Pat Tillman, the Arizona Cardinals safety who forfeited a multimillion dollar contract and the celebrity of the National Football League to become a U.S. Army Ranger, was killed in Afghanistan during a firefight near the Pakistan border on Thursday, U.S. officials said yesterday.
Tillman, 27, was killed when the combat patrol unit he was serving in was ambushed by militia forces near the village of Spera, about 90 miles south of Kabul, the Afghan capital. Tillman was hit when his unit returned fire, according to officials at the Pentagon. He was medically evacuated from the scene and pronounced dead by U.S. officials at approximately 11:45 a.m. Thursday. Two other U.S. soldiers were injured and one Afghan solider fighting alongside the U.S. troops was killed.
Pat Tillman, 27, told the Cardinals after returning from his honeymoon in May 2002 that he was joining the Army with his brother in the hopes of becoming a Ranger.
(Randy Reid - AP File Photo)
The death of Tillman, the first prominent U.S. athlete to be killed in combat since Vietnam, cast a spotlight on a war that has receded in the American public consciousness. As Iraq has come into the foreground with daily casualty updates, the military campaign in Afghanistan has not garnered the same attention, though there are still more than 10,000 U.S. troops in the country and fighting continues against remnants of the Taliban and al Qaeda.
Tillman was the 70th U.S. soldier to die within Afghanistan's borders since U.S. forces invaded the country in October 2001. According to the Department of Defense, 117 U.S. soldiers have died worldwide in Operation Enduring Freedom. Tillman was assigned to Company A of the 2nd Battallion, 75th Ranger Regiment, based at Fort Lewis, Wash., an elite Army light-infantry unit often used for difficult assault missions around the world.
The Rangers have been central to efforts in southeast Afghanistan, where Operation Mountain Storm has been aggressively targeting Taliban and al Qaeda fighters. The mountainous region along the Pakistan border is where U.S. officials believe Osama bin Laden, the al Qaeda leader, and his close associates could be hiding.
In recent days, hundreds of Afghan and U.S. soldiers have been engaged in a new hunt for bin Laden, scouring the area near Spera.
Military and defense officials said yesterday that Tillman was killed during an ambush near Spera on Thursday night, as unidentified enemy fighters fired on his vehicle. A senior military official, speaking on condition of anonymity because Tillman's death had not yet been officially announced, said the soldiers exchanged small arms fire about 25 miles southwest of a coalition military base in Khost. Tillman was injured and died, officials said. "In sports, we have a tendency to overuse terms like courage, bravery and heroes," Mike Bidwill, the vice president and general counsel of the Cardinals, said yesterday. "Then someone special like Pat Tillman comes along and reminds us what those terms really mean."
Tillman stunned his family, coaches and teammates in 2002 when he walked away from a three-year contract worth $3.6 million. At the time, the move was viewed as a strong example of post-9/11 patriotism. After four seasons with the Cardinals, the aggressive safety -- whose 224 tackles in a single season was a team record -- simply told the organization that he was joining the Army with his brother, Kevin, a former minor league prospect in the Cleveland Indians system. By May 2002, they had both enlisted.
Part of the decision was timing. The Rangers do not accept recruits over the age of 28. Tillman was 25 at the time.
"The people who knew Pat, the less surprised you were," Pete Kendall, his Cardinals teammate, said yesterday during a news conference at the team's practice facility in Arizona. "For someone to walk away from several million dollars and a life of relative ease to put his neck on the line literally for $18,000 to $20,000 with no guarantee for tomorrow, you had to be surprised by that. Pat is the only one I know in our modern day of athletics who did it. This was sort of out of the blue and totally unexpected nationally. But the more you knew Pat, the more you understand why."
On Sept. 11, 2001, Tillman walked into the media room at the Cardinals' training facility and sat with reporters watching the coverage of the terror attacks, transfixed by the events of the day. In his last on-camera interview, the next day, Tillman alluded to his deep patriotism and seemed to be setting the stage for his enlistment.
"My great grandfather was at Pearl Harbor and a lot of my family has gone and fought in wars and I really haven't done a damn thing as far as laying myself on the line like that," he said. "And so I have a great deal of respect for those that have and what the flag stands for."
He made the decision that offseason after returning from a Bora Bora honeymoon with his wife, Marie. During a trip home last year after a mission in Iraq with the Rangers, he surprised his Cardinals teammates with a visit and inconspicuously slid out a side door so as not to draw attention to himself. Having already seen combat, he return undaunted to the Middle East earlier this month.
"When he came back from Baghdad after this thing ended, he called me and said he was on leave," Frank Bauer, Tillman's agent, said in a telephone interview. "I told him a lot of clubs were calling about him. He said he knew he could probably put his papers in to get out because he'd been in combat but he said, 'I made a commitment for three years and I'll fulfill it.' "