By ROBERT COLLIER
San Francisco Chronicle
September 26, 2005
As she pores through testimony from three previous Army investigations into the killing of her son, former football star Pat Tillman, by his fellow Army Rangers last year in Afghanistan, she hopes that a new inquiry launched in August by the Pentagon's inspector general finally will answer the family's questions:
Were witnesses allowed to change their testimony on key details, as alleged by one investigator? Why did internal documents on the case, such as the initial casualty report, include false information? When did top Pentagon officials know that Tillman's death was caused by friendly fire, and why did they delay for five weeks before informing his family?
"There have been so many discrepancies so far that it's hard to know what to believe," Mary Tillman said.
The files the family received from the Army in March are heavily censored, with nearly every page containing blacked-out sections; most names have been deleted. (Names for this story were provided by sources close to the investigation.) At least one volume was withheld altogether from the family.
A San Francisco Chronicle review of more than 2,000 pages of testimony, as well as interviews with Pat Tillman's family members and soldiers who served with him, found contradictions, inaccuracies and what appears to be the military's attempt at self-protection.
For example, the documents contain testimony of the first investigating officer alleging that Army officials allowed witnesses to change key details in their sworn statements so his finding that certain soldiers committed "gross negligence" could be softened.
Interviews also show a side of Pat Tillman not widely known - a fiercely independent thinker who enlisted, fought and died in service to his country yet was critical of President Bush and opposed the war in Iraq, where he served a tour of duty. He was an avid reader whose interests ranged from history books on World War II and Winston Churchill to works of leftist Noam Chomsky, a favorite author.
Unlike Cindy Sheehan - who has protested against President Bush because of the death of her son Casey in combat in Baghdad - Mary Tillman, 49, who teaches learning-disabled students in a San Jose public junior-high school, and her ex-husband, Patrick Tillman, 50, a San Jose lawyer, have avoided association with the antiwar movement. Their main public allies are Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Rep. Mike Honda, D-Calif., who have lobbied on their behalf.
A football star in high school in San Jose and at Arizona State University, Tillman was chosen Pac-10 defensive player of the year in 1997 and selected by the Arizona Cardinals in the NFL draft the following spring. He earned a bachelor's degree in marketing from Arizona State and graduated summa cum laude with a 3.84 grade point average. He worked on a master's degree in history while playing professional football.
His 224 tackles in a single season (2000) are a team record, and because of team loyalty he rejected a five-year, $9 million offer from the St. Louis Rams for a one-year, $512,000 contract to stay with Arizona the next year.
Moved in part by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Tillman decided to give up his career, saying he wanted to fight al Qaeda and help find Osama bin Laden. He spurned the Cardinals' offer of a three-year, $3.6 million contract extension and joined the Army in June 2002 along with his brother Kevin, who was playing minor-league baseball.
Pat Tillman's enlistment grabbed the attention of the nation - and the highest levels of the Bush administration. A personal letter from Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, thanking him for serving his country, now resides in a storage box.
Instead of going to Afghanistan, as the brothers expected, their Ranger battalion was sent to participate in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003. The Tillmans saw combat several times on their way to Baghdad. In early 2004, they were assigned to Afghanistan.
Although the Rangers are an elite combat group, the investigative documents reveal that the conduct of the Tillmans' detachment - A Company, 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment - appeared to be anything but expert as it advanced through a remote canyon in eastern Afghanistan on April 22, 2004, on a mission to search for Taliban and al Qaeda fighters in a village called Manah.
According to the files, when one of the Humvees became disabled, thus stalling the mission, commanding officers split Tillman's platoon in two so one half could move on and the other could arrange transport for the disabled vehicle. Platoon leader Lt. David Uthlaut protested the move as dangerous, but was overruled. The first group was ordered out in the late afternoon, with Pat Tillman in the forward unit. Kevin's unit followed 15 to 20 minutes later, hauling the Humvee on an Afghan-owned flatbed truck. Both groups temporarily lost radio and visual contact with each other in the deep canyon, and the second group came under attack from suspected Taliban fighters on the surrounding ridges.
Pat Tillman, according to testimony, climbed a hill with another soldier and an Afghan militiaman, intending to attack the enemy. He offered to remove his 28-pound body armor so he could move more quickly, but was ordered not to. Meanwhile, the lead vehicle in the platoon's second group arrived near Tillman's position about 65 meters away and mistook the group as enemy. The Afghan stood and fired above the second group at the suspected enemy on the opposite ridge. Although the driver of the second group's lead vehicle, according to his testimony, recognized Tillman's group as "friendlies" and tried to signal others in his vehicle not to shoot, they directed fire toward the Afghan and began shooting wildly, without first identifying their target, and also shot at a village on the ridgeline.
The Afghan was killed. According to testimony, Tillman, who along with others on the hill waved his arms and yelled "cease-fire," set off a smoke grenade to identify his group as fellow soldiers. There was a momentary lull in the firing, and he and the soldier next to him, thinking themselves safe, relaxed, stood up and started talking. But the shooting resumed. Tillman was hit in the wrist with shrapnel and in his body armor with numerous bullets.
The soldier next to him testified: "I could hear the pain in his voice as he called out, 'Cease fire, friendlies, I am Pat ... ing Tillman, dammit." He said this over and over until he stopped," having been hit by three bullets in the forehead, killing him.
Tillman's death came at a sensitive time for the Bush administration - just a week before the Army's abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib in Iraq became public and sparked a huge scandal. The Pentagon immediately announced that Tillman had died heroically in combat with the enemy, and President Bush hailed him as "an inspiration on and off the football field, as with all who made the ultimate sacrifice in the war on terror."
His May 3, 2004, memorial in San Jose drew 3,500 people and was nationally televised.
Not until five weeks later, as Tillman's battalion was returning home, did officials inform the public and the Tillman family that he had been killed by his fellow soldiers.
According to testimony, the first investigation was initiated less than 24 hours after Tillman's death by an officer in the same Ranger battalion. His report, delivered May 4, 2004, determined that soldiers involved in the incident had committed "gross negligence" and should be appropriately disciplined. The officer became a key witness in the subsequent investigation. For reasons that are not clear, the officer's investigation was taken over by a higher-ranking commander. That officer's findings, delivered the next month, called for less severe discipline.
The parents, protesting that many questions were left unanswered, found a sympathetic ear in McCain. McCain began to press the Pentagon on the family's behalf, and a third probe was authorized. Its report was delivered in January.
The military is saying little publicly about the Tillman case. Most Army personnel who were involved in the Tillman incident or the investigations declined to comment. The inspector general's press office also declined to comment, saying only that the new probe is open-ended.
Over the coming weeks, Pentagon investigators are scheduled to carry out new interviews with many of the soldiers, officers and others involved in the incident. Potentially controversial points include:
- Conflicting testimony. In his Nov. 14, 2004, interrogation, the first investigator expressed frustration with "watching some of these guys getting off, what I thought ... was a lesser of a punishment than what they should've received. And I will tell you, over a period of time ... the stories have changed."
The investigator testified that after he submitted his report on May 3, higher-ranking officers permitted soldiers to change key details of their testimony in order to prevent any individual from being singled out for punishment.
In another section of his testimony, he said witnesses changed details regarding "the distance, the time, the location and the positioning" in Tillman's killing.
- Commanders' accountability. According to documents and interviews, Capt. William Saunders, to whom platoon leader Uthlaut had protested splitting his troops, was allowed to change his testimony on a crucial detail - whether he had reported Uthlaut's dissent to a higher-ranking commander. In initial questioning, Saunders said he had done so, but when that apparently was contradicted by that commander's testimony, Saunders was threatened with perjury charges. He was given immunity and allowed to change his prior testimony.
The regiment's commander, Lt. Col. Jeffrey Bailey, was promoted to colonel two months after the incident, and Saunders, who a source said received a reprimand, later was given authority to determine the punishment of those below him. He gave administrative reprimands to six soldiers, including Uthlaut. Uthlaut was dismissed from the Rangers and re-entered the regular Army.
Spc. Russell Baer, a soldier pinned down by gunfire on the hillside near Tillman, told the Chronicle that commanding officers were to blame for the friendly fire because they split the platoon and ordered it to leave a secure location in favor of a region known as a Taliban stronghold.
"It was dumb to send us out during daylight," said Baer, who was honorably discharged from the Rangers earlier this year.
- Inaccurate information. While the military code gives clear guidance for informing family members upon a soldier's death when cases are suspected of being a result of friendly fire, that procedure was not followed in the Tillman case.
On April 30, the Army awarded Tillman a Silver Star medal for bravery, saying that "through the firing Tillman's voice was heard issuing fire commands to take the fight to the enemy on the dominating high ground."
On May 28, the Army finally admitted to Tillman's family that he had been killed by friendly fire.
"The administration clearly was using this case for its own political reasons," said the father, Patrick Tillman. "This cover-up started within minutes of Pat's death, and it started at high levels."
The files show that many of the soldiers questioned in the inquiry said it was common knowledge that the incident involved friendly fire.
After they received the friendly-fire notification May 28, the Tillmans began a public campaign seeking more information. But it was only when the Tillmans began angrily accusing the Pentagon of a cover-up, in June 2005, that the Army apologized for the delay, issuing a statement blaming "procedural misjudgments and mistakes."
Pat's widow, Marie, and his brother Kevin have not become publicly involved in the case, and declined to comment for this article.
Yet other Tillman family members are less reluctant to show Tillman's unique character, which was more complex than the public image of a gung-ho patriotic warrior. He started keeping a journal at 16 and continued the practice on the battlefield, writing in it regularly. (His journal was lost immediately after his death.)
Mary Tillman said that although he supported the Afghan war, believing it justified by the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, "Pat was very critical of the whole Iraq war."
Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.shns.com
Publish A Letter on SitNews Read Letters/Opinions
Submit A Letter to the Editor