By Josh White
Pat Tillman, the former pro football player, was killed by other American troops in a "friendly fire" episode in Afghanistan last month and not by enemy bullets, according to a U.S. investigation of the incident.
New details released yesterday about Tillman's death indicate that he was gunned down by members of his elite Army Ranger platoon who mistakenly shot in his direction when the unit was ambushed. According to a summary of the Army investigation, a Ranger squad leader mistook an allied Afghan Militia Force soldier standing near Tillman as the enemy, and he and other U.S. soldiers opened fire, killing both men.
That Tillman, 27, wasn't killed by enemy fire in a heroic rescue attempt was a major revelation by the U.S. military more than a month after the April 22 incident, which the Pentagon and members of Congress had hailed as an example of combat bravery. Tillman's sacrifice of millions of dollars when he left the National Football League's Arizona Cardinals to become a soldier has been held up as a stark contrast to the prison scandal in Iraq.
Shortly after his death, Army officials awarded Tillman a Silver Star for combat valor and a Purple Heart. He also was promoted from specialist to corporal. They said Tillman was killed while charging at the enemy up a hill, allowing the rest of his platoon to escape alive.
Instead, it appears Tillman's bravery in battle led him to become a victim of a series of errors as he was trying to protect part of his stranded platoon, which Army officials say was attacked while hampered by a disabled vehicle it had in tow. The report said Tillman got out of his vehicle and shot at the enemy during a 20-minute firefight before he was killed when members of his unit opened fire after returning to the scene to help.
A woman who answered the door at the home of Tillman's parents in San Jose said the family did not have anything to say publicly.
News of Tillman's death by friendly fire was first reported yesterday in the Arizona Republic and the Argus of Fremont, Calif., and new details emerged yesterday.
Military officials could not explain the discrepancy between earlier reports and the releases yesterday, saying that a month-long investigation into the attack helped clarify the events. The investigation reports that Tillman was killed after he got out of his vehicle and fought about a dozen insurgents in restricted terrain and in poor light conditions.
"While there was no one specific finding of fault, the investigation results indicate that Corporal Tillman probably died as a result of friendly fire while his unit was engaged in combat with enemy forces," said Lt. Gen. Philip R. Kensinger Jr., who is in charge of the U.S. Army's Special Operations Command, based in Fort Bragg, N.C. "The results of this investigation in no way diminish the bravery and sacrifice displayed by Corporal Tillman. Corporal Tillman was shot and killed while responding to enemy fire without regard for his own safety."
The report summary, however, leaves no doubt that Tillman was killed by friendly fire, saying that the Afghan fighter was "misidentified" by a Ranger squad leader, who then attacked. The report said other soldiers, who generally look to squad leaders for guidance, followed suit.
"Other members of the platoon, observing the direction of fire by the squad leader, oriented their fire in the same direction," the summary says. "This fire fatally wounded one Ranger and the AMF soldier."
Two other U.S. soldiers were injured by friendly fire in the same melee, though Army officials said yesterday that they could not provide details. The full investigative report has yet to be released.
According to summary, the incident was the result of a series of problems and failures as the Ranger platoon moved from one assignment to another through the mountainous terrain along the Pakistan border, about 90 miles south of Kabul, near the village of Spera.
First, a vehicle with Tillman's unit broke down and the platoon mechanic could not fix it. Then, without air resources to lift the vehicle out of the area, the soldiers decided to tow the vehicle as they moved to their next assignment. On April 22, the soldiers split the platoon, sending a working vehicle ahead while Tillman's unit towed the disabled one, slowing it down, according to a spokesman for the U.S. Central Command in Florida.
"Approximately 30 minutes after the platoon split off in their separate directions, the section with the non-mission capable vehicle was ambushed by anti-coalition forces," the summary said. "Hearing the engagement, the other section of the platoon maneuvered to the location of the ambush and engaged in the fight."
It was then that the Afghan soldier was mistaken for the enemy and was killed when the other half of the platoon returned. Tillman, who was by his side, also was shot, the report said.
Tillman and his fellow Rangers were attacked in a region where U.S. forces have been searching out Taliban and al Qaeda leaders who are believed to be hiding there. Operation Mountain Storm has been scouring the area for months -- looking for such leaders as Osama bin Laden -- and has frequently been involved in skirmishes.
Kensinger, in his statement yesterday morning at Fort Bragg, said Tillman's unit was ambushed with small-arms and mortar fire at about 7:30 p.m. local time in the vicinity of a military base in Khost, Afghanistan. He described the ensuing firefight as "intense" and involving about a dozen enemy fighters shooting from multiple locations.
"There is an inherent degree of confusion in any firefight, particularly when a unit is ambushed, and especially under difficult light and terrain conditions which produce an environment that increases the likelihood of fratricide," Kensinger said.
Marine Capt. Bruce Frame, a Central Command spokesman, said there has been one other friendly-fire investigation during Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, arising from a combat death in March 2002. According to the Defense Department, 51 U.S. soldiers have been killed in action in and around Afghanistan, and 122 U.S. soldiers have died in the operation.
The friendly-fire incident appears to be a classic example of what can happen in a chaotic combat situation, with soldiers getting out of vehicles in bad light while trying to engage an unknown enemy on unfamiliar terrain. It also highlights the potential for problems that can come with assembling multinational forces -- in this case, an Afghan coalition fighter mistaken as the enemy touched off the volley of friendly fire.
"Blue on blue" fire has become less of a problem for U.S. forces in the modern era, as they increasingly rely on better technology for airstrikes and have fewer soldiers out in the field doing operational missions. Still, such attacks occur, especially at night.
"It can be very confusing, particularly in an environment like that," said Allan R. Millett, a professor of military history at Ohio State University and a retired colonel with the Marine Corps Reserve.
"Everybody is piling out of vehicles, and they pile out shooting. That's always a dangerous situation. Doctrine is to put out a lot of fire and keep moving. If people respond properly, there are a hell of a lot of bullets flying around. It sounds like Tillman was just unlucky."
Millett said modern-day friendly-fire incidents are statistically low, especially compared with previous wars. U.S. forces in World War II had about 40,000 friendly-fire deaths, or about 10 percent of total losses.
A member of Company A of the 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, Tillman was one of an elite force of Army light-infantry soldiers often used for difficult assault missions around the globe. He and brother Kevin joined the Army in 2002 after he expressed deep patriotism in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Kevin Tillman also was an Army Ranger and was part of the same battalion.
Pat Tillman, a safety with the Cardinals, walked away from a $3.6 million contract and made less than $20,000 in the Army. He shunned media attention, telling his family and the military he wanted to be treated like other soldiers.
More than 600 NFL players served in the military during World War II and 19 were killed. One U.S. pro athlete -- James Robert Kalsu, an offensive lineman for the Buffalo Bills -- was killed in combat in Vietnam.
About 3,000 people, including politicians, soldiers, professional athletes and relatives, honored Tillman at a 2 1/2-hour memorial service in San Jose on May 2. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) spoke that day of Tillman's resolve.
"Pat's best service to us all was to remind us what courage really looks like," McCain said.
Last week, the owners of the 32 NFL teams began discussing how the league would pay tribute to Tillman. NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue mentioned the possibility of a decal being placed on each player's helmet, but said no decisions had been made.
Gene Upshaw, executive director of the NFL Players Association, said in a midweek meeting with Washington Post editors and reporters that Tagliabue would honor the family's wishes.
"I know how Tagliabue feels about this," Upshaw said. "He wants to make sure that it's done with the best interests of the family and what the family wants."
Staff writers Thomas E. Ricks, Mark Maske and Steve Fainaru contributed to this report.