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.

FILED UNDER: Afghanistan War, Iraq War, Military Affairs, Sports, Terrorism, , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Tom Carter says:

    I also read the reports about Tillman being killed by friendly fire. I can’t see a reason to dwell on this now, beyond typical media attempts to denigrate the value of service and cast aspersions on the military.

    Anyone who has been in combat knows that friendly fire incidents are common in the confusion that reigns on any battlefield. I’ve personally been on both ends of friendly fire incidents, and in the context of what was happening at the moment, I think most were unavoidable. Of course, I guess it would be unreasonable to expect most reporters to attempt to understand any of this.

  2. JakeV says:

    How exactly do the facts presented by this article “tarnish Tillman’s memory”? Do you see him as less admirable and heroic based on what you read in the Post article? I do not.

    Also, I’m wondering if the military merely omitted details or invented a new and fictional narrative a la Jessica Lynch. Pethaps I will know more after I read the rest of the Post series.

  3. Anjin-San says:

    How does the truth coming out “tarnish his memory”. No one doubts Tillman’s heroisim.

    A lot of people in this country are sick of the lies being told by the brass while our boys die. Remember… Truth, Justice and the American Way.

  4. bryan says:

    The rationale for publicizing this is unclear, given that all it does is tarnish his memory

    The first paragraph is telling enough as to why they are publicizing it. The media view themselves as iconoclasts. any time they can bust the myth of a “hero,” they are duty-sworn to do so. The telling of the story as if it were a botched job and Tillman’s death another example of the Bush administration’s duplicity.

    It’s also a chance for Coll to brush off his credentials as a reporter akin to those in vietnam who tore down the reputations of American soldiers in the fighting.

    The rationale is obvious. it serves to further the “quagmire” myth that has developed among members of the media.

  5. ken says:

    It is interesting that conservatives seem to believe that they have no heroes except the plastic ones manufactured by military propoganda. When the truth comes out they are then mad at the person telling the truth. I find this really wierd.

    And as far as real honest to goodness heroes go – isn’t the guy who stopped the torture of prisoners at Abu Gharaib enough of one? I understand even now he still has to hide from those who want to do him harm. He earns our respect and admiration every day.

  6. kappiy says:

    It is vital that the operations of all aspects of government be scruitnized. That’s the job of the press. The Defense Department has been a bastion of deliberate lying about the war from the beginning. Its brilliant tactic to “embed” reporters with military units has led to some of the most uncritical reporting on what is an incredibly violent and serious matter.

    Since we can’t depend on official sources to give us accurate information about circumstances vital to policymaking, it is wonderful to see independent analysis of this sort.

    Of course, the Tilman case gets more scruitny because he was a celebrity. I would like to see more reporting about war’s effects from the standpoint of normal, everyday people–like, say Iraqi or Afghan civilians.

    The scandal of the recent poppy spraying in eastern Afghanistan, for example, should be given more scruitny.

  7. Anjin-San says:


    Iraq is not a quagmire? Oh yea, mission accomplished…

    How many have died since Bush’s pathetic little photo op?

    Bush could not even meet the requirement for a required physical during wartime. I am still amazed there is no outrage by supporters of the military over his flight suit stunt, using real fighting men for political gain…