By lex, on April 25th, 2007
My second job in a line squadron as a young lieutenant was to serve as the squadron Personnel Officer. Hard, administratively technical and thoroughly thankless, it was not the kind of job that hard charging strike fighter pilots lusted after. But while I was still too junior for one of the more prestigious “finishing” jobs in Ops, I had sufficiently proven myself in my “starter” job as the Aircraft Division Officer that the squadron leadership felt that they could trust me in one of the few junior officer billets that could actually get a commanding officer fired: The PersO job came with the “Personnel Reliability Program” as a collateral duty, and any CO who allowed that program to get porked away could be assured that no band would be playing at his change of command.
One of my other tasks as Personnel Officer was to administrate advancement exams for the squadron’s enlisted personnel. In combination with their performance on written annual evaluations, the results of their advancement exams had a huge impact on who got promoted, how quickly and – ultimately – how far. It was a pretty big deal, especially to the Sailors taking the test – they’d been provided a bibliography that told them which general areas would be tested. The ones who wanted to advance – and who doesn’t? – had studied from it.
Being a far-flung service even in peacetime, the Navy had a vested interest in ensuring that the exams themselves were not compromised – that no one could take the test in Britain, for example, and then phone ahead to his friends in Japan. So part of my responsibility, having administered the exam, was to destroy the question booklets. Being an administratively careless youth of some 26 summers, and being at sea where the amount of time required to do a job tended to fill the nearly limitless time available to do it, this responsibility I duly put aside until the last possible moment.
The maximum number of days (5) until test booklet destruction having passed, I summoned forth the squadron intel officer – a mere ensign (but a good fellah) and took him down to the carrier intelligence center, where they had a bitchin’ shredder, capable of the industrial chewing of things up into very tiny pieces. And a very merry shredding we had of it too, with many witticisms exchanged while test booklets went down, down, down. I returned to my stateroom, tired but pleased, intending to package up the answer sheets that so many of our first class petty officers had so diligently applied themselves to, hoping to make chief, and forwarding them to the grading center in Pensacola. Only I couldn’t find them.
On account of the fact that on test day I had left them – in the kind of decision that you don’t really reflect on, when you make it – inside the test booklets. The test booklets that I had just spent the last hour shredding. The answer sheets were gone.
This was a bad thing.
It’s funny what goes through your head when something has been irretrievably fouled up. The fight or flee instinct kicks in. I declare that for a moment I actually considered going up to the LSO platform and quietly hurling myself into the sea, that being potentially the easier course than explaining to twenty or so of our finest – and our CO, a hard man – that I had just cost them a year of their lives, at least so far as their naval careers were concerned. Out of mere carelessness and inattention to detail – there are few higher crimes and misdemeanors for a young officer. And these weren’t first termers, but PO1′s – company men. Careerists. And I’d just screwed them.
The second thing that occurred to me – and I’m not proud of it – was to try to find a way out. A way of hiding it. No one would ever have to know. I could mail an empty box, or even not mail a box at all and then answer the inevitable queries with a, “Really? Sent it off months ago. Huh…”
But no, it would never do. All the training I’d ever received rejected it. The only thing to do was to tell the whole truth, and take my lumps, didn’t matter how hard. The task was quickly done. And the good news? There’s nothing new under the sun, and the Navy had a process for just such an eventuality: A substitute test would be delivered, administered, and graded. Everyone who took the original test would have another chance.
But I learned from that how things could go wrong in a hurry. And how you could want so much to make them go away.
Pat Tillman was already a kind of hero when he decided to leave the NFL and become a different kind of hero altogether. The fact that he was killed by friendly fire while his unit was engaged in combat is a footnote to his life, not the defining feature. The Army isn’t for the faint of heart in peacetime, and the bad things that can happen to you don’t get rarer when the bullets are snapping and whining in earnest.
First reports are always wrong, and there’s no telling what the first officer in Tillman’s chain of command was told when he heard the news that the granite-jawed NFL star under his command had been killed in action. Assumptions were probably made as that unwelcome information was sent up-echelon while front-line barrels were still smoking hot. It wasn’t until later that the unwelcome truth was determined, I suspect.
Bad news travels fast, and a bum steer has a tendency to get half-way ’round the world while the straight skinny is still getting its laces tied. Somebody made a mistake it was rationalized, but it wasn’t me and it’s not my job to set things straight, someone said. What’s the harm in letting the man’s family and his country think that he died by hostile fire? He wouldn’t be any less dead, nor any less a hero. But it sure would sound better.
In the event, it took a full month to finally un-fark the mess that had been made, and in the intervening time a beautiful, but fatally flawed narrative had already taken root. Pulling it up was embarrassing, and it didn’t for a moment change the truth of the matter that a man who could have had anything traded it all in for the chance to serve his country in its hour of need, and lost everything in doing so.
This is not about excusing, and it’s not about forgiving – this was a horrible bungle, a mistake, a disgrace. But this is about understanding. People make mistakes, sometimes dreadful ones. They can be hard to confess to, even when no one died that shouldn’t have.
It’s a damned shame, and I’m very sorry for his family.
It’s hard to believe though, that any of this rises to the level of a Congressional inquiry. Especially one so inelegantly linked to the Jessica Lynch tale, ** one in which it appears clear that the military was more sinned against than sinning – despite all cautions about “the first report” always being wrong, a “fight to the last bullet” blond female narrative proved irresistible to a national press enraptured with the notion of female warriors on the front line for the first time. And trying to declare that the cover-up went all the way up to the “vile beginners of this fray” is little but a hobby for a Congressional gadfly with nothing much better to do with his time.
It’s isn’t a crime in itself, this gavel beating gas, but you wouldn’t necessarily want to put it on your resume.
This is not to take a whit away from what Pvt. Lynch actually went through, and I’m thankful that I didn’t have to face it myself. She was a hero for being there, even if her story got conflated with that of another who kept his finger on the trigger * until the rounds were all gone. It was a hard stretch, and she did the best she could.
But in the grand scheme of what can go wrong in the world of war, these don’t seem much like cardinal sins, at least to me. More like honest mistakes that took some time to sort out in a dreadfully tangled time line with better things to focus on. And it’s not a little bit ironic that the same demographics which made Tillman and Lynch such transiently attractive heroes is being twisted to instead make them enduring victims. In either case it’s dehumanizing, and it misses the point entirely.
** 07-30-2018 Original link gone; replacement found – Ed.
* 07-30-2018 Link Gone; no replacements found – Ed.