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Lynch & Tillman, Still Heroes

By Ruben Navarrette

SAN DIEGO -- At least we finally have a theme song for the Army's public relations campaign surrounding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It goes like this, with apologies to Fleetwood Mac: "Tell me lies. Tell me sweet little lies.''

They're the kind of lies we all want to believe. After all, who doesn't love a good story -- of a pint-sized female Sgt. York who is captured by Iraqis only after discharging her last round of ammunition, or the former NFL star who is heroically cut down by enemy fire in Afghanistan while fighting for his country.

Those are the engaging and heart-wrenching narratives that the Army and the media wove about Pvt. Jessica Lynch, who was wounded and taken prisoner in Iraq during the early hours of the invasion in 2003, and Cpl. Pat Tillman, a football standout who was killed in Afghanistan in 2004. At the time, these tales may have inspired troops in the field, not to mention the folks back home. Looking for selfless heroes after 9/11, we found them in Lynch and Tillman.

The trouble is that these renditions of their heroics are not even a little bit true. So said Lynch, and so said Tillman's brother, Kevin, last week before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. The committee is investigating the inaccurate accounts of the incidents involving Lynch and Tillman.

As it turns out, Lynch's unit was engaged in a firefight with the enemy but she was too badly wounded to return fire before being captured. And, we now know that -- despite claims by the military that Tillman was killed by enemy fire -- the Army Ranger was killed by friendly fire. While their corrected versions are no less heroic, they have the added benefit of being factually accurate.

The very concept of truth appears lost on the Pentagon, where senior military officers either spun fantastic tales about Lynch or Tillman, or at least failed to immediately set the record straight when politicians and the media got carried away in the storytelling. And, in the case of the felled NFL star, the Army may have engaged in what Kevin Tillman called "deliberate'' deception by destroying evidence and altering witness statements.

Clearly, we have to get to the bottom of this. And that's the goal of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which is chaired by Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif. His committee is investigating whether the Pentagon may have spread misinformation about American soldiers who were killed, wounded or captured in Iraq and Afghanistan. Such an investigation is perfectly legitimate, and it fits within the purview of Congress -- especially since it is being conducted by a committee whose job it is to oversee the workings of government.

Frankly, that's easier to justify than much of what congressional Democrats are up to these days. Not content to simply run the legislative branch, many of them seem hell-bent on trying to manage the executive branch as well, in areas ranging from the war in Iraq to the tenure of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

Let's be clear about what is at stake in the Waxman hearings. This isn't just about giving a well-deserved sense of peace to the Tillman family and bringing the story of Pvt. Lynch back down to earth. It's about saying loud and clear that, as Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va. put it, the truth about Lynch and Tillman is heroic enough and "there is no need to embellish or spin it.''

I'd go further. The heroic truth doesn't stop with Lynch and Tillman. Waxman's inquiry is really about giving the proper respect to the thousands of other soldiers, sailors and Marines who have been wounded, captured or killed in battle in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their stories don't have to be glorified for their contributions to be acknowledged and valued.

What those individuals went through -- and what their families back home had to suffer -- may not be considered the stuff of TV movies or best-selling books. But so what? Those sacrifices still represent one of the very best things about the American people, and the price we've paid throughout the generations on battlefields near and far. There is no need to cheapen those stories by sensationalizing them. They already warm the heart, inspire the soul, and capture the imagination. Or at least they should.

ruben.navarrette@uniontrib.com

(c) 2007, The San Diego Union-Tribune


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