First in a two-part series
It ended on a stony ridge in fading light. Spec. Pat Tillman lay dying behind a boulder. A young fellow U.S. Army Ranger stretched prone beside him, praying quietly as tracer bullets poured in.
"Cease fire! Friendlies!" Tillman cried out.
The Afghan region of Khost, frequented by Osama bin Laden and his allies for many years, was where Pat Tillman and other members of the 2nd Platoon were responsible for operations.
(Emilio Morenatti -- AP)
Smoke drifted from a signal grenade Tillman had detonated minutes before in a desperate bid to show his platoon members they were shooting the wrong men. The firing had stopped. Tillman had stood up, chattering in relief. Then the machine gun bursts erupted again.
"I could hear the pain in his voice," recalled the young Ranger days later to Army investigators. Tillman kept calling out that he was a friendly, and he shouted, "I am Pat [expletive] Tillman, damn it!" His comrade recalled: "He said this over and over again until he stopped."
Myths shaped Pat Tillman's reputation, and mystery shrouded his death. A long-haired, fierce-hitting defensive back with the Arizona Cardinals of the National Football League, he turned away a $3.6 million contract after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to volunteer for the war on terrorism, ultimately giving his life in combat in Taliban-infested southeastern Afghanistan.
Millions of stunned Americans mourned his death last April 22 and embraced his sacrifice as a rare example of courage and national service. But the full story of how Tillman ended up on that Afghan ridge and why he died at the hands of his own comrades has never been told.
Dozens of witness statements, e-mails, investigation findings, logbooks, maps and photographs obtained by The Washington Post show that Tillman died unnecessarily after botched communications, a mistaken decision to split his platoon over the objections of its leader, and negligent shooting by pumped-up young Rangers -- some in their first firefight -- who failed to identify their targets as they blasted their way out of a frightening ambush.
The records show Tillman fought bravely and honorably until his last breath. They also show that his superiors exaggerated his actions and invented details as they burnished his legend in public, at the same time suppressing details that might tarnish Tillman's commanders.
Army commanders hurriedly awarded Tillman a posthumous Silver Star for valor and released a nine-paragraph account of his heroism that made no mention of fratricide. A month later the head of the Army's Special Operations Command, Lt. Gen. Philip R. Kensinger Jr., called a news conference to disclose in a brief statement that Tillman "probably" died by "friendly fire." Kensinger refused to answer questions.
Friends and family describe Pat Tillman as an American original, a maverick who burned with intensity. He was wild, exuberant, loyal, compassionate and driven, they say. He bucked convention, devoured books and debated conspiracy theories. He demanded straight talk about uncomfortable truths.
After his death, the Army that Tillman served did not do the same.
"I play football. It just seems so unimportant compared to everything that has taken place."
Pat Tillman's decision to trade the celebrity and luxury of pro football for a grunt's life at the bottom of the Ranger chain of command shocked many people, but not those who felt they knew him best.
"There was so much more to him than anyone will ever know," reflected Denver Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer, a teammate at Arizona State University and on the Cardinals, speaking at a memorial service last May. Tillman was "fearless on the field, reckless, tough," yet he was also "thought-provoking. He liked to have deep conversations with a Guinness," and he would walk away from those sessions saying, "I've got to become more of a thinker."
In high school and college, a mane of flaxen hair poured from beneath his football helmet. His muscles rippled in a perfect taper from the neck down. "Dude" was his favorite pronoun; for fun he did handstands on the roof of the family house. He pedaled shirtless on a bicycle to his first pro training camp.
"I play football. It just seems so unimportant compared to everything that has taken place," he told NFL Films after the Sept. 11 attacks. His grandfather had been at Pearl Harbor. "A lot of my family has gone and fought wars, and I really haven't done a damn thing."
He was very close to his younger brother Kevin, then playing minor league baseball for the Cleveland Indians organization. They finished each other's sentences, friends recounted. They enlisted in the U.S. Army Rangers together in the spring of 2002. Less than a year later, they shipped out to Iraq.
In Pat Tillman's first firefight during the initial months of the Iraq war, he watched his lead gunner die within minutes, stepped into his place and battled steadfastly, said Steve White, a U.S. Navy SEAL on the same mission. "He was thirsty to be the best," White said.
Yet Tillman accepted his ordinary status in the military and rarely talked about himself. One night he confided to White that he had just turned down an NFL team's attempt to sign him to a huge contract and free him from his Army service early.
"I'm going to finish what I started," Tillman said, as White recalled at the May memorial. The next morning Tillman returned to duty and was ordered to cut "about an acre of grass by some 19-year-old kid."
The Tillman brothers served together in the "Black Sheep," otherwise known as 2nd Platoon, A Company, 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment. They were elite -- special operators transferred from Iraq in the spring to conduct sweep and search missions against the Taliban and al Qaeda remnants in eastern Afghanistan. The Rangers worked with CIA paramilitaries, Afghan allies and other special forces on grid-by-grid patrols designed to flush out and entrap enemy guerrillas. They moved in small, mobile, lethal units.