An American icon: the life and death of Pat Tillman

A young footballer who gave up a $3m career to join the US Army after 11 September was hailed a hero when he died in Afghanistan. But as Andrew Buncombe reports, he was a victim of 'friendly fire'

In the way that images are formed and then fixed in stone, Pat Tillman was the all-American hero. Rugged and handsome, the college sports star rapidly made a name for himself as a professional American Football player. In 2000 he set a new defensive record for his team, the Arizona Cardinals, and was offered a $3.6m contract.

In the way that images are formed and then fixed in stone, Pat Tillman was the all-American hero. Rugged and handsome, the college sports star rapidly made a name for himself as a professional American Football player. In 2000 he set a new defensive record for his team, the Arizona Cardinals, and was offered a $3.6m contract.

But he turned the offer down. Instead, horrified by the terror attacks of 11 September, Tillman and his brother, Kevin enlisted with the US Army and joined President George Bush's so-called war on terror. He saw action in Iraq and was then deployed to Afghanistan where he and his fellow Rangers were tasked with tracking down the al-Qa'ida leader Osama bin Laden and his fighters in the wild border region with Pakistan.

It was there, on 22 April 2004, that the 27-year-old was killed. As he had lived, so Pat Tillman died a hero. A report issued by the Army's Special Forces Command said that while on patrol, Tillman's unit was ambushed and that he had selflessly led his men while firing at the enemy with his M-249 light machine gun.

"Through the firing, Tillman's voice was heard issuing commands to take the fight to the enemy," said the statement. Tillman was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart and the Silver Star for valour and the White House issued a statement saying the President himself was praying for his family.

But the former NFL star was not killed by the enemy. This week, in a shocking series of revelations, it emerged that the Pentagon had quietly launched a new investigation into Tillman's death after pointed complaints from his family. The truth is that on 22 April, in fading light on a stony ridge near the Afghan village of Sperah, Tillman was killed not by al-Qa'ida fighters but in a "friendly fire" incident by members of his own unit. The shouting referred to in the Army's statement was Tillman's desperate and failed effort to make clear to his comrades that he was a friend and not foe. Worse still, Tillman's death was easily avoidable but for a series of basic errors made by his unit's senior commanders. Indeed, it is very possible that there were never even any enemy fighters present the night he was killed.

Errors and mistakes happen all the time in combat and Tillman was not the first soldier to be accidentally killed by his colleagues. But the way in which the Pentagon spun the death of America's most famous volunteer in the "war on terror" tells a great deal about the disparity between what the Bush administration wants the US public to believe is happening and the reality on the ground. As with the distorted story of Jessica Lynch, the POW "rescued" by US Delta Force troops in Iraq, the difference between the truth and the truth as portrayed by the image makers is often considerable.

Tillman's family have accused the Pentagon of deceiving them and issuing a series of confusing and inconsistent statements. "The investigation is a lie," Tillman's father, also called Patrick, told the Los Angeles Times earlier this week. "It is insulting to Pat."

Pat Tillman was born on 6 November, 1976, in San José, California, and started playing American Football for Arizona State University in 1994.

Though he was relatively small at 5ft 11in, he excelled as a defensive linebacker and in his senior year he was voted the regional Defensive Player of the Year. But Tillman was no locker-room "jock". Although he obtained a sports scholarship to go to university, when he graduated four years later with a major in marketing, his average academic score was a decent 3.84 out of a possible 4.0. He was not just a handsome face.

After he graduated in 1994, Tillman went to play for the Arizona Cardinals, switching to the position of safety ­ similar to that of the full-back in rugby union. In his first year with the team he was in the starting line-up in 10 out of 16 games. In 2000 he set a new team record by making 224 tackles. "You don't find guys that have combination of being as bright and as tough as him," his university team coach, Phil Snow, said in 2002. When the Cardinals offered him the $3.6m contact it was clear he had a very bright ­ and very lucrative ­ future.

But as was the case with so many other people, Tillman's life was changed by the al-Qa'ida attacks on New York and Washington. With little fanfare, Tillman and his brother decided to enlist with the army ­ answering a self-created call to arms at a time that many believed was America's darkest hour. Tillman did not want special treatment and he gave no interviews about his decision to sign up. The only real, public insight into his feelings came the very day after the 11 September attacks when he told an American television network about the way he was thinking. "My great grandfather was at Pearl Harbour and a lot of my family has ... gone and fought in wars," he said. "And I really haven't done a damn thing as far as laying myself on the line like that goes." Reports said that he finally made the decision to enlist after returning from his honeymoon in Bora Bora with his new wife, Marie.

Tillman and his brother completed training for the elite Army Ranger school in late 2002, and were assigned to the second battalion of the 75th Ranger Regiment in Fort Lewis, Washington. Both were deployed to Iraq during last year's invasion.

It is not clear when the brothers were redeployed to Afghanistan and the ongoing effort to locate the al-Qa'ida leader, but by the spring of 2004 they and their unit ­ 2nd Platoon, A Company, 2nd Battalion ­ were operating in the remote border region 40 miles south-west of the city of Khost. The area was considered a key route for al-Qa'ida and Taliban fighters travelling between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

It appears that during the morning of 22 April, Tillman's platoon had split into two sections after a Humvee broke down. The commander, under pressure to get moving from a senior officer who was communicating by radio, decided to break into two groups ­ a decision that was later criticised by army investigators. Tillman's brother went with the second group.

At some point that evening, Tillman's group believed that it was coming under fire. The Pentagon's summary said an enemy ambush triggered an intense firefight which lasted 20 minutes and that "10 to 12 insurgents attacked from multiple directors over approximately one kilometre in very severe and constricted terrain and impaired light conditions".

On hearing the firefight, the second Ranger group returned to the scene and started firing, the Pentagon said. A Ranger squad leader mistook a bearded Afghan militia fighter standing next to Tillman for an insurgent and opened fire, directing his colleagues to copy him. Tillman and the Afghan were killed. His brother, Kevin, was among those ordered to guard the scene of the shooting, unaware that his brother had been killed.

The initial report into Tillman's death made no mention of friendly fire. Instead, the barest details of the circumstances of the incident were bolstered with eulogy from his friends and officials. He was first professional football player to be killed in combat since the death of Bob Kalsu of the Buffalo Bills, who was killed in Vietnam in 1970. A White House spokesman said at the time: "Pat Tillman was an inspiration on and off the football field. As with all who have made the ultimate sacrifice in the war on terror, his family is in the thoughts and prayers of President and Mrs Bush." More than a month after the incident the Pentagon issued a new report admitting that it was "probable" that Tillman had been killed by friendly fire. It said the finding was the result of a new investigation, even though his fellow Rangers knew immediately it was they who had killed him. There was no mention of errors made by Tillman's unit or the distant senior officer who was calling the shots.

This week, an extensive investigation carried out by the Washington Post revealed a series of avoidable errors that led to Tillman's death. The paper concluded that the former football star "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".

Tillman's family has expressed fury. His mother, Mary, told reporters that when she heard her son had been killed by friendly fire, she had been forced to accept the news. "I was upset about it, but I thought, 'Well, accidents happen'," she said. "Then I found out that it was because of huge negligence at places along the way."

The family say that Tillman's brother, Kevin, insisted the unit had been attacked by insurgents. But even that may not be true. The investigations by the Post and the Times suggest that Tillman's unit may have set off a mine or a roadside bomb and that the second group, mistaking the explosions for enemy mortars, starting firing in that direction. Two Afghan militia commanders in the region, quoted in the investigations, said there had been no enemy gunfire. Karim Khan, security chief for the area around the town of Sperah, said: "It was just the Americans and the militiamen shooting at each other ­ just a terrible mistake." His deputy, Yusef Din, added: "There was an explosion and the two sides thought it was a Taliban attack. It wasn't ­ it was just the two sides attacking each other." The Pentagon has now announced a new investigation into the incident, saying that its initial inquiry did not address certain questions. "The Tillman family also had questions that were not addressed by the first investigation...The Army shares the sorrow of the Tillman family and other families who lost loved ones during this war effort and we extend the deep gratitude and condolences of our nation."

For his family and friends and many others Pat Tillman will always be hero. Indeed, apart from a column in a student newspaper which criticised Tillman for going to war ­ the author of which apologised after a national outcry ­ there has been little but praise for the former football player. The two teams for which he played have "retired" the jersey numbers that he played with and the Cardinals are going ahead with plans to name a plaza being built at their new stadium in the Phoenix suburb of Glendale the Pat Tillman Freedom Plaza.

His family are trying to find something positive from his death and have established a foundation that seeks to inspire "people to make positive changes in themselves and in the world around them". It is raising funds and setting up a programme to help "tomorrow's leaders identify problems and social ills that touch them". But for all their efforts to protect the memory and legacy of their son, it seems clear that his family will now think twice about the stories they are told about what happened to him, so far away from home. His mother has now even accused the military of burning her son's uniform in an effort to conceal the circumstances of his death.

"I'm disgusted by the things that have happened with the Pentagon since my son's death," she said. "I don't trust them one bit."

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