Account of Tillman’s Killing Is Challenged

Times Staff Writer

Pat Tillman died in the dark between two black boulders, halfway up a canyon wall, just below the mud farmhouse of Zamir Jan. To Jan, Tillman was just another American stranger. But to millions of people a world away, who watched Tillman give up a lucrative professional football contract to fight for his country, his death was an American tragedy.

At first, Pentagon officials said Tillman was killed by enemy fire. A month later, they said it was friendly fire, triggered by an enemy ambush. Today, more than seven months after Tillman died, even that amended Pentagon conclusion is contradicted by Afghans who were there the night of April 22.

Afghan police and militia commanders here, along with local residents like Jan, say U.S. Army Rangers overreacted to an explosion -- either a land mine or roadside bomb -- and fired wildly at Tillman and other Rangers. They say there is no evidence that insurgents opened fire in the remote canyon where Tillman was raked by gunfire from a section of his own Ranger platoon.

Tillman’s parents say the military has deceived them and stonewalled their attempts to find out how their son died. Although the Tillmans believe the Rangers who shot their son had been fired on by insurgents, they also say the Pentagon has tried to cover up deadly mistakes and negligence that night.

“I’m disgusted by things that have happened with the Pentagon since my son’s death. I don’t trust them one bit,” Mary Tillman said in a telephone interview last week from her home in San Jose.


Mary Tillman accused the military of burning her son’s uniform and gear in an attempt to cover up the circumstances of his death. She said her son Kevin, a Ranger in the same platoon as Pat Tillman that night, was ordered to guard the shooting scene but was not told until later that his brother had been killed.

It was not until weeks later, Mary Tillman said, that the family learned that Pat had been killed by his fellow Rangers. Pat and Kevin Tillman both were members of 2nd Platoon, A Company, 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, which was part of an elite group of U.S. forces seeking “high value” Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters near the Pakistani border.

Tillman’s father, Patrick Tillman, said in a separate interview Friday that the family has been frustrated by what he described as deception and inconsistent statements by the Pentagon.

“The investigation is a lie,” he said. “It’s insulting to Pat.”

As a result of the family’s complaints, an Army officer said Sunday, the Pentagon is reviewing its investigation of Tillman’s death, completed in May. An official with U.S. Central Command said military legal officers are reviewing the investigative report because of “inconsistencies” in the official account. A Freedom of Information Act request filed July 6 by The Times, requesting the investigative report and other documents, has not been fulfilled.

Lawrence DiRita, a Pentagon spokesman, said Sunday that family members in friendly-fire cases “are often anguished ... and we certainly understand that.” Telephone messages left Sunday with public affairs officers at the Army Special Operations Command were not returned.

The Pentagon first said Tillman had been killed by insurgents who had ambushed his patrol, triggering an intense firefight in which he had fired on the enemy.

A month later, on May 29, the military said Tillman had died “as a probable result of friendly fire” from fellow Rangers during the chaos of a nighttime ambush by a dozen insurgents firing automatic rifles and mortars. The Pentagon said the new conclusion was reached after additional investigation, even though Rangers on the scene knew right away that Tillman had been killed by friendly fire.

On Friday, a spokesman for the Army Special Operations Command said the investigation had concluded that there had been an enemy ambush April 22.

“The information available to this command (from the theater investigation last May) indicates that enemy forces were part of the events that led to the death of Cpl. Tillman,” Lt. Col. Hans E. Bush said in an email statement.

In a two-part series, The Washington Post reported Sunday and today 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.” The newspaper said its account was based on witness statements, e-mails, investigation findings and other documents.

The Post reported today that at least two low-ranking Rangers had accepted administrative punishments, but said it could not determine what actions -- if any -- were taken against more senior officers.

Tillman, a four-year NFL defensive back, gave up a $3.6-million contract with the Arizona Cardinals to volunteer as an Army Ranger. He survived a tour of duty in Iraq, only to die on a remote hillside here, three hours by donkey trail from the nearest town.

In interviews with The Times, two Afghan police security chiefs who investigated the incident, along with two commanders of the Afghan militia unit assigned to Tillman’s patrol, said militiamen had told them that a sudden explosion triggered long bursts of gunfire that night. They said either a land mine or roadside bomb had exploded halfway up a mountain. It caused no injuries but seemed to confuse and alarm the Rangers, they said.

Although insurgents may have set off the explosion, Afghan militiamen insisted there had been no enemy gunfire or other attack in the canyon where Tillman had died, said Karim Khan, the security chief for the Spera district.

“It was just the Americans and the militiamen shooting at each other -- just a terrible mistake,” Khan said.

Khan’s deputy, Yusef Din, added: “There was an explosion, and the two sides thought it was a Taliban attack. It wasn’t -- it was just the two sides attacking each other.”

Two commanders of the Afghan militia unit involved said militiamen had told them immediately after the incident that Rangers had opened fire in the dark shortly after the explosion. The commanders said some militiamen had tried to get the Ranger commander to order the firing to cease, but could not make themselves understood.

The commanders spoke on condition of anonymity, saying they had been ordered by American commanders not to discuss the incident. A request to interview Rangers and militiamen at their base at a camp outside the Afghan city of Khowst was denied by the U.S. military.

Earlier on April 22, Tillman’s platoon had split into two sections after a Humvee broke down and had to be towed, according to a summary of a military investigation released May 29. Kevin Tillman was in the section that split off from his brother’s unit. The Post reported that the Ranger base company commander, under pressure from a faraway senior officer to get moving, had ordered the split.

Tillman’s parents angrily reject allegations that there had been no enemy attack, saying that Kevin Tillman had told them that his unit was ambushed. He was adamant that he had been fired on by insurgents, they said.

The Tillmans said Kevin had made a pact with his brother never to speak to the media about their military service. The Post said Kevin was not asked by Ranger investigators to provide sworn statements.

According to Mary Tillman, Rangers who fired on Pat Tillman’s group, believing they were insurgents, were no longer taking enemy fire by that time.

“They had already come out of the ambush area,” she said.

The Post quoted military investigative accounts in which Rangers said they had heard an explosion that they assumed to be a land mine or roadside bomb. The Rangers told investigators they later saw mortar rounds explode near them and thought they could see their attackers moving on the mountainside above them, the paper reported.

Tillman and several men from his section moved toward the explosion to help the other group of Rangers, which was backing away from the explosion and toward Tillman. The other group opened fire, not realizing they were shooting at their own men, the Post said.

The Pentagon’s summary said an enemy ambush had triggered an intense, 20-minute firefight. Ten to 12 insurgents attacked “from multiple locations over approximately 1 kilometer in very severe and constricted terrain with impaired light conditions,” according to the account.

“Hearing the engagement, the other section of the platoon maneuvered to the location of the ambush and engaged in the fight,” the summary said. A Ranger squad leader mistook a bearded Afghan militiaman standing next to Tillman for an insurgent and opened fire.

“Other members of the platoon, observing the direction of fire by the squad leader, oriented their fire in the same direction,” the summary said.

Both Tillman and the Afghan were killed, and two American soldiers were wounded, the summary said.

An Army statement said Tillman had “focused his efforts on elimination of enemy forces and the protection of his team members.” It added: “There is an inherent degree of confusion in any firefight, particularly when a unit is ambushed, and especially under difficult light and terrain conditions which produces an environment that increases the likelihood of fratricide.”

Tillman volunteered for the Rangers following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Whatever the circumstances of his death, Tillman clearly exposed himself to mortal danger as he tried to save his men. He was awarded a posthumous Silver Star and Purple Heart and was promoted to corporal.

Tillman’s patrol was taking part in Operation Mountain Storm to kill or capture suspected Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters. An elite unit of Rangers and other U.S. Special Forces and CIA paramilitaries known as Task Force Omaha, based outside Khowst and accompanied by hand-picked Afghan militiamen, was concentrating on “high-value targets” along the border.

The region, about 40 miles southwest of Khowst, is laced with insurgent infiltration routes from Pakistan, the U.S. military says. Just across the border, in the lawless Pakistan territory known as Waziristan, Osama bin Laden and other senior Al Qaeda leaders are believed to be hiding under the protection of Pushtun tribesmen.

Tillman had conducted previous patrols in the Spera district, a mountainous region dominated by conservative Pushtun tribesmen. In the village of Magar, he became known as the soldier who handed out small sums of cash -- $2 for children and $10 for men -- and small, hand-cranked radios.

“He was a good man. Everybody in our tribe liked him,” said Walikha Khan, a leader of the Borekhen tribe in Magar, a hilltop hamlet near the canyon where Tillman died.

Khan and other village headmen said Tillman’s Afghan translator had told them that Tillman was a famous athlete in America. Khan said Tillman posed for photos with them.

The night Tillman died, Zamir Jan said he had been saying evening prayers around 7:30 p.m. when he heard a distant explosion high up a canyon wall south of his mud-walled dwelling. Jan, a thin, white-bearded farmer who said he did not know his age, is the only resident of the Laka Gorge, a series of rocky canyons hugging the Pakistan border.

Shortly afterward, Jan said, he heard gunfire that continued for at least 20 minutes. Just after the shooting stopped, he said, a group of American soldiers broke down his door and stormed into his house. He said they searched the dwelling, destroyed his food supplies and accused Jan of setting the explosion.

Jan said he told the soldiers’ Afghan interpreter that he knew nothing about the explosion. The soldiers then asked him for a mattress, saying they needed it for a badly wounded American soldier outside.

Jan said he learned later that the soldier bleeding in the dark between two boulders on a ridge just below his house was a famous American football player. Later that night, he said, an American military helicopter landed in the streambed and evacuated Tillman’s body.

Police chief Khan and his deputy, Din, said they were eating a dinner of flatbread and chicken at the tiny stone district police station a few miles from the canyon that evening. Hearing an explosion, they gathered up several policemen and set out in four-wheel drive vehicle to investigate.

“This is my district, and it’s my responsibility to investigate whenever there’s gunfire,” Khan said.

When they reached the canyon, the two men said, they were intercepted by American soldiers who refused to answer questions or allow them to speak to Afghan militiamen.

Early the next morning, Khan said, he and his men returned to the canyon and were able to question militiamen who had witnessed the shooting.

“They said the Americans misunderstood what was happening,” Khan said. “They were so worried about being attacked by the Taliban that they overreacted.”

The explosion, which sent rocks tumbling down the mountainside in the dark, created a series of confusing echoes, Din said. Both Ranger units “thought the Taliban or Al Qaeda had opened fire on them,” he said.

Tillman, 27, never explained publicly why he had abandoned a football career in his athletic prime to take a dangerous and demanding job that paid roughly $20,000 a year. He refused all publicity.

Friends and fellow athletes told reporters at the time that Tillman did not want to be seen as capitalizing on his fame. They said he was genuinely moved by the Sept. 11 attacks and wanted to make a personal commitment to keeping America safe.

Tillman did speak to a television interviewer the day after the terrorist attacks. “My grandfather was at Pearl Harbor, and a lot of my family has gone and fought in wars,” he said. “And I haven’t really done a damn thing as far as laying myself on the line like that.”

More than seven months after his death, his mother said she and her husband are determined to pursue the truth about his final hours.

“The military thinks we’ll just accept their story,” she said. “They obviously don’t know this family.”