September 7, 2012

“It is almost always the cover-up rather than the event that causes trouble.”  ~ Howard Baker ~

Marie Tillman, the widow of late NFL star and Army Ranger Pat Tillman, has published The Letter, a story of her experiences with Pat, his death and the aftermath.  In her book, Marie informs us that certain members of the U.S. Army were not forthright about how her husband died and describes the tremendous impact it had on her and other members of Pat’s family.

Pat Tillman, coming off his recognition as 1997 PAC 10 Defensive Player of the Year, played football for the Arizona Cardinals from 1998 through 2001. Like others who re-assessed their lives following the attacks of September 11, 2001, Pat turned down a 3-year $3.6 million contract offer from the Cardinals and enlisted in the U.S. Army in May 2002.

Marie explained (in a June 2012 interview with CNN’s Piers Morgan) that Pat “took a step back and reprioritized what was important to him in his life… he really felt called to serve his country.” Pat served first in Iraq, returned stateside to train as an Army Ranger and was redeployed to Afghanistan. On April 22, 2004, Pat was killed in action.

Marie says she and her family were first told that he was killed in an enemy ambush.The subsequent autopsy and additional conflicting details surrounding his death triggered an investigation. This investigation not only concluded that Pat was killed by friendly fire (inadvertently by his own men while engaged in enemy action), but that many of the involved Army personnel took actions to cover-up the real cause of his death.

While his wife’s story of Pat Tillman’s life and death has so many interesting elements, I was struck by Marie’s descriptions about what this lack of candor and the accompanying cover-up meant to her.

Since learning the truth, here is what she writes and has spoken about in terms of the affect on her grieving process:

“When Pat and Kevin (his brother) enlisted, we had felt unified as a family, but also felt we were part of a much bigger military family. We were all in this together. That’s why our treatment after his death felt like such a betrayal. And the thing is once you’ve been lied to, you start to think no one’s telling the truth. Conspiracy theories about Pat’s death started to circulate….”

“If he’d died some other way, this changed everything. If what they had told me at first was wrong, maybe the whole thing was wrong. Maybe he was still alive.”

“I do think that the families of the soldiers that are serving deserve to know the truth about their deaths. I think that’s something that’s just a common decency.”

What happens when 1) what we think people may be ready to hear or 2) what we are comfortable saying, clashes with “the real deal”?

Does this inform us about delivering devastating news to people? How do we continue to honor people with full candor when the going gets very tough?