On patrol in Taliban-infested sectors of Afghanistan's Paktia province, Tillman's "Black Sheep" platoon, formally known as 2nd Platoon, A Company, 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, became bogged down because of a broken Humvee. Lt. David Uthlaut, the platoon leader, recommended that his unit stay together, deliver the truck to a nearby road, then complete his mission. He was overruled by a superior officer monitoring his operations from distant Bagram, near Kabul, who ordered Uthlaut to split his platoon, with one section taking care of the Humvee and the other proceeding to a village, where the platoon was to search for enemy guerrillas.
Steep terrain and high canyon walls prevented the two platoon sections from communicating with each other at crucial moments. When one section unexpectedly changed its route and ran into an apparent Taliban ambush while trapped in a deep canyon, the other section from a nearby ridge began firing in support at the ambushers. As the ambushed group broke free from the canyon, machine guns blazing, one heavily armed vehicle mistook an allied Afghan militiaman for the enemy and poured hundreds of rounds at positions occupied by fellow Rangers, killing Pat Tillman and the Afghan.
Sen. John McCain said he would have liked to have known about officers' suspicions before he spoke publicly about Pat Tillman's death.
(Pool Photo Gene Lower)
Investigators had to decide whether low-ranking Rangers who did the shooting had followed their training or had fired so recklessly that they should face military discipline or criminal charges. The investigators also had to decide whether more senior officers whose decisions contributed to the chain of confusion around the incident were liable.
Reporting formally to Col. Nixon in Bagram on May 8, the case's chief investigator offered nine specific conclusions, which Nixon endorsed, according to the records.
The decision by a Ranger commander to divide Tillman's 2nd Platoon into two groups, despite the objections of the platoon's leader, "created serious command and control issues" and "contributed to the eventual breakdown in internal Platoon communications." The Post could not confirm the name of the officer who issued this command.
The A Company commander's order to the platoon leader to get "boots on the ground" at his mission objective created a "false sense of urgency" in the platoon, which, "whether intentional or not," led to "a hasty plan." That officer's name also could not be confirmed by The Post.
Sgt. Greg Baker, the lead gunner in the Humvee that poured the heaviest fire on Ranger positions, "failed to maintain his situational awareness" at key moments of the battle and "failed" to direct the firing of the other gunners in his vehicle.
The other gunners "failed to positively identify their respective targets and exercise good fire discipline. . . . Their collective failure to exercise fire discipline, by confirming the identity of their targets, resulted in the shootings of Corporal Tillman."
The chief investigator appeared to reserve his harshest judgments for the lower-ranking Rangers who did the shooting rather than the higher-ranking officers who oversaw the mission. While his judgments about the senior officers focused on process and communication problems, the chief investigator wrote about the failures in Baker's truck:
"While a great deal of discretion should be granted to a leader who is making difficult judgments in the heat of combat, the Command also has a responsibility to hold its leaders accountable when that judgment is so wanton or poor that it places the lives of other men at risk."
Gen. John P. Abizaid, CENTCOM's commander in chief, formally approved the investigation's conclusions on May 28 under an aide's signature and forwarded the report to Special Operations commanders "for evaluation and any action you deem appropriate to incorporate relevant lessons learned."
Deciding Accident or Crime
The field investigation's findings raised another question for Army commanders: Were the failures that resulted in Pat Tillman's death serious enough to warrant administrative or criminal charges?
In the military justice system, field officers such as Nixon, commander of the 75th Ranger Regiment, can generally decide such matters on their own.