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Military tried to concoct 'hero' stories

WASHINGTON -- Hugging the bare Afghanistan soil to escape the friendly fire of his comrades, the combat ranger heard his fire team leader's last words: "Stop shooting. I'm Pat [expletive] Tillman."...

WASHINGTON -- Hugging the bare Afghanistan soil to escape the friendly fire of his comrades, the combat ranger heard his fire team leader's last words: "Stop shooting. I'm Pat [expletive] Tillman."

Army Specialist Bryan O'Neal told a rapt congressional committee Tuesday how he was later ordered not to tell the truth about the April 22, 2004, friendly-fire killing of the former NFL star, and said his account of the actual shooting was changed on the citation used in awarding Tillman a posthumous Silver Star.

"I wanted right off the bat to tell the family," O'Neal told the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. After all, Kevin Tillman, the brother of the slain ranger, also was a friend and a member of their platoon, O'Neal said. Kevin had been behind the fire team and couldn't see the shooting.

O'Neal said that when he got the chance to talk to Kevin, "I was ordered not to tell him what happened."

"You were ordered not to tell him?" repeated Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

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"Roger that, sir," replied O'Neal, dressed in his Army uniform.

In a hearing on "Misleading Information from the Battlefield," witnesses testified about deliberate campaigns by military officials to create heroic myths about the death of Cpl. Tillman in Afghanistan and the 2003 capture and rescue of Army Pfc. Jessica Lynch in Iraq.

"My parents' home in Wirt County [W.Va.] was under siege by the media all repeating the story of the little girl Rambo from the hills who went down fighting," Lynch testified. "I am still confused as to why they chose to lie and tried to make me a legend when the real heroics of my fellow soldiers that day were, in fact, legendary."

High-ranking Army officers knew at the time of Tillman's memorial service that his death had come from bullets fired by his comrades but chose to let the ceremony continue with eulogies based on false accounts of his actions in a firefight that never happened, Mary Tillman told the committee.

"We never thought they would use us the way they did," she said.

Pat Tillman's death received worldwide attention because he had walked away from a huge contract with the NFL's Arizona Cardinals to enlist in the Army after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Investigations by the Army, including an inspector general's report late last month, have not established any conspiracy to cover up the cause of Tillman's death. But top officers, including four generals, have been criticized for failing to tell his family the truth for more than a month afterward, and could face criminal charges.

Kevin Tillman, who gave up a minor-league baseball career to enlist with his older brother, said the military's early, heroic depiction of his brother's death was "utter fiction" intended to deceive not just a grieving family, but the entire country.

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"To our family and friends, it was a devastating loss. To the nation, it was a moment of disorientation. To the military, it was a nightmare," Kevin Tillman said, his voice wavering with emotion. "But to others within the government, it appears to have been an opportunity."

In his brother's case, he charged that evidence had been destroyed, an autopsy did not conform to regulations and testimony of witnesses "disappeared into thin air."

Democrats on the committee accused the Bush administration of using lies from the battlefields in an attempt to conceal the harsh realities of the wars.

"The bare minimum we owe our soldiers and their families is the truth," Waxman said. "That didn't happen for the two most famous soldiers in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. For Jessica Lynch and Pat Tillman, the government violated its most basic responsibility."

Walking to the witness table with a limp, Lynch described how she was injured when a rocket-propelled grenade hit her vehicle in a supply convoy, causing a massive traffic pile-up. Her roommate and best friend, Lori Piestewa, was killed in the attack, Lynch said, and she awoke in an Iraqi hospital with massive injuries.

Days later, she heard familiar accents as U.S. forces stormed the hospital in a dramatic rescue. A trooper found her bed.

"He told me, 'We're American soldiers and we're here to take you home,' " she recalled. "As I held his hand, I told him, 'Yes, I am an American soldier, too.' "

She came back home to find that -- apparently as a result of tales an anonymous military source told the Washington Post -- the world thought she had been wounded in a blazing gun battle with Iraqi foes. The real heroes, she said, were people like Piestewa or other comrades who "actually fought until the very end."

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"The American people are capable of determining their own ideals for heroes, and they don't need to be told elaborate lies," Lynch said.

In his testimony, O'Neal said from the start he told his platoon sergeant and others in his unit that Tillman had been killed by friendly fire from comrades who apparently mistook them for the enemy. He recalled also describing the circumstances in a witness statement used in awarding a Silver Star to Tillman.

After engaging the enemy in a firefight, "Cpl. Tillman saved my life by drawing most of the fire from my position to his and in return, I survived and he was killed," the witness statement said in part.

O'Neal said he did not write that.

After the hearing, Mary Tillman approached O'Neal, introduced herself, embraced him and sobbed.

The Associated Press, the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post contributed to this report.

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