Who Killed Pat Tillman?
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"Cease fire. Friendlies! I am Pat fucking Tillman, dammit," shouted former pro football player turned Army Ranger Pat Tillman as a hail of bullets pierced the darkening Afghani sky. "CEASE FIRE! FRIENDLIES! I AM PAT FUCKING TILLMAN! I AM PAT FUCKING TILLMAN!"
On patrol in eastern Afghanistan at dusk on April 22, 2004, Tillman and his men hit the dirt, trying to escape swarms of artillery fire coming from the valley below. Tillman reached into his pocket and detonated a smoke bomb, a signal to his comrades that they were shooting at U.S. troops, known in military parlance as "friendlies." The firing stopped.
After a moment, Tillman, relieved and assuming he'd been recognized, stood up. Another barrage of bullets rocketed across the dusty canyon. Three of those bullets shattered Tillman's skull, ending his life. An Afghani soldier allied with U.S. forces was also killed and two other soldiers were injured.
Tillman, lauded by military and government leaders for giving up a multi - million - dollar pro football contract, was America's best known soldier. A San Jose native, Tillman grew up in the Almaden neighborhood and was a stand - out football player at Leland High School. He became the Pac - 10 defensive player of the year at Arizona State University and then went pro with the NFL's Arizona Cardinals.
Even before his death, Tillman was considered a model of self - sacrifice, integrity and decency, not just for his commitment to his country, but for his intellect, forthrightness, and enthusiasm. Which makes what the U.S. military told Tillman's family about Pat's death that much more appalling.
Tillman's brother, Kevin Tillman, was part of the same 75th Ranger Regiment that Pat served, but the soldiers in his unit didn't tell him how his brother died. Rangers were ordered not to say a word about the actual circumstances of his death.
"Immediately after Pat's death, our family was told that he was shot in the head by the enemy in a fierce firefight outside a narrow canyon," Kevin Tillman told the House Oversight Committee during a hearing April 24 entitled "Misleading Information from the Battlefield."
Reading from the Silver Star citation, which was referred to in an April 30 internal Pentagon email as the "Tillman SS gameplan" Kevin Tillman provided an abridged version of what the military told his family and the nation about his brother's death: "Above the din of battle, Corporal Tillman was heard issuing fire commands to take the fight to an enemy on the dominating high ground. Always leading from the front, Corporal Tillman aggressively maneuvered his team against the enemy position on a steep slope. As a result of Corporal Tillman's effort and heroic action, ... the platoon was able to maneuver through the ambush position ... without suffering a single casualty," Kevin Tillman stated at the hearing.
"This story inspired countless Americans, as intended," but "there was one small problem with the narrative," Tillman told the Congressional Oversight panel. "It was utter fiction."
A construction of lies
Kevin Tillman doesn't believe the errors were "missteps" as stated in the Army Investigator General's report, which was released in late March and is the most recent of several official inquiries into the shooting and its aftermath. The probes, all done by military investigators, have looked into the circumstances of Tillman's death as well as the false statements about it.
"A terrible tragedy that might have further undermined support for the war in Iraq," Kevin Tillman said, "was transformed into an inspirational message that served instead to support the ... wars in Iraq and Afghanistan."
Norman Solomon, author of the book War Made Easy, agrees. "This was a perfect storm of idolatry from the Pentagon standpoint: a football hero sacrificing himself for patriotic reasons -- it was central casting as far as the Rumsfeld gang was concerned," he said. "The mythology was so wonderful that the facts were inconvenient and unnecessary."
What's astonishing is not just the lengths the Army went to create a fictional account, which included changing the testimony of soldiers who witnessed the friendly fire shooting and the destruction of evidence such as the burning of Tillman's blood - stained uniform. It's that this was not an isolated incident but rather part of a pattern of deception.
In recent months, several other families have pressed the military for details about their loved ones' deaths, uncovering similar fabrications. These revelations, coming to light only after soldiers' relatives demanded details about their family members' final hours, may represent a fraction of the military's effort to conceal friendly fire or accidental deaths and injuries on Middle Eastern battlefields.
At the April 24 Congressional Oversight hearing, Jessica Lynch, portrayed in spring 2003 as the "little girl Rambo from the hills of West Virginia who went down fighting," testified that the story the military told about her was a blatant lie. Lynch never fired a shot when her caravan was ambushed. After being severely wounded she was kept alive by Iraqi doctors and nurses.
"What is particularly sad in all of this," wrote columnist Robert Scheer, "is that a wonderfully hopeful story was available to the Pentagon to sell to the eager media: one in which besieged Iraqi doctors and nurses bravely cared for -- and supplied their own blood to -- a similarly brave young American woman in a time of madness and violence. Instead, eager to turn the war into a morality play between good and evil, the military used -- if not abused -- Lynch to put a heroic spin on an otherwise sorry tale of unjustified invasion."
Most shocking: according to sworn testimony during the Oversight Committee's hearing, Lynch's "rescue" from the Iraqi hospital was delayed by a day so that the Army could bring in camera crews. After stating Lynch was being held by hostile forces, the military waited 24 hours to rescue her so they could make a propaganda film.
Peter Phillips, the director of Project Censored at Sonoma State University, says the Pentagon has spent $1 billion on public relations firms to create stories that protect or enhance the image of the military. PR firms "will lie for their clients; that's what they do," Phillips says. "The news coming out of Iraq is very much packaged by PR firms and embedded reporters."
Three South Bay families deceived
Suggesting the potentially broad scope of the military's deception: Tillman was just one of three soldiers with roots in California's South Bay who was killed in Iraq or Afghanistan during a two-month period whose families were told bogus stories about their deaths Mountain View resident Karen Meredith lost her only child, Lt. Ken Ballard, on May 30, 2004, just days after the military admitted that Tillman had died from friendly fire. Speaking at Ballard's memorial service, an officer said Ballard's heroics saved the lives of 60 men. Ballard was awarded the Bronze Star.
"The officer said how Ken fought and fought to cover for two platoons so they could get back to base," Meredith said. "Given his heroism I questioned why Ken was not given the Silver Star (a higher honor than the bronze star). He said the Silver Star was very rare. I didn't trust them but I was still grieving and thought I'd have time to think about that later. I vowed that Ken would get every award he deserved so I started asking for the incident report."
Fifteen months after her son died and after repeated inquiries by Meredith, Lt. Col. John O'Brien, the head of the Army casualty division, visited her at her home. O'Brien told her that Ballard was killed by an accidental discharge of the unmanned M-240 machine gun on his tank.
"My life was in upheaval -- I believed what I believed for 15 months," Meredith said. "My heart was ripped open again."
Nadia McCaffrey, whose son Patrick McCaffrey worked as a manager at a Palo Alto automotive shop, said she was told that her son, a member of the National Guard, was shot and killed by insurgents in an ambush. Patrick McCaffrey, 34, the father of two young children, died near Balad, Iraq, on June 22, 2004. It was two years later, Nadia said, that she learned her son was murdered by three Iraqi civil defense force soldiers he was training.
Yet it was Pat Tillman's tale that riveted the nation. Tillman was the essence of the young, idealistic and intelligent American. Strong in mind and body, a maverick who was willing to make the ultimate sacrifice, placing concern for his fellow Rangers above his own safety, Tillman was a loyal son, brother and husband. And he was a football star with rugged good looks. It's no accident that he became, against his wishes, the poster boy for the Bush Administration's Middle East wars.
Pat Tillman's Story
Mary Tillman, a teacher at an Almaden middle school, says her son Pat joined the Army because "the country was in danger, the country was in need, and football seemed trivial." In a telephone interview earlier this month, she said her son believed in shared sacrifice and that the military should be made up of people all across society, not just those who needed a job.
"It was also an experience," she added, saying Tillman was always seeking the exhilaration and understanding that came from placing himself in novel, uncomfortable or challenging situations. And, she said, he always sought to live passionately.
For Tillman, the football field was a place where he could express his exuberance. Paul Yllana, assistant principal at Leland High School, played football with Tillman at Leland in the early 1990s. Yllana said Tillman was the best player on the team and the key to its 1993 Central Coast championship.
"He was selfless even at 14 years old. He credited his teammates, coaches, he never took credit. He was our captain, our leader, the guy we followed," Yllana said. "His emotion and drive fueled the rest of the team. I already saw his sense of commitment in high school: He worked harder and longer than anyone else, and he enjoyed it."
Tillman had an "intense, emotional approach to the game," Yllana said. Not only was he the defensive star, he was one of the team's running backs. "He wasn't physically enormous, but he could see and react so much faster than everybody else. He had incredible vision for a high school athlete."
Yllana played running back in practice once: "I was a pretty good - sized guy -- 200 pounds in high school -- and I see Tillman accelerating towards me. He had incredible closing speed," Yllana said. "I've never been hit that hard in my life."
Despite Tillman's accomplishments in high school football, Yllana said most colleges weren't interested in the "undersized" player, (Tillman was 5 - foot - 11). "ASU took a chance and gave him their last scholarship, and he became Pac - 10 defensive player of the year."
But Tillman never let his commitment to football interfere with his pursuit of knowledge. He graduated from ASU in three and a half years with a 3.84 grade point average (virtually a straight A student). The Arizona Cardinals selected Tillman with a seventh round pick, making him the 227th player drafted.
"They gave him a shot because he'd played for ASU and was a "hometown kid," Yllana said. But it was a long shot; few seventh - rounders establish themselves in the NFL. After defying the odds again and becoming one of the league's better safeties, Tillman was offered a five - year, $9 million contract from the St. Louis Rams. He turned it down to remain loyal to the Cardinals, the team that gave him a chance.
"We told him the Cardinals would have matched the offer and he said, 'Really, damn,' " said Joe Nedney, a kicker with the San Francisco 49ers who played with Tillman for Arizona in the late '90s.
Nedney, who grew up in south San Jose, recalls Tillman had "long flowing hair and wore flip - flops and T - shirts and tattered shorts." Rather than go out a buy a $50,000 truck with his signing money, Nedney said, Tillman rode a Schwinn Beach Cruiser bicycle to the practice field.
"He was the epitome of the California boy. But inside he was an extremely well read and educated man," Nedney said. "You could get into any conversation with him and he would hold his own. We used to joke that you have to do your homework before you spend time with Pat."
Tillman "thirsted for the adrenaline rush," he said. On a day off, some players and their wives were socializing when someone asked, "Where's Pat?" Nedney said. "Right after that we saw two flip - flops and a T - shirt hit the ground -- Pat's up there on the roof." A teammate tried to talk him down but Pat vaulted into a long leap, did a back flip and plunged into the pool.
"His wife Marie shrugged as if to say, what you want me to do? He came up and gave a big ol' 'Whoo!' and grabbed his beer," Nedney said. "He was an adventure freak, always looking for something to defy gravity, logic and sanity."
Nedney wasn't surprised when Tillman joined the military. "He was always searching for something meaningful. He talked to his wife, made a decision, and never looked back. Coach (Dave) McGinnis [Arizona's coach at the time] said, 'you're going to run into a media shitstorm,' and Pat said 'no, you are -- I'm outta here.' I thought he'd come back with bin Laden's head in one hand and Saddam's in the other."
After the 9/11 attacks Tillman began thinking about joining the military. He fulfilled his contract and completed the NFL season. In May 2002, Pat and his brother Kevin Tillman, a professional baseball player in the minor leagues, enlisted in the U.S. Army. They completed Ranger Indoctrination later that year and served in Iraq in 2003 before being redeployed to Afghanistan.
Though she's hesitant to speak for her son, Mary Tillman said Pat opposed the war in Iraq. He joined the military, she says, to root out al-Qaeda not to wage war on a country that had no connection to the 9/11 attacks. Regarding Iraq, "Pat and Kevin felt there was no plan, no threat," Mary Tillman said. "It was really disturbing."
The day the safety died
On April 22, 2004, Tillman and his platoon were scouring southern Afghanistan, near the border with Pakistan, looking for Taliban insurgents. According to the Inspector General's report, after a humvee had a mechanical problem, the soldiers split into two groups, Serial One and Serial Two. Pat Tillman was in the first group, which moved ahead of Serial Two. Kevin Tillman remained at the rear of Serial Two.
After Serial Two was fired upon by suspected insurgents, Serial One moved up the canyon to target the shooters. An Afghani soldier with Serial One began shooting over the canyon. Believing the Afghani was an insurgent, Serial Two soldiers began firing and killed him. Other Serial Two soldiers began shooting in the same direction, driving closer and continuing to fire after soldiers signaled they were "friendlies."
That's when Tillman detonated the smoke grenade, hoping his fellow soldiers would recognize him and his men. When the shooting stopped, Tillman probably believed they were identified as friendlies, but a moment later another burst of fire shattered the Afghani evening.
"I noticed blood pooling up around me. I had thought that I was shot," said Ranger Bryan O'Neal, who served alongside Tillman and may be alive today thanks to Tillman's efforts.
"I was on the ground, and so I started communicating with Pat, not realizing he had passed away, asking him if he was OK. And I had no response. There was a lot of blood everywhere, and I was starting to get really worried," he told the Congressional Oversight Committee.
"When I could finally get my body to move, I stood up and turned around and looked at Pat, and he was slumped back on the ground, covered in blood," he said. "And I went up to his position. I grabbed him and realized ... that he had been shot in the head, and there wasn't much left of him."
At the age of 27, Patrick Daniel Tillman Jr., who had seemed as invincible on the battlefield as he'd been on the football field, was killed by American bullets. But that's not what military commanders told the Tillman family.
Within hours of Tillman's shooting, the Army ordered the burning of his blood - soaked uniform and the destruction of his bullet - riddled body armor. Army spokesman John P. Boyce said soldiers had already determined that friendly fire caused Tillman's death and burned his clothes and armor because they viewed these items as a biohazard.
Destruction of evidence in a case of friendly fire is clearly a violation of U.S. military regulations. Soldiers also burned his journal. The soldier who destroyed Tillman's clothing, body armor and possessions said he was ordered to do so "to prevent security violations, leaks and rumors."
When the soldier commented that the bullets that shredded Tillman's body armor appeared to be American, he was told to "keep quiet and let the investigators do their jobs." Commanders cut off telephone and Internet communications at a base in Afghanistan and posted guards on a wounded member from Tillman's Ranger unit. The Tillmans believe this was done to keep the wounded soldier from speaking with reporters and revealing what happened.
Though it's Army protocol to notify the family as soon as friendly fire (also know as "fratricide") is suspected, O'Neal (the soldier who was injured in the shooting that killed Tillman) was ordered by battalion commander Lt. Col. Jeffrey Bailey not to tell Kevin Tillman that fratricide appeared to be the cause of his brother's death.
Although some within the chain of command were aware of the suspicion that CPL Tillman died as a result of friendly fire, they did not publicly reveal this information because they wanted to ensure a thorough investigative process, said Army spokesman Boyce. Several changes have been implemented to ensure more timely notification in suspected friendly fire cases, Boyce said.
Citing the Inspector General's report, Rep. Henry Waxman chair of the Congressional Oversight Committee, said that within 72 hours "at least nine military officials knew or were informed that Pat Tillman's death was a fratricide, including at least three generals." The IG's report states that the "chain of command made critical errors in reporting Cpl. Tillman's death." But the Inspector General did not find a single instance of criminal negligence.
Waxman asked O'Neal, whose statement about the fratricide was changed in the documentation for Tillman's Silver Star award, if it "troubles" him that "the Tillman family was kept in the dark" about Pat's death for more than a month.
"Yes, sir, it does," O'Neal said. "I wanted right off the bat to let the family know what had happened, especially Kevin, because I worked with him in the platoon. I knew that he and the family all needed to know what had happened. And I was quite appalled that when I was able to speak with Kevin, I was ordered not to tell him what happened, sir."
"You were ordered not to tell him?" Waxman asked.
"Roger that, sir." O'Neal replied, stating the order came from Bailey. "He basically just said, 'Do not let Kevin know. He's probably in a bad place knowing his brother's dead.' And he made it known," O'Neal testified, "that I would get in trouble, sir, if I spoke with Kevin on it being fratricide."
Ranger Spc. Russell Baer, who had seen Rangers shooting at Pat Tillman's position, accompanied his friend Kevin Tillman from Afghanistan to the U.S. after Pat was killed. Baer was ordered not to tell Kevin Tillman that friendly fire was the probably cause of his brother's death, according to the Associated Press.
Baer followed orders and did not tell Kevin he'd seen Rangers firing towards his Pat, but Baer later went AWOL. Testifying in one of the probes into Tillman's death, Baer said "I lost respect for the people in charge."
Speaking at Tillman's nationally televised memorial service on May 3, 2004, Navy SEAL Stephen White, who befriended Tillman in Iraq, spoke of Tillman's bravery and heroism as he "took the fight to the enemy, uphill to seize the tactical high ground," repeating what Army commanders had told him that day. "Pat sacrificed himself so others could live."
When White found out weeks later that the story he'd told had been a lie, he felt "let down by my military," he said at the Oversight hearing. "I'm the guy that told America how he died at that memorial, and it was incorrect. That does not sit well with me."
Tillman's father, Patrick Tillman believes senior Army officers told "outright lies" about his son's death. In 2005 he told the Washington Post: "All the people in positions of authority went out of their way to script this. They purposely interfered with the investigation, they covered it up. I think they thought they could control it, and they realized that their recruiting efforts were going to go to hell in a handbasket if the truth about his death got out," the elder Tillman said.
"They blew up their poster boy."
More than three years after Pat Tillman died, his family still has unanswered questions. They want to know why rules of engagement weren't followed (rules that could have prevented Pat's killing), why military and government leaders lied to them, who gave the orders to create the fictional account of Pat's heroism, and why no one has been held accountable.
"Pat's death is just a microcosm of what's happening in this country: the lies, the spinning." Mary Tillman said. "This exemplifies the way the [Bush] Administration handles everything. They're incompetent yet no one is held accountable. The documents were falsified -- but who are these people? What are you going to do about it?"
Citing connections to the failed effort in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and the debacle at the military's Walter Reed hospital, Tillman said "there's a lack of empathy on the part of the administration. It's all lip service. There is no genuine appreciation for the suffering that's taken place."
Mary Tillman, a registered Republican, said "the personalities in office now are dangerous." She believes former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, a micromanager, had to know before Pat's memorial that her son was killed by friendly fire. Rumsfeld had written a short letter to her son and was well aware of Pat's celebrity. "He was probably the most high-profile individual in the military at the time," she said. "The fact that he would be killed by friendly fire and no one would tell Rumsfeld is ludicrous."
Mary Tillman believes President Bush knew as well.
On April 28, 2004, six days after Pat died, White House speech writer John Currin sent the Pentagon an email asking for information about Tillman's death for a speech Bush would deliver at the upcoming Correspondents dinner. The next day, according to testimony at the Oversight Committee hearing, a P4 (high-priority) memo was sent to three top generals, including Gen. John Abizaid, then head of Central Command, stating it was "highly possible that Corporal Tillman was killed by friendly fire."
Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Maryland) said this memo "seems to be responding to inquiries from the White House -- and here's what it says, "POTUS, meaning President of the United States, and the Secretary of the Army might include comments about Corporal Tillman's heroism [without mentioning] the specifics surrounding his death." The message, whose author wasn't disclosed, expresses concern that the President and Rumsfeld could suffer "public embarrassment if the circumstances of Corporal Tillman's death become public."
When the president spoke at the correspondents' dinner the following Saturday "he was careful in his wording," Rep. Cummings said at the Oversight hearing. "He praised Pat Tillman's courage, but carefully avoided describing how he was killed. It seems possible that the P4 memo was a direct response to the White House's inquiry. And if that is true, it means that the White House knew the true facts about Corporal Tillman's death before the memorial service and weeks before the Tillman family was told."
The family from hell
Perhaps the most revealing statements about the heartlessness of Tillman's military superiors came from Lt. Col. Ralph Kauzlarich, who directed the first official inquiry into Tillman's death. Kauzlarich said the Army did ballistics work for its first investigation and may know who shot Pat Tillman. "I think they know [who fired the shots that killed Tillman]," Kauzlarich said in an interview with ESPN. "But I never found out." With even greater callousness, Kauzlarich said of the Tillman family: "These people have a hard time letting it go. It may be because of their religious beliefs." Noting that Kevin Tillman declined to have a chaplain say prayers over Pat's body, Kauzlarich said: "When you die, there is supposedly a better life, right? Well, if you are an atheist and you don't believe in anything, if you die, what is there to go to? Nothing. You are worm dirt." Mary Tillman says she'd like nothing better that to let go. "I'd like for this to come to a conclusion so we can focus on the more positive aspects of Pats life," she said. But she's not going to move on until she gets the truth.
Norman Solomon, author of War Made Easy , applauds the Tillmans for their courage and commitment in trying to uncover what happened to Pat. "They're tough, smart and not intimidated," he said. From the Pentagon's perspective, "the Tillmans have become the family from hell."
But overcoming a widely distributed and oft-repeated lie isn't easy, Solomon said, because "first impressions are imprinted on people." As Mark Twain said more than a century ago: "A lie can get halfway around the world before the truth even gets its boots on."
As the sun breaks through a layer of misty clouds on the last Sunday morning in April, thousands of runners gather on Via Valiente outside Leland High School for Pat's Run, a fundraiser for the Pat Tillman Foundation. The run draws soldiers, football players, war opponents and cheerleaders. There's not a trace of political activism, just 5,000 runners united in their desire to honor Tillman's memory and support the foundation.
At Leland's field, renamed "Pat Tillman Stadium," 15 - foot - high burgundy balloon clusters spell out "Pat's Run." A quote from Emerson is posted at the finish line: "Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail." Some runners race to the finish, other push strollers or jog with their dogs over the 4.2 - mile course, (42 was Tillman's jersey number in high school and college).
After running the race USMC Lt. Steve Cooney of Santa Rosa called Tillman "a strong American who died in honorable death fighting for his country." Another soldier, Army reservist Michael B of Santa Clara, who declined to give his full last name, said he understood how friendly fire deaths can happen, "but if it were my family, I'd want them to know the truth."
Melanie Corpus, a young woman from San Jose, had the Pat's Run logo inked onto her cheek. She became tearful when speaking about Tillman. "He gave up everything," she said. "He was just a beautiful person."
Many who attended the run didn't know the Tillman family has been deceived about Pat's death. But some had read about the official mendacity: Jennifer Green of San Jose said she "liked Tillman even better" once she learned the truth about him. "He was a thinker, he read [Noam] Chomsky, he joined [the Army] for all the right reasons."
Arizona State University student Mackenzie Hopman has enrolled as a Tillman Scholar, an accredited one - year program created at ASU after Tillman's death to encourage students to engage in progressive projects around the world. Hopman, who came from Tempe for Pat's Run, is working with a program to develop sustainable water resources in countries along the equator.
She became a Tillman Scholar because she was inspired by Tillman's life. "As Pat was walking down the long corridor of life, he had goals in mind: ASU, pro football, the military," Hopman said. "There were doors on either side of this corridor and instead of breezing past each door, he'd stop and peek inside and then run a few yards and leave it behind. He never lost sight of what was ahead of him and where he wanted to be. He was always there 150 percent, every day, every practice, every moment."
Tillman "was honest and forthright and open from the get go," she said. If he were to see his own situation he'd say: "Just be honest and let them know what happened." Tillman "didn't need a [false] story about his heroic death," Hopman added. "He lived a heroic life."
After the adults run their course, hundreds of kids line up on the track surrounding Leland's football field for a run of their own. Charging across the starting line with the exuberance and enthusiasm that Pat maintained throughout his life, the kids raced towards the finish.
Alex Garwood, Pat's brother - in - law and executive director of the Tillman Foundation, ascended a podium to hand out trophies as U2's "It's a Beautiful Day" swept across the field.
"What a positive day," Garwood said in an interview after the ceremony. "But we should not have to be doing this. Pat should be here."
Michael Shapiroâ€™s stories, which range from investigative reporting to travel topics, have appeared in the Washington Post, National Geographic Traveler and the North Bay Bohemian. He is the author of A Sense of Place . For more about Shapiro and his work, see www.michaelshapiro.net.