Pat Tillman Death Investigation
Barrage of Bullets Drowned Out Cries of Comrades (Steve Coll, WaPo, Ao1)
Myths shaped Pat Tillman’s reputation, and mystery shrouded his death. A long-haired, fierce-hitting defensive back with the Arizona Cardinals of the National Football League, he turned away a $3.6 million contract after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to volunteer for the war on terrorism, ultimately giving his life in combat in Taliban-infested southeastern Afghanistan.
Millions of stunned Americans mourned his death last April 22 and embraced his sacrifice as a rare example of courage and national service. But the full story of how Tillman ended up on that Afghan ridge and why he died at the hands of his own comrades has never been told. Dozens of witness statements, e-mails, investigation findings, logbooks, maps and photographs obtained by The Washington Post show 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 — some in their first firefight — who failed to identify their targets as they blasted their way out of a frightening ambush.
The records show Tillman fought bravely and honorably until his last breath. They also show that his superiors exaggerated his actions and invented details as they burnished his legend in public, at the same time suppressing details that might tarnish Tillman’s commanders. Army commanders hurriedly awarded Tillman a posthumous Silver Star for valor and released a nine-paragraph account of his heroism that made no mention of fratricide. A month later the head of the Army’s Special Operations Command, Lt. Gen. Philip R. Kensinger Jr., called a news conference to disclose in a brief statement that Tillman “probably” died by “friendly fire.” Kensinger refused to answer questions.
The rationale for publicizing this is unclear, given that all it does is tarnish his memory. That the Army omitted mention of the friendly fire nature of the incident in Tillman’s award citation is hardly surprising. That his leaders emphasized the positive aspects of Tillman’s service and fuzzied the details is also standard procedure. Doing so helps comfort the families of those who die in combat. Given Tillman’s value as a symbol of the best qualities of the American military, the incentive to do so was heightened.
Update (1633): Phil Carter disagrees.