he had nothing to do with it.

And a Navy SEAL, who was a very good friend of Tillman - his name is Steven White - said that the conditions of Tillman's death were read to him over the telephone by an Army official - he didn't know exactly whom. And he presented that at the memorial ceremony. It was completely false.

Some of the congressmen grilled Thomas Gimble of the Department of Defense's Inspector General's Office. They asked him, who wrote these things? Who fabricated these things? And he said he didn't know, and then he was asked if whether they've done any computer forensics to try to find out and he said no, they haven't done any.

SIEGEL: Now, this was the first time that Pat Tillman's brother has spoken in public, what did he say?

McCHESNEY: The Tillmans believe that the government was using Pat's death to obscure problems they were having: a rising insurgency in Iraq and the scandal that was breaking out around Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Here's what Kevin Tillman had to say about that.

Mr. KEVIN TILLMAN (U.S. Army Ranger; Brother of Pat Tillman): Revealing that Pat's death was a fratricide would have been yet another political disaster during a month already swollen with political disasters, and a brutal truth that the American public would undoubtedly find unacceptable. So the facts needed to be suppressed, an alternative narrative had to be constructed.

McCHESNEY: You can hear the anger in Kevin Tillman's voice there. His mother and he were together today on the stand, and the father was present in the audience. The Tillmans believe that the men who shot Pat were out of control, and that they should be charged with negligent homicide.

Mary Tillman has stayed on the government through five different investigations on this case - the most recent one being something like 1,100 pages. And the government kept asking her throughout this - what they could do for her? And she said, you know, this is really not about the family. There's nothing you can do for the family. This is about misleading the nation.

SIEGEL: Now, onto the other incident, John. What role in today's hearing did Jessica Lynch play?

McCHESNEY: It wasn't anywhere near the, you know, the dimensions of - what - the Tillmans did. But now, Jessica Lynch was captured. She was held by the Iraqis and a story came out of the media that she had been wounded in a big firefight and that the Americans went in and rescued her. Much of that story turned out to be false but Lynch didn't blame the government. When she was asked, do you blame the government for fabricating this? She said no, I blame mostly the media for this. But she certainly was there to say that the story was wrong.

SIEGEL: How did the lawmakers respond to her?

McCHESNEY: I was stunned by the bipartisan tone of this. They weren't picking on each other. They were all quite concerned about what had happened in both these cases.

SIEGEL: And the Army's response in the Lynch case?

McCHESNEY: The Department of Defense was represented primarily by Thomas Gimble of the Inspector General's Office. And even though his report found fault with all of the previous investigations that had taken place, he basically did not satisfy the Tillman family at all. And he stuck to his guns on his report, even though he was grilled by several angry congressmen.

SIEGEL: NPR's John McChesney reporting from Capitol Hill on today's hearings. John, thank you.

McCHESNEY: Thank you, Robert. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John McChesney
Since 1979 senior correspondent John McChesney has been with NPR, where he has served as national editor (responsible for domestic news) and senior foreign editor. Over the course of his career with NPR, McChesney covered a variety of beats and traveled extensively throughout Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Latin America and Asia. His reports can be heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, and newscasts.