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The Tillman Story: An Honorable Soldier with Dishonorable Leaders

February 11, 2014

April 22 will mark the tenth anniversary of the friendly fire killing of National Football League super star and US Army Corporal Pat Tillman. It also marks the beginning of egregious acts of dishonor by senior military officers in the wake of that killing by trying to cover it up so that Tillman’s use as a military recruiting tool could be preserved and also so that public support for the war would not be diminished. Have we learned anything from this tragedy? I doubt it. In fact, I believe it is quite likely that, if similar acts of fratricide are occurring today, senior officers up and down the chain of command are doing their best to cover them up, just like they tried to do with the incidents involving Corporal Pat Tillman, Private Jessica Lynch, Corporal Lance Fielder, the Abu Ghraib prison atrocities, the Black Hawk helicopter shoot down and many other incidents . The bottom line is that we have a serious problem of dishonor in our military ranks. The tenth anniversary of the Tillman incident is a good motivator to examine what we need to do.

The Tillman incident is valuable as a study because it is so well documented and because the misbehavior of senior military officers was so horrendous. I have watched the movie “The Tillman Story” several times and I just finished reading Jon Krakauer’s book for the second time: “Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman.” I am now in the process of reading Mary Tillman’s book (Pat’s mother) “Boots on the Ground by Dusk” and I continue to be struck by exemplary character of Pat Tillman, contrasted with the cover up of Pat Tillman’s death by fratricide, and the realization that this may be the most egregious act of dishonor in military history.

But an even more tragic aftermath of the Tillman incident is the likelihood that nothing has changed. The meager punishments meted out to a few of the many senior officials who repeatedly dishonored themselves means that it is likely that similar cover-ups are occurring today. In recent days newspaper headlines have broadcast “800 accused in Army fraud” about National Guard signing bonus payments. Another recent headline says “Navy probing alleged cheating on nuclear power reactor work.” It seems that these incidents of dishonor among military personnel are occurring more frequently. What is the solution?

One possible solution lies in the military academy honor codes. Graduates of these institutions should be expected to set a high standard of honorable behavior for both officers and NCOs. As a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy I can testify that there was a time when graduates of that institution could be counted on to act honorably. Unfortunately, that time is past. It is past because the high standards of the Cadet Honor Code, “We will not lie, steal, or cheat, nor tolerate among us anyone who does” are no longer being enforced. I suspect that this is also the case at the other military academies and is part of the reason for the increased incidents of dishonor mentioned previously in this article.

The fact that we are now graduating officers who are violators of the military academy honor codes has been documented for over 20 years by USAFA graduate and professional researcher Fred Malmstrom. His data clearly shows that standards of honor have been declining steadily and that the vast majority of today’s graduates admit to having committed honor violations while at the academy. Significantly, these are obviously violators who were not dismissed.

I offer a thought experiment: What if there had been just a few of the old style Academy graduates in the chain of command in the Tillman incident or any of the incidents I referred to above? I think it is much less likely that the cover ups would have occurred or would have continued for so long. More recently, and closer to home, there has been a scandal at my alma mater over the OSI (Air Force Office of Special Investigation) use of cadets as “snitches” in uncovering misbehavior. I submit that, if there had been even one of the old style Academy graduates in that OSI chain of command, that person would have stopped the use of cadets as snitches because he would have known that such activity is completely incompatible with the USAF Academy Cadet Honor Code.

Another recent example is the discovery that many USAF missile operators have been cheating on proficiency exams. Again, this would not likely occur if even a few of these officers were Academy graduates who had lived under the Cadet Honor Code when it was being enforced. Cheating on a test would simply be unthinkable. And I submit that the other officers who were not Academy grads would have been positively influenced by the grads. There might still have been a small number of cheaters but certainly not a “scandal” because the influence of the honorable Academy graduates would be palpable.

Finally, as I return to what I believe is the most egregious act of dishonor in military history, the Tillman cover-up, I want to suggest that we return to strict enforcement of honor codes at our military academies. We desperately need these shining examples of officers who lived four years without ever lying, stealing, cheating, or tolerating. They may not live a completely honorable life 100% of the time after they leave the Academy but they know it is POSSIBLE to do so because they did it for four years, and that knowledge alone makes it more likely that they will strive to live honorably and that they will influence others to do so.

We need to move in that direction….now. And let us not be deterred by the fact that society in general seems to be moving in the wrong direction. Let us not use that fact as an excuse. We were trained as leaders. We should lead, not follow. Our military and the whole country needs this leadership.

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