TILLMANNew inquiry may expose events that led to Pat Tillman’s death

– Robert Collier, Chronicle Staff Writer
Sunday, September 25, 2005
The battle between a grieving family and the U.S. military justice system is on display in thousands of pages of documents strewn across Mary Tillman’s dining room table in suburban San Jose.
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. “There are too
many murky details.” 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,
and even an Army press release given to the media has deletions.
On her copies, Mary Tillman has added competing marks and scrawls
— countless color-coded tabs and angry notes such as “Contradiction!”
“Wrong!” and “????”
A 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 in a San Jose public junior
high school, and her ex-husband, Patrick Tillman, 50, a San
Jose lawyer, have avoided association with the anti-war movement.
Their main public allies are Sen. John McCain, RAriz., and Rep.
Mike Honda, D-San Jose, who have lobbied on their behalf. Yet
the case has high stakes because of Pat Tillman’s status as
an all-American hero.
A football star at Leland 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 in 3 1/2 years with a 3.84 grade
point average. Ever the student, Tillman not only memorized
the playbook by the time he reported for the Cardinals’ rookie
camp but pointed out errors in it. He then 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 for the Cleveland Indians organization.
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, put away
by Pat’s widow, Marie.
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 finally 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 he 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
f—ing Tillman, dammit.” He said this over and over until he
stopped,” having been hit by three bullets in the forehead,
killing him.
The soldier continued, “I then looked over at my side to see
a river of blood coming down from where he was … I saw his head
was gone.” Two other Rangers elsewhere on the mountainside were
injured by shrapnel.
Kevin was unaware that his brother had been killed until nearly
an hour later when he asked if anyone had seen Pat and a fellow
soldier told 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 killing was widely reported by the media, including conservative
commentators such as Ann Coulter, who called him “an American
original — virtuous, pure and masculine like only an American
male can be.” 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, who Mary Tillman later said
was greatly admired by her son. Tillman was well known in Arizona
because of his success there as a college and pro football player.
McCain began to press the Pentagon on the family’s behalf, and
a third probe finally 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 publicly when contacted
by The Chronicle. The inspector general’s press office also
declined to comment, saying only that the new probe is openended.
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. As they carry out their
reassessment, 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.
They have changed to, I think, help some individuals.”
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.
“They had the entire chain of command (inaudible) that were
involved, the [deleted], all sticking up for [deleted] … And
the reason the [deleted] called me in … because the [deleted]
… changed their story in how things occurred and the timing
and the distance in an attempt to stick up for their counterpart,
implied, insinuated that the report wasn’t as accurate as I
submitted it …” the first investigator testified.
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.
Another disputed detail was whether the soldiers were firing
while speeding down the canyon or whether they stopped, got
out and continued shooting. In testimony in the third investigation,
the soldiers said they did not stop. However, the medical examiner’s
report said Tillman was killed by three bullets closely spaced
in his forehead — a pattern that would have been unlikely if
the shooter were moving fast. Spc. Russell Baer, a soldier pinned
down by gunfire on the hillside near Tillman, said in an interview
with The Chronicle that at least two soldiers had gotten out
of the humvee to fire uphill. One other soldier confirmed this
account to a Tillman family member.
One soldier dismissed by the Rangers for his actions in the
incident submitted a statement in the third investigation that
suggests the probe was incomplete: “The investigation does not
truly set to rest the events of the evening of 22 April 2004.
There is critical information not included or misinterpreted
in it that could shed some light on who is really at fault for
this,” he wrote.
— Commanders’ accountability. According to the documents and
interviews, Capt. William Saunders, to whom platoon leader Uthlaut
had protested splitting his troops, was allowed to change his
testimony over 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, who had been
seriously wounded in the face by shrapnel in the incident. Uthlaut
— who was first captain of his senior class at West Point, the
academy’s highest honor — was dismissed from the Rangers and
re-entered the regular Army.
“It seems grossly inappropriate that Saunders would determine
punishment for the others when he shares responsibility for
the debacle,” Mary Tillman said.
Baer 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
and lives in the East Bay.
“It’s a well-known military doctrine that privates first learn
going through basic training — if you are in enemy territory
and you are stopped for a prolonged period of time, the best
thing to do is to wait until nightfall. Why they thought that
moving us out in broad daylight from our position, dragging
a busted humvee slowly through a known hotspot after we had
been stranded there all day was a good idea will forever elude
me. Who made that decision? Bailey? Saunders? That’s what I
want to know.”
— 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. After Tillman’s
death, the Army gave conflicting and incorrect descriptions
of the events.
On April 22, the family was told that Tillman was hit with
enemy fire getting out of a vehicle and died an hour later at
a field hospital.
Although there was ample testimony that Tillman died immediately,
an Army report — dated April 22, 2004, from the field hospital
in Salerno, Afghanistan, where his body was taken — suggested
otherwise. While it stated that he had no blood pressure or
pulse “on arrival,” it stated that cardio pulmonary resuscitation
had been conducted and that he was transferred to the intensive
care unit for further CPR.
On April 23, all top Ranger commanders were told of the suspected
fratricide. That same day, an Army press release said he was
killed “when his patrol vehicle came under attack.”
On April 29, four days before Tillman’s memorial, Gen. John
Abizaid, chief of U.S. Central Command, and other top commanders
were told of the fratricide. It is not known if Abizaid reported
the news to Washington. Mary Tillman believes that with her
son’s high profile, and the fact that Rumsfeld sent him a personal
letter, the word quickly reached the defense secretary. “If
Pat was on Rumsfeld’s radar, it’s pretty likely that he would
have been informed right away after he was killed,” she said.
White House, Pentagon and Army spokesmen all said they had no
information on when Bush or Rumsfeld were informed.
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 2, the acting Army Secretary Les Brownlee was told of
the fratricide.
On May 7, the Army’s official casualty report stated incorrectly
that Tillman was killed by “enemy forces” and “died in a medical
treatment facility.”
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. This is not something that (lower-ranking) people
in the field do,” he said.
The files show that many of the soldiers questioned in the
inquiry said it was common knowledge that the incident involved
friendly fire.
A soldier who on April 23 burned Tillman’s bullet riddled body
armor — which would have been evidence in a friendly-fire investigation
— testified that he did so because there was no doubt it was
friendly fire that killed Tillman. Two days later, Tillman’s
uniform and vest also were burned because they were soaked in
blood and considered a biohazard. Tillman’s uniform also was
burned.
The officer who led the first investigation testified that
when he was given responsibility for the probe the morning after
Tillman’s death, he was informed that the cause was “potential
fratricide.’’
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 coverup, in June 2005, that the Army apologized
for the delay, issuing a statement blaming “procedural misjudgments
and mistakes.”
— Legal liability. In testimony on Nov. 14, the officer who
conducted the first investigation said that he thought some
Rangers could have been charged with “criminal intent,” and
that some Rangers committed “gross negligence.” The legal difference
between the two terms is roughly similar to the distinction
between murder and involuntary manslaughter.
The Tillmans demand that all avenues of inquiry remain open.
“I want to know what kind of criminal intent there was,” Mary
Tillman said. “There’s so much in the reports that is (deleted)
that it’s hard to tell what we’re not seeing.”
In Congress, pressure is building for a full public disclosure
of what happened. “I am committed to continuing my work with
the Tillman family to ensure that their concerns are being addressed,”
said Rep. Honda. He added that he expects the investigation
to do the following: “1) provide all factual evidence about
the events of April 22, 2004; 2) identify the command decisions
that contributed to Pat Tillman’s death; 3) explain why the
Army took so long to reveal fratricide as the cause of Pat Tillman’s
death; and 4) offer all necessary recommendations for improved
procedures relating to such incidents.”
Patrick Tillman drily called the new Army probe “the latest,
greatest investigation.” He added, “In Washington, I don’t think
any of them want it investigated. They (politicians and Army
officials) just don’t want to see it ended with them, landing
on their desk so they get blamed for the cover-up.” The January
2005 investigation concluded that there was no coverup.
Throughout the controversy, the Tillman family has been reluctant
to cause a media stir. Mary noted that Pat shunned publicity,
refusing all public comment when he enlisted and asking the
Army to reject all media requests for interviews while he was
in service. Pat’s widow, Marie, and his brother Kevin have not
become publicly involved in the case, and they 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 a friend of Pat’s even arranged
a private meeting with Chomsky, the antiwar author, to take
place after his return from Afghanistan — a meeting prevented
by his death. She said that although he supported the Afghan
war, believing it justified by the Sept. 11 attacks, “Pat was
very critical of the whole Iraq war.”
Baer, who served with Tillman for more than a year in Iraq
and Afghanistan, told one anecdote that took place during the
March 2003 invasion as the Rangers moved up through southern
Iraq.
“I can see it like a movie screen,” Baer said. “We were outside
of (a city in southern Iraq) watching as bombs were dropping
on the town. We were at an old air base, me, Kevin and Pat,
we weren’t in the fight right then. We were talking. And Pat
said, ‘You know, this war is so f— illegal.’ And we all said,
‘Yeah.’ That’s who he was. He totally was against Bush.”
Another soldier in the platoon, who asked not to be identified,
said Pat urged him to vote for Bush’s Democratic opponent in
the 2004 election, Sen. John Kerry.
Senior Chief Petty Officer Stephen White — a Navy SEAL who
served with Pat and Kevin for four months in Iraq and was the
only military member to speak at Tillman’s memorial — said Pat
“wasn’t very fired up about being in Iraq” and instead wanted
to go fight al Qaeda in Afghanistan. He said both Pat and Kevin
(who has a degree in philosophy) “were amazingly well-read individuals
… very firm in some of their beliefs, their political and religious
or not so religious beliefs.”
Baer recalled that Tillman encouraged him in his ambitions
as an amateur poet. “I would read him my poems, and we would
talk about them,” Baer said. “He helped me grow as an individual.”
Tillman subscribed to the Economist magazine, and a fellow
soldier said Tillman created a makeshift base library of classic
novels so his platoon mates would have literature to read in
their down time. He even brought gourmet coffee to brew for
his platoon in the field in Afghanistan.
Baer said Tillman was popular among his fellow soldiers and
had no enemies. “The guys who killed Pat were his biggest fans,”
he said. “They were really wrecked afterward.” He called Tillman
“this amazing positive force who really brought our whole platoon
together.
He had this great energy. Everybody loved him.” His former
comrades and family recall Tillman as a born leader yet remarkably
humble. White, the Navy SEAL, recalls one day when “some 19-year-old
Ranger came and ordered him to cut an acre of grass.
And Pat just did it, he cut that grass, he didn’t complain.
He could have taken millions of dollars playing football, but
instead he was just taking orders like that.”
Mary Tillman says that’s how Pat would have wanted to be remembered,
as an individual, not as a stock figure or political prop. But
she also believes “Pat was a real hero, not what they used him
as.”
For the moment, all that is left are the memories and the thick
binders spread across Mary Tillman’s dining room table in San
Jose. As she waits for the Pentagon investigators to finish
their new probe, she wonders whether they will ask the hard
questions. Like other family members, “I just want accountability,”
she said. “I want answers.”
‘IT’S HARD TO KNOW WHAT TO BELIEVE’
That’s the lament of Mary Tillman, above, a teacher of special
education in a San Jose public school. She has long pressed
the Army to reopen its investigation into the friendly-fire
killing of her son, Pat Tillman, in a canyon in Afghanistan
on April 22, . The persistence of Mary Tillman and her former
husband, Patrick Tillman, was rewarded when the Pentagon’s inspector
general opened a new inquiry in August, the fourth such probe.
Mary Tillman says she hopes questions created by discrepancies
in past testimony will finally be answered.
STORY CHANGES OVER TIME
An officer in Pat Tillman’s Ranger battalion who directed the
first investigation into the soldier’s death served as a witness
on Nov. 14, 2004, in the third investigation, which was led
by Brig. Gen. Gary Jones. The first investigator complained
that the officers in charge of the second invest-
igation had allowed Rangers involved in the shooting to change
their testimony.
THREAT OF PERJURY CHARGES
An excerpt from a March 3, 2005, memorandum by
Brig. Gen. Gary Jones describes how Capt. William Saunders,
the commander of Pat Tillman’s Ranger company, was threatened
with perjury charges. Jones’ memo said Saunders made false claims
that he had informed his superiors that platoon commander Lt.
David Uthlaut had protested orders given to him leading up to
the incident. Despite this threat, Saunders was allowed to change
his testimony and was granted immunity.
E-mail Robert Collier at rcollier@sfchronicle.com.

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