When it comes to heroes, former Arizona Cardinals NFL star Pat Tillman was right out of the movies. He gave up a $3.6 million contract to fight for his country after the 9/11 attacks. He did so, he stated publicly and often, for a reason: He wanted to defend the USA and all the values it represents. No Madison Avenue genius could invent a better boost for recruitment - and patriotism.
Until, that is, he was killed in Afghanistan in early 2004. Within hours, senior officers knew the truth: Tillman had been killed by "friendly fire." His own men mistook him for the enemy.
What to do? The honorable choice would have been to tell the truth. But for weeks, the Army spun the fiction that Tillman had died from Taliban fire as he bravely led his team.
It told this lie to Tillman's parents. It allowed a memorial service to go ahead without confessing. It maintained the fiction even as Tillman was posthumously awarded a Silver Star for bravery.
In doing so, the Army forgot that when such lies come out - as they often do - they cause immeasurably more damage than any truth could. Lives are needlessly damaged. Trust and credibility are lost.
That fact is now playing out, and painfully. Over the weekend, four Army reviews of Tillman's death were cast into doubt by the Pentagon's inspector general. He ordered the Army to conduct a criminal inquiry. Even so, Tillman's father, who bitterly contests the earlier findings, is understandably skeptical that the Army will get its fifth try right.
An accident of some sort is still the most likely explanation, and criminal charges are unlikely. Even so, the weakness of the Army's probes bears independent scrutiny. In difficult circumstances, the instinct of those in power is toward secrecy and cover-up. The Vietnam War and Watergate are instructive examples. So, too, are the actions of the Pentagon and Bush administration on issues from document classification to prisoner abuse to domestic spying.
Had the truth about Tillman been known right away, his parents and other mourners would have regarded him as no less of a hero. Most would still have believed fiercely in the things Tillman said he signed up for: his country, the armed forces and the values they represent.
If only the Army had acted as honorably. It has one last chance to get the story right.