The military at first portrayed Tillman's death as the result of heroic combat with the enemy. Army Spc. Bryan O'Neal told a congressional hearing that when he got the chance to talk to Tillman's brother, who had been in a nearby convoy on the fateful day, "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.
"Roger that, sir," replied O'Neal, dressed in his Army uniform.
The revelation came as committee members questioned whether, and when, top Defense officials and the White House knew that Tillman's death in eastern Afghanistan three years ago was actually a result of gunfire from fellow U.S. soldiers.
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 terrorist attacks.
His family was initially misled by the Pentagon and did not learn the truth for more than a month. Tillman was awarded a Silver Star based on fabricated accounts — who fabricated them still isn't clear after several investigations.
"We don't know what the secretary of defense knew, we don't know what the White House knew," Waxman said. "What we do know is these were not a series of accidents, these stories. They were calculatedly put out for a public relations purpose. ... Even now there seems to be a cover-up."
Kevin Tillman was in a convoy behind his older brother, a former NFL star, on April 22, 2004, when Pat Tillman was mistakenly shot by other Army Rangers who had just emerged from a canyon where they'd been fired upon. Kevin Tillman didn't see what happened. O'Neal said he was ordered not to tell him by then-Lt. Col. Jeff Bailey, the battalion commander who oversaw Tillman's platoon.
"He basically just said, Sir, that uh, 'Do not let Kevin know, he's probably in a bad place knowing that his brother's dead,"' O'Neal testified. "He made it known that I would get in trouble, sir, if I spoke with Kevin."
O'Neal said he was "quite appalled" by the order.
Bailey's superior officer, then-Col. James C. Nixon, has testified to the Defense Department's inspector general that he ordered that information on the facts of Tillman's death be shared with as few people as possible so that the Tillman family would not learn those facts through news media leaks. That, in turn, shaped Bailey's guidance to his troops.
The Army said initially that Tillman was killed by enemy gunfire while trying to help another group of ambushed soldiers. The family was not told what really happened until May 29, 2004, a delay the Army blamed on procedural mistakes.
Kevin Tillman and Tillman's mother, Mary Tillman, also testified Tuesday but were not in the room when O'Neal spoke.