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 Tillmans 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 Pentagons inspector general finally will
answer the familys 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 Tillmans death was caused by friendly fire, and
why did they delay for five weeks before informing his
There have been so many discrepancies so far that its
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 Tillmans family members and
soldiers who served with him, found contradictions,
inaccuracies and what appears to be the militarys attempt
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
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 Tillmans status as an all-American
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 bachelors 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 masters degree in history while playing
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
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 Tillmans 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 Pats 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 Tillmans 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. Kevins 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
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 platoons second
group arrived near Tillmans 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 groups
lead vehicle, according to his testimony, recognized
Tillmans 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 fing 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.
Tillmans death came at a sensitive time for the Bush
administration just a week before the Armys 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
Not until five weeks later, as Tillmans battalion was
returning home, did officials inform the public and the
Tillman family that he had been killed by his fellow
According to testimony, the first investigation was
initiated less than 24 hours after Tillmans 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 officers investigation was taken over by a
higher ranking commander. That officers findings,
delivered the next month, called for less severe
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 familys 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 generals
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
-- 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
shouldve 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
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
wasnt as accurate as I submitted it the first
In another section of his testimony, he said witnesses
changed details regarding the distance, the time, the
location and the positioning in Tillmans 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 examiners 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 Uthlauts dissent to a higher
ranking commander. In initial questioning, Saunders said he
had done so, but when that apparently was contradicted by
that commanders testimony, Saunders was threatened with
perjury charges. He was given immunity and allowed to
change his prior testimony.
The regiments 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 academys
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.
Its 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? Thats what I want to know.
-- Inaccurate information. While the military code gives
clear guidance for informing family members upon a
soldiers death when cases are suspected of being a result
of friendly fire, that procedure was not followed in the
Tillman case. After Tillmans 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
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
On April 29, four days before Tillmans 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 sons high profile, and the fact
that Rumsfeld sent him a personal letter, the word quickly
reached the defense secretary. If Pat was on Rumsfelds
radar, its 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 Tillmans
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 Armys 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 Tillmans 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 Pats 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 Tillmans 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, Tillmans uniform and vest also
were burned because they were soaked in blood and
considered a biohazard. Tillmans uniform also was burned.
The officer who led the first investigation testified that
when he was given responsibility for the probe the morning
after Tillmans death, he was informed that the cause was
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
The Tillmans demand that all avenues of inquiry remain
I want to know what kind of criminal intent there was,
Mary Tillman said. Theres so much in the reports that is
(deleted) that its hard to tell what were 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 Tillmans death; 3) explain why the Army took so long
to reveal fratricide as the cause of Pat Tillmans 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 dont think any of them want it investigated. They
(politicians and Army officials) just dont 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. Pats 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
Tillmans 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
Pats 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
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 werent in the fight right then. We were
talking. And Pat said, You know, this war is so f
illegal. And we all said, Yeah. Thats 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 Bushs
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 Tillmans memorial
said Pat wasnt 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
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
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 didnt complain.
He could have taken millions of dollars playing football,
but instead he was just taking orders like that.
Mary Tillman says thats 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 Tillmans 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
ITS HARD TO KNOW WHAT TO BELIEVE
Thats 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 Pentagons 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
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 email@example.com.
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