Those are the words Steve White used to describe how Pat Tillman died.
White, a Navy SEAL, thought he was telling it like it was to the 2,000 or so people gathered in the California sun and to a television audience watching ESPN's live coverage of the memorial service for Tillman on May 3, 2004. White told them all how his war-hero buddy had been killed two weeks earlier in the mountains of Afghanistan during an epic fight against the Taliban.
White, it turns out, was telling it like it wasn't. The truth, according to Army documents provided to ESPN.com by the Tillman family, was that not a single Ranger, including Tillman, had been hit by enemy fire in the battle that cost Tillman his life. There is no mention in the documents of even a single bullet hole discovered in any of the Ranger vehicles on the scene.
Nor did Tillman have the authority to "make the call" or bark any orders to dismount. He was older than most of the other Rangers; but as a specialist, he was outranked in the field that April 22, 2004, evening by several sergeants and a lieutenant, the platoon leader. Presumably, the "downed vehicle" was in the trailing half of a split Ranger group that was ambushed while making its way through a narrow canyon in southeastern Afghanistan. And in the convoy were American soldiers who blasted their way out of the narrow pass. Turns out, though, it was those "brothers" who had killed Tillman and a friendly Afghan fighter and injured two other Rangers.
In Their Words
Listen to firsthand accounts of what transpired the day Pat Tillman died from a radio telephone operator who also was hit by friendly fire, two additional soldiers in the firefight, and the lieutenant colonel who directed the Army's first official investigation into the incident.
Part 1 Two years after Tillman's death, the perspectives on the circumstances are still very much at odds and the story is still very much alive. As the Defense Department Inspector General's Office nears the completion of yet another investigation into Tillman's death, many very important questions remain unanswered. Tillman Timeline: A synopsis of key events leading up to Pat Tillman's death, including a breakdown of that fateful day and significant incidents since April 22, 2004. Jade Lane was less than 100 yards from Pat Tillman when both U.S. soldiers were shot by friendly fire in Afghanistan on April 22, 2004. Tillman died on the scene after being struck by three shots to the head. Lane returned home to cope with the memories of being injured by fellow Rangers. David Uthlaut graduated at the head of his class at West Point and marched in President Bush's inauguration parade in 2001. In battle, he had never lost a soldier under his command ... until the day Pat Tillman was killed by friendly fire in southeastern Afghanistan. Uthault also was shot on April 22, 2004, and the platoon leader now calls coping with the aftermath of the incident "the hardest thing I've ever had to deal with."
But don't blame White for the misinformation. He was just the messenger.
In an interview with ESPN.com, White said he was spoon-fed that story by an Army representative just an hour or so before he took the stage, draped with American flags that gently swayed in the afternoon breeze, for the memorial service. By then, the Army's top brass and most of the Rangers who had been in the battle already knew Tillman had been killed by his own men, but no one had told Tillman's family or an American public watching along with the crowd in the San Jose Municipal Rose Garden.
In the version given to White, fratricide was never mentioned.
The Navy SEAL said he is embarrassed by his words now. He frets about the additional pain his speech might have caused Tillman's family just two weeks after Pat's death. And he wonders whether he was set up to tell the phony story.
In the haste and the emotion of the moment, White didn't take note of the person on the phone who fed him the details. Remembering a name, he said, didn't seem important then. He recalls only that the caller was an enlistee from Tillman's battalion. "They wanted me to let everyone know he was being awarded the Silver Star, posthumously, and all that," said White, a senior chief petty officer who instructs Navy SEALs in urban warfare. "I wanted to have an idea of what happened. So they told me their version at the time of what happened, which is the heroic tale that they initially came out with. I repeated it back. I summarized it and read it back. I said, 'Does that sound accurate?' He said, 'Absolutely.' "Once I met these guys face-to-face [before the San Jose memorial service], I said, 'Hey, I hope you guys aren't too upset about a Navy guy probably doing something the Army would be proud to do.' They [said], 'Absolutely not; we're all on the same team, yada, yada, yada.'
"About [three weeks after the memorial service] is when Kevin [Tillman, Pat's brother] was at work and found out, hey, this thing was fratricide. And he called me, devastated -- 'What is going on?' He had absolutely no idea that it was fratricide." The question of why Tillman's family wasn't informed of the possibility Pat's death was from friendly fire until five weeks after it happened still hasn't been answered satisfactorily, at least in the eyes of the people who were closest to the former NFL player. In an effort to shed light on how Tillman died and whether there was an attempt to use his good name and valor for political purposes, ESPN.com has interviewed more than 50 Army officials, politicians, and medical and military experts, plus nine of the 35 Rangers who were engaged in the firefight.
White spoke to ESPN.com this spring about the friendship he forged with Kevin and Pat Tillman during their deployment in Iraq before the brothers were sent to Afghanistan. Kevin Tillman had requested that White, a 16-year Navy veteran, speak at the memorial service. And so White told the Rose Garden crowd and the television audience that Pat Tillman had been awarded a Purple Heart for being wounded in combat and that Tillman had been promoted posthumously from specialist to corporal.
Finally, his voice cracking with emotion, White painted the battlefield picture with brushstrokes that made Tillman's action so valorous as to be worthy of a Silver Star, one of the Army's most distinguished awards.
Among the Army officials gathered that afternoon to mourn and celebrate Pat Tillman, listening to the heroic story and offering condolences to the family, was Lt. Gen. Philip Kensinger Jr. of the U.S. Army. Documents given to the Tillman family and obtained by ESPN.com show that by the time the memorial service began, Kensinger already had been told friendly fire was suspected in Tillman's death. According to a transcript of Kensinger's interview in November 2004, during an Army investigation, he was asked whether he'd made a conscious decision to withhold that information from the Tillman family. He answered, "That was a memorial service. I didn't think it was my responsibility to go up to them and say, 'Hey, you know, this is a possible friendly fire.' "
AP Lt. Gen. Philip Kensinger Jr., shown awarding a Silver Star, knew Pat Tillman died from friendly fire while attending Tillman's memorial.
In retrospect, White wonders whether Army officials were covering for themselves by not coming forward with the real story, or even the suspicion, of friendly fire. The idea of awarding the Silver Star in a fratricide, White suggested to ESPN.com, might have been a case of the Army hoping to "shower [the family] with gifts and they'll leave us alone."
"At the end of the day, Pat deserves the truth. This isn't about our family. This isn't about the Tillmans. This is about Pat Tillman. And he deserves the truth, period. He sacrificed so much for his country, and then the government turns around and uses him for propaganda. That is totally unacceptable." - Richard Tillman
Records of the gun battle in which Tillman died indicate that he fought in exemplary fashion to the end. But it's unclear whether he did anything more courageous than what any of the other Rangers who were positioned along the southeastern Afghanistan ridgeline near the border with Pakistan did. That uncertainty raises two questions:
• Was awarding the Silver Star a public relations move after the Army had killed its most famous soldier?
• If Pat Tillman were still alive today, would he be wearing a Silver Star?
In answer to the second question, a sergeant in Tillman's platoon who spoke to ESPN.com on condition of anonymity, said, "Well, of course not."
But Pat Tillman wasn't just any Ranger. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld wrote a personal letter to him after he enlisted in the Army, members of the Tillman family told ESPN.com; so he was on the political radar as a high-profile recruit long before he was killed in Afghanistan. And in the days and months after Tillman's death, his name was kept alive by President Bush.
Nine days after Tillman died, at the May 1, 2004, White House Correspondents' Association dinner, Bush said the death of Tillman "brought home the sorrow that comes with every loss and reminds us of the character of the men and women who serve on our behalf." Tillman, the president said that night, "was modest because he knew there were many like him making their own sacrifices."
The Documents For the past five months, in an effort to shed light on how Tillman died and whether there was an attempt to use his good name and valor for political purposes, ESPN.com has interviewed nine of the 35 Rangers who were engaged with Tillman in the firefight, more than 50 additional Army officials, politicians, and medical and military experts, plus relatives of the principals involved in the incident.
Further, ESPN.com has examined more than 2,000 pages of documents that include investigative findings and maps - documents the Army made available only to members of the Tillman family, which has shared them with a select number of media outlets. The names of soldiers and officers involved in the battle and subsequent investigations have been redacted by the Army, but through extensive interviews and reporting, ESPN.com has been able to confirm the identities of many of the individuals referred to in the documents, including those who played the principal roles. Below is a sampling of the transcripts from the investigations. Names and other details were redacted by the Army. Please note, the documents contain descriptions of graphic violence and explicit language. • Ranger with Tillman on ridgeline • Ranger in the firefight • Sergeant firing at Afghan fighter • Ranger firing toward Tillman • Medic who attended to Tillman • Officer at forward operating base • Officer who announced the fratricide • Critical events debriefer • Officer involved in investigation
In the fall of 2004, at a ceremony at Sun Devil Stadium in which Tillman's Arizona Cardinals jersey was retired, the president delivered a video message on the stadium's giant screen. "As much as Pat Tillman loved competing on the football field, he loved America even more," Bush said. "Courageous and humble, a loving husband and son, a devoted brother and a fierce defender of liberty. Pat Tillman will always be remembered and honored in our country."
At the time of Tillman's death, the administration was dealing with a series of distressing public images that were shaping a negative perception of the war. The remains of American contractors working in Iraq, strung up in Fallujah, appeared in photographs and on news reports three weeks before; and "60 Minutes II" prepared to broadcast photos just six days later depicting abuse by U.S. soldiers working as guards in Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison.
The news that American soldiers had gunned down Pat Tillman could have been another negative headline if it had been reported that way at the time. Instead, Tillman was cast as a war hero.
In reality, he appears to have been a victim of a tragic accident caused at least in part by horrible judgment on the part of the Army. But that version wasn't a part of the story White told at the memorial service.
"Ultimately, what I would want to have happen is just the truth," said Richard Tillman, Pat's youngest brother, in an interview with ESPN.com. "At the end of the day, Pat deserves the truth. This isn't about our family. This isn't about the Tillmans. This is about Pat Tillman. And he deserves the truth, period. He sacrificed so much for his country, and then the government turns around and uses him for propaganda. That is totally unacceptable."
By most accounts in ESPN.com's examination of documents and interviews with the Rangers who served with him, Tillman acted in accordance with the other men in the lead half of his platoon who stopped their convoy to help the soldiers under fire in the trailing half. In an interview as well as an investigation document, Lt. Col. Ralph Kauzlarich, the Ranger regiment executive officer in Afghanistan, said Tillman wasn't the only man positioned along the ridgeline to engage the enemy and take pressure off the second group.
According to a transcript from the Army's November 2004 investigation, Kauzlarich said he believes it was Tillman's "intent" to take his team, which consisted of an Afghan fighter and a young Ranger soldier, Spc. Bryan O'Neal, farther up the hill in pursuit of the enemy.
But that intent, if it existed, wasn't executed.
As Tillman returned from updating a sergeant about developments in the rear of the first convoy, his position came under fire from the lead vehicle in the second group. "He couldn't go forward to do what he intended to do because he was pinned down," Kauzlarich said in his interview with investigators.
When the firing stopped, Tillman was dead.
The Army began crafting Tillman's Silver Star application in the days just after his death; and according to transcripts of investigation witness statements, top Army officials already suspected fratricide when they wrote it. In his witness statement, Capt. William Saunders acknowledged providing the information needed for Tillman's recommendation, stating "we became aware that his death was a possible fratricide" before its submission. During a separate interview with investigators, Saunders, the company commander, said when he arrived at the scene of the battle early on the morning after Tillman died, he was told fratricide was suspected.
Less than 24 hours after Tillman was killed, military documents further reveal, Army brass told Capt. Richard Scott fratricide was suspected when Scott, another company commander within Kauzlarich's regiment, was assigned the initial inquiry. Army records show the Silver Star recommendation was submitted April 27, before the investigation was completed, and signed two days later by Les Brownlee, acting Secretary of the Army. The award was presented to Tillman's family a week later in San Jose, just days before the memorial service.
The U.S. Army provided ESPN.com with the official language used in the citation for Pat Tillman's Silver Star award under the Freedom of Information Act.
The President of the United States of America, authorized by Act of Congress, 9 July 1918 (amended by act of 25 July 1963), has awarded the SILVER STAR to CORPORAL PATRICK D. TILLMAN UNITED STATES ARMY for gallantry in action on 22 April 2004 against an armed enemy while serving as a Rifle Team Leader in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. Corporal Tillman put himself in the line of devastating enemy fire as he maneuvered his Fire Team to a covered position from which they could effectively employ their weapons on known enemy positions. While mortally wounded, his audacious leadership and courageous example under fire inspired his men to fight with great risk to their own personal safety, resulting in the enemy's withdrawal and his platoon's safe passage from the ambush kill zone. Corporal Tillman's personal courage, tactical expertise, and professional competence directly contributed to this platoon's overall success and survival. Through his distinctive accomplishments, Corporal Tillman reflected great credit upon himself, the 75th Ranger Regiment, and the United States Army.
In another transcript obtained by ESPN.com, an unidentified high-ranking Army officer who claimed credit for writing the Silver Star citation said he learned of the possibility of fratricide on the morning of April 25. The name of the person who directed this high-ranking officer to put Tillman in for the Silver Star is redacted from the document.
In the transcript of his interview with Army investigators, the officer who wrote the recommendation acknowledged he purposely massaged the wording to be vague.
"We modified some of the verbiage because -- I put what I thought had happened," he said. "So some of the (earlier) verbiage describes the actions in combat fighting an enemy. And in good conscience, I couldn't write, 'Killed by the enemy,' on a Silver Star citation that 30 years down the road the family would spit on because it may have been fratricide."
As awarded, the citation reads:
"Corporal Tillman put himself in the line of devastating enemy fire as he maneuvered his Fire Team to a covered position from which they could effectively employ their weapons on known enemy positions. While mortally wounded, his audacious leadership and courageous example under fire inspired his men to fight with great risk to their own personal safety, resulting in the enemy's withdrawal and his platoon's safe passage from the ambush kill zone."
No one else on the battlefield that evening was awarded a Silver Star. Only Tillman.
"Oh, my goodness, that is a huge slap in the face to real Silver Star recipients," retired Air Force Lt. Col. Karen Kwiatkowski, an outspoken critic of the Bush administration's influence on the Pentagon and military intelligence, told ESPN.com. "That degrades the award. ... It was a domestic campaign to make Tillman out to be a war hero, a great sacrificing American, fighting for the liberty and freedom of the Afghan people. And whatever they had to do to sell that story, truth be damned. It is very typical of the way we pursue these wars. They haven't told the truth from the beginning."
Brownlee, who retired from the Army in December 2004, told ESPN.com his signature on the Silver Star certificate was customary. He said his recollection is the recommendation for Tillman's Silver Star came from a command level below in the Afghanistan theater. Brownlee describes himself as being "flabbergasted" upon learning Tillman was killed by his own men.
"That is why I immediately asked, 'What is the impact on [the Silver Star]?' " Brownlee said. "And what I was told was that there wasn't an impact. That he got that for doing what he did."
Todd Warshaw/Getty Images His playing days behind him, Pat Tillman tried to avoid special treatment while in the Army.
After heavy prodding from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Brownlee ordered what would be the Army's second official investigation of Tillman's death, but he stepped down from his post before Brig. Gen. Gary Jones completed his inquiry. Brownlee, now retired from the Army, said he has not read Jones' findings.
"My recollection was that [Tillman] exposed himself and was waving his arms and I think popping a purple signal grenade trying to get the fire off him," said Brownlee, himself the recipient of two Silver Stars, three Bronze Stars and a Purple Heart. "So -- and that is how he was killed. He could have stayed in a protective position."
Asked specifically whether that is action worthy of a Silver Star, Brownlee said yes. And the Army's case that the awarding of the Silver Star was justified is bolstered by statements made by Bryan O'Neal, the Ranger who was next to Tillman when he was killed, in a debriefing meeting on April 25, 2004, three days after the firefight. According to Spc. Pedro Arreola, who was there, O'Neal tearfully told the rest of the platoon, "The only reason I am standing here is because Pat Tillman saved my life."
More than two years later, the Army continues to keep classified the supporting documentation and recommendations for Tillman's Silver Star. However, an official with the Army Human Resources Command said Tillman is believed to be the only soldier from the war in Afghanistan to be awarded a Silver Star for action in a combat situation involving fratricide. "With rare exceptions, Silver Stars are not awarded for friendly fire incidents," said Thomas Jones, chief of the Army's freedom of information and privacy act program.
According to Army regulations, the Silver Star is to be awarded for "gallantry in action against an enemy of the United States."
"A Silver Star is when you save your buddies' lives," said Kwiatkowski, who held a variety of roles with the National Security Agency and was in her office in the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001 when a hijacked commercial jet was flown into the building. "Or if posthumous, it's where you sacrificed yourself in order to save a whole unit. A Silver Star is a serious, valorous thing. Even if you didn't know about the politics at all, a Silver Star for what Pat Tillman honestly did, which is get shot by his buddies in pursuit of a great plan, would not get you a Silver Star."
For White, the Navy SEAL, the Silver Star is another piece that doesn't fit into the puzzle of Tillman's death. White said he speaks with Kevin Tillman about their unanswered questions nearly every other week. The two of them have pored over the documents given the Tillman family by the Army, weighing explanations and possibilities and talking about the inconsistencies in the Army's version of events.
"It is just the way the [Army] investigation happened," White told ESPN.com. "Just a lot of ... like a panic to cover up. It's like, 'Oh my God, who did we just [kill]? Look at what just happened; and even worse, we did it to ourselves.' So they went in trying to cover it up and give [him] a heroic burial. That is what those guys, the family, is all bent out of shape about. You can't blame them.
"[Pat was] a stand-up guy who would do anything in the world not to lie about anything, even if it was going to cost him something, and then he gets covered in it."
AP Though it rushed to award the Silver Star in time for Tillman's memorial service, the Army took another three weeks to tell his family that Pat's death was the result of fratricide.
When the Army finally acknowledged five weeks after the fact that Tillman had been killed by friendly fire, Tillman's parents, who are divorced, began to look for their own answers. Separately, they made inquiries to the Army and requested help from Capitol Hill, including Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.), a lawmaker from San Jose who recrafted a series of questions posed by Mary Tillman, Pat's mother, and formally asked the Department of Defense to investigate. On a parallel path, Patrick K. Tillman, Pat's father and a San Jose attorney, sent an angry letter in April 2005 to Brig. Gen. Jones, and copied the Senate Armed Services Committee, in which he criticized the information in briefings Jones had given him.
The Army subsequently requested the Department of Defense Inspector General's Office to review the case.
That policy and oversight review, which has been under way for nearly a year, might be the Tillmans' last and best hope. The Department of Defense Inspector General's Office is an independent body that operates much like the internal affairs division in a police department.
Ultimately, perhaps early this fall, the inspector general is expected to make recommendations based on his office's investigation.
"The concern the family has is that senior leaders somewhere knew that there was not only a chance of fratricide but that it was likely that it was fratricide and an investigation was ongoing, and yet the [May 3, 2004] memorial service went forward," said David Morriss, counsel to the Senate Armed Services Committee. "And the tone of the memorial service had nothing to do with fratricide. That is a major concern of the family's; and they interpret that a particular way, that it was done for political purposes by the Army. And that is one of the things the investigation is going to get after."
Congressional Hearings? Four congressmen sent a bipartisan letter to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld expressing concerns that the Army place a priority in getting to the truth regarding Pat Tillman's death. Letter
The White House and Rumsfeld's office both declined ESPN.com's requests to address the Tillman issue. But Congressmen Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) and Honda, who represents the Tillmans' home district, were quick to respond.
"It has already been well established that very few things happen without someone high up [in the administration] knowing about it, whether you are talking about 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina or whatever," Kucinich, a critic of the Bush administration, said in an interview with ESPN.com. "So there is a point at which there has to be accountability here. And my guess is that Secretary Rumsfeld is well-advised on this.
"And I would be more than surprised if this isn't a discussion that reached the president himself, considering the fact that he himself expressed regrets. Surely, he knows about it. The question is, what does he know and when did he know it."
As the ranking Democrat on the oversight subcommittee having jurisdiction over national security and international relations, Kucinich is threatening to put witnesses under oath in front of a congressional hearing, pending the results of the inspector general's probe.
"Is this the Army covering up, for political or public relations purposes, this possible fratricide?" asked Kucinich, who ran a short-lived campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004. "And is there a possibility that something far worse occurred? We have to ask these questions. And so, I am not drawing any conclusions yet. But I am going to tell you: Everything that has been handled so far -- the Army has mishandled this perfectly."
FRIDAY, PART 3: The challenge to keep Tillman's legacy alive, and real.
Mike Fish is an investigative reporter for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.