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Barrage of Bullets Drowned Out Cries of Comrades

On April 13, 2004, the Tillman brothers rolled out with their fellow Black Sheep from a clandestine base near the Pakistan border to begin anti-Taliban patrols with two other Ranger platoons. A week later the other platoons returned to base. So did the two senior commanding officers of A Company, records show. They left behind the 2nd Platoon to carry on operations near Khost, in Paktia province, a region of broken roads and barren rock canyons frequented by Osama bin Laden and his allies for many years before the Sept. 11 attacks.

Left in command of the 2nd Platoon was then-Lt. David A. Uthlaut, a recent graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where he had been named the prestigious first captain of his class. Now serving as a captain in Iraq, Uthlaut declined to be interviewed for these articles, but his statements and field communications are among the documents obtained by The Post.

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)

Steve Coll MSNBC Video: Post's Steve Coll on the investigation into Pat Tillman's death in Afghanistan

_____Field of Battle_____
Interactive Graphic: View the sequence of events and a map of the terrain where Pat Tillman was killed.
_____The Official Story_____
U.S. Army officials waited for weeks before informing Pat Tillman's family that he was accidentally killed by fellow Army rangers.
_____More From Series_____
In the Kill Zone: Barrage of Bullets Drowned Out Cries of Comrades (By Steve Coll, The Washington Post, December 5, 2004)
In the Kill Zone: Army Spun Tale Around Ill-Fated Mission (By Steve Coll, The Washington Post, December 6, 2004)

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Uthlaut's mission, as Army investigators later put it, was to kill or capture any "anti-coalition members" that he and his men could find.

"This vehicle problem better not delay us any more."

The trouble began with a Humvee's broken fuel pump.

A helicopter flew into Paktia with a spare on the night of April 21. But the next morning, the Black Sheep's mechanic had no luck with his repair.

Uthlaut ordered his platoon to pull out. He commanded 34 men in nine vehicles, including the busted Humvee. They towed the broken vehicle with straps because they lacked a proper tow bar. After several hours on rough dirt-rock roads, the Humvee's front end buckled. It could move no farther. Uthlaut pulled his men into a tiny village called Margarah to assess options.

It was just after noon. They were in the heart of Taliban country, and they were stuck.

Uthlaut messaged his regiment's Tactical Operations Center far away at Bagram, near Kabul. He asked for a helicopter to hoist the Humvee back to base. No dice, came the reply: There would be no transport chopper available for at least two or three days.

While Uthlaut tried to develop other ideas, his commanders at the base squabbled about the delay. According to investigative records, a senior officer in the Rangers' operations center, whose name is redacted from documents obtained by The Post, complained pointedly to A Company's commander, Uthlaut's immediate superior.

"This vehicle problem better not delay us any more," the senior officer said, as he later recalled in a sworn statement. The 2nd Platoon was already 24 hours behind schedule, he said. It was supposed to be conducting clearing operations in a southeastern Afghan village called Manah.

"So the only reason you want me to split up is so I can get boots on the ground in sector before it gets dark?"

By 4 p.m. Uthlaut had a solution, he believed. He could hire a local "jinga truck" driver to tow the Humvee out to a nearby road where the Army could move down and pick it up. In this scenario, Uthlaut told his commanders, he had a choice. He could keep his platoon together until the Humvee had been disposed of, then move to Manah. Or, he could divide his platoon in half, with one "serial" handling the vehicle while the other serial moved immediately to the objective.

The A Company commander, under pressure from his superior to get moving, ordered Uthlaut to split his platoon.

Uthlaut objected. "I would recommend sending our whole platoon up to the highway and then having us go together to the villages," he wrote in an e-mail to the operations center at 5:03 p.m. With sunset approaching, he wrote, even if he split the platoon, the serial that went to Manah would not be able to carry out search operations before dark. And under procedures at the time, he was not supposed to conduct such operations at night.

Uthlaut's commander overruled him. Get half your platoon to Manah right away, he ordered.

But why? Uthlaut asked, as he recalled in a sworn statement. Do you want us to change procedures and conduct sweep operations at night?

No, said the A Company commander.

"So the only reason you want me to split up is so I can get boots on the ground in sector before it gets dark?" an incredulous Uthlaut asked, as he recalled.

Yes, said his commander.

Uthlaut tried "one last-ditch effort," pointing out that he had only one heavy .50-caliber machine gun for the entire platoon. Did that change anything? The commander said it did not.

"At that point I figured I had pushed the envelope far enough and accepted the mission," Uthlaut recalled in the statement.

He pulled his men together hastily and briefed them. Twenty-four hours after its detection, the broken Humvee part had brought them to a difficult spot: They had to divide into two groups quickly and get moving across a darkening, hostile landscape.

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