WASHINGTON -- The last minutes of Pat Tillman's life were a
horror of misdirected machine-gun fire and signals to firing
colleagues that were misunderstood as hostile acts, according to an
account published Sunday of the death of the NFL player-turned-soldier.
It took the Army a month to change the record to show that
Tillman, the Arizona Cardinals defensive back who gave up a $3.6
million contract to become an Army Ranger, was killed last April
not by Afghan guerrillas but by his Ranger colleagues.
Even then, the statement by Lt. Gen. Philip R. Kensinger Jr.,
head of the Army's Special Operations Command, gave few specifics
of the corporal's death and implied that he was trying to suppress
enemy fire when he "probably died as a result of friendly fire."
The Washington Post on Sunday, in the first article of a
two-part series, published what it described as the first full
telling of how and why Tillman died. The newspaper said it had
access to "dozens of witness statements, e-mails, investigation
findings, logbooks, maps and photographs."
A series of mishaps and missteps began the chain of events that
resulted in Tillman's death in eastern Afghanistan, the newspaper
said. A Humvee broke down, which led to the splitting up of his platoon.
The segment of the platoon with Tillman, Serial One, passed
through a canyon and was near its north rim. The other segment,
Serial Two, changed its plans because of poor roads and followed
the same route into the canyon. It came under fire from Afghan
Men in Serial One heard an explosion that preceded the attack,
and Tillman and two other fire team leaders were ordered to head
toward the attackers, the Post said. The canyon's walls prevented
them from radioing their positions to their colleagues, just as
Serial Two had not radioed its change in plans.
Tillman's group moved toward the north-south ridge to face the
canyon, and Tillman took another Ranger and an Afghan ally down the
"As they pulled alongside the ridge, the gunners poured an
undisciplined barrage of hundreds of rounds into the area Tillman
and other members of Serial One had taken up positions," the Post
said Army investigators concluded. It said the gunner handling the
platoon's only .50-caliber machine gun fired every round he had.
The first to die was the Afghan, whom the Americans in the
canyon mistook for a Taliban fighter.
Under fire, Tillman and almost a dozen others on the ridge
"shouted, they waved their arms, and they screamed some more,"
the Post said.
"Then Tillman 'came up with the idea to let a smoke grenade
go.' As its thick smoke unfurled, 'This stopped the friendly
contact for a few moments,' " a Ranger was quoted as saying.
Assuming the friendly fire had stopped, the Ranger said, he and
his comrades emerged and talked with each other, the Post reported.
"Suddenly, he saw the attacking Humvee move into 'a better
position to fire on us.' He heard a new machine gun burst and hit
the ground, praying, as Pat Tillman fell," the Post reported.
The Ranger said Tillman had repeatedly screamed out his name and
shouted for the shooting to stop, the Post said. He and others
waved their arms, only attracting more fire. Tillman was shot
repeatedly by rifles, finally succumbing to the machine gun.
The second part of the Post series, published on the newspaper's
Web site Sunday night, tells of "a broader Army effort to manage
the uncomfortable facts of Pat Tillman's death."
"Commemorations of Tillman's courage and sacrifice offered
contrasting images of honorable service, undisturbed by questions
about possible command or battlefield mistakes," the Post reported.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., told the Post, "You may have at
least a subconscious desire here to portray the situation in the
best light, which may not have been totally justified."
Mary Tillman told the Post that when she learned friendly fire
had killed her son: "I was upset about it, but I thought, 'Well,
accidents happen.' Then when I found out that it was because of
huge negligence at places along the way -- you have time to process
that and you really get annoyed."
Eventually, one member of Tillman's platoon received formal
administrative charges; four others, including an officer, were
discharged from the Rangers but not from the Army; and two
additional officers were reprimanded, Lt. Col. Hans Bush, chief of
public affairs for the Army Special Operations Command at Fort
Bragg, told the Post.