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The face of loyalty: remembering Corporal Pat Tillman ten years after his death

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He wasn’t just larger than life, he dwarfed life. He was a twenty-six-year-old young man with the loyalty typically only seen in those much older. A square-jawed, handsome all-American hero, an up-and-coming NFL star who made the conscious decision to leave behind a lucrative sports career to fight for his country after the September 11 terrorist attacks. One decade has passed since U.S. Army Ranger Corporal Pat Tillman was struck down by a hail of bullets in Afghanistan along what was more a wadi than a road outside the village of Sperah.

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“Few men have virtue to withstand the highest bidder.” (George Washington)

The hard-charging Ranger’s football career started almost before he could walk, but he gained ground playing at Leland High School, leading his team to the Central Coast Division I Football Championship. Tillman began to take his place in NFL history in 1994 when he started playing college ball for Arizona State University. He was a linebacker for the Sun Devils despite being considered on the small side at only 5’11”, and coaches and teammates would often say of him that he got by through sheer grit and determination. He used that strong will to help carry his college team to an undefeated season during his junior year of 1997, when they made it to the Rose Bowl. That same year, Tillman was voted Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year and ASU’s MVP of the Year. But he wasn’t all brawn; the stocky football player earned his marketing degree in just three and one-half years to graduate summa cum laude with a 3.84 GPA.

Upon his college graduation in 1998, Tillman became the Arizona Cardinals 226th pick in the seventh round, quickly working his way up to playing safety. His NFL career was marked by a seemingly never-ending series of highlights: in 2000, he broke a franchise record with 224 tackles; in 2001 he turned down a five-year, $9 million contract with the St. Louis Rams, opting instead to stay with the Cardinals. Loyalty, you see, was Pat Tillman’s thing.

At the end of the 2001 season, following the September 11th attacks, he refused a $3.6 million contract with the Cardinals. His loyalty, he felt, should be to his country. Tillman sat down with his coach, Dave McGinnis, and told him simply “We need to talk.” He and his brother were going to enlist with the Army with the ultimate goal of becoming a part of the Rangers, the Army’s premier raid force. In Tillman’s mind, that was all there was to it. He was done playing football. According to his coaches and those who knew him best, he felt he was young and blessed and felt he was both duty and honor-bound to fight for his country. Other young men his age – and younger – were going into combat every day, so why shouldn’t he? Pat Tillman did not see his growing fame as even the slightest factor in his decision to become a Ranger. In fact, he was quoted in the New York Times in 2002 saying “Sports embodied many of the qualities I deem meaningful. However, these last few years, and especially after recent events, I’ve come to appreciate just how shallow and insignificant my role is…it is no longer important.”

Rangers Lead the Way (Ranger Motto)

Rangers have been around for centuries but have only been officially recognized since 1950, and the 75th Ranger Regiment – Tillman’s – deploys with far greater frequency, but for shorter stretches, than most military units. In the early days, a Ranger was expected to take part in raids and ambushes, but by the time Tillman joined, a higher level of sophistication was being drilled into the men. Whereas certain operations were once the sole purview of Tier One SpecOps units such as SEAL Team Six and Delta Force, the Army Rangers are now expected to handle their own part while still maintaining their basic training.

It was on the infamous day of June 6, 1944, during the assault of Omaha Beach, which was part of the Normandy invasion, that the Ranger motto is said to have been born. Brigadier General Norman Cota went to Major Max Schneider, the commanding officer of the 5th Ranger Battalion, and asked him what outfit he was leading. When Schneider told him he and his men were Rangers, Cota famously replied, “Well, goddammit, if you’re Rangers, lead the way!” And it is under that banner of leading the way that the Tillman brothers proceeded.

Pat Tillman and his younger brother Kevin enlisted together on May 31, 2002, and began basic training at Fort Benning in Georgia where they faced the reality that not even 35% of candidates actually get their black-and-gold Ranger tab. But tenacity is a trait the brothers shared, and both received their Ranger tabs in late 2002. From there they were assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, at Fort Lewis in Washington state, back when Lewis stood on its own prior to becoming a joint base with McChord in 2010. Their battalion was a part of Operation Mountain Storm in Afghanistan and they would be fighting against terrorists who were a part of al-Qaeda. The brothers had their coveted tabs, and they were going to war.

“My great-grandfather was at Pearl Harbor and a lot of my family has…gone and fought in wars, and I really haven’t done a damn thing as far as laying myself on the line like that." (Pat Tillman, media statement, 2002)

The pistol. The shotgun. Trench warfare. Football uses warfare terminology and examples as a regular part of its repertoire, but the reality is that war is nothing like football. Although football and war are inextricably linked for many red-blooded American men, only a fool would argue that throwing an oblong ball around a green field is anywhere in the same realm as the world of live fire and IED’s. Pat Tillman was known for his bone-jarring hits during his time with the NFL, and Specialist Tillman was hard-charging and tough – basically everything a Ranger is supposed to be, and then some. Tillman’s friends said he used the “f” word liberally, but also knew when to rein it in. He was at home in his DCU’s but could turn around and don a suit and tie as needed. His chameleon-like ability to blend in was an excellent trait for a bad-to-the-bone Army Ranger, and the same mental toughness that helped him to excel on the football field undoubtedly gave him strength in combat.

Spec. Tillman had one tour of duty before returning to Washington state to spend some time with his wife. He had married Marie immediately prior to enlisting in the Army, and when he was at training or on a deployment, she lived in University Place in Seattle. It was about a one-hour drive from University Place to Fort Lewis – in good traffic – but it was where the young couple made their first, and last, home. Before leaving for his second tour, Pat made sure Marie had a sealed envelope marked “just in case.” Just three weeks later, “just in case” came.

“I’m Pat F-----g Tillman!”

On April 22, 2004, Pat Tillman, who was part of A-Company - which was nicknamed the Alpha-bots for their iron wills - was assigned to the 2nd Platoon, known as the Black Sheep. His brother Kevin had the same assignment, and on that day the men were on a zone reconnaissance in Paktia. The roads out there are more wadi than passable road, and one of Black Sheep’s Hummers broke down in the village of Magarah. Despite numerous attempts to fix it, they were unable to properly revive the Hummer. Sources say three guerrillas found out there were American troops out in the open in the village, and the trio, laden down with an RPG and other weapons, sat on a nearby ridge to watch.

This is neither the time nor place to second-guess the decisions made that day. There are a number of conspiracy theory and judgment-passing sites on the internet that cater to such fare; to take part in such pastimes, go there.

Although Platoon Leader First Lieutenant David Uthlaut strongly disagreed with him, Major David Hodne decided from a safe and distant place to order the platoon to split up. One group of men was directed to drag the broken Hummer back to an actual road using an old truck hired from an Afghan while the other group was to continue on to Manah. Manah was the location on Hodne’s mission checklist where he wanted to have boots on the ground by dusk (although some sources have later said the appointed time was actually not dusk but dawn). This action didn’t just split the platoon in two but also separated the brothers – Kevin staying with the broken Hummer, Pat heading for Manah.

Uthlaut was given no choice and was under orders from Major Hodne to split the platoon into sections, called “serials," and did his best to divide the men and weapons as carefully as possible given time constraints. This left team leaders in charge of men they did not normally work with. Considering the ad hoc nature of the op, Uthlaut did as well as he possibly could. And up on the ridge, the guerrillas continued to watch as the Americans broke off into serials.

There was a split in the wadi, at which point the Manah-bound serial, including Pat Tillman, was to head left and into a canyon. The serial with the broken Hummer would veer right, up a steep hillside, and hopefully arrive at a road where they would meet up with better transport. The Manah serial was several minutes ahead of the Broken Hummer serial, and when the men with the worthless vehicle discovered that their route was entirely impassable, they had no choice but to turn around and follow the same route the Manah serial had. It was at this point that Platoon Sergeant Eric Godec, in charge of the Broken Hummer serial, discovered they had lost radio contact with the Manah serial.

And so the Broken Hummer serial was forced to head into the canyon, quite a few minute after the Manah serial already had done so themselves. The men were being thrown around by the rough, boulder-strewn and deeply rutted path, and everything that could go wrong that day, had. This was when one of the guerrillas, who had an RPG, shouldered his weapon and fired on the split-off section of the Black Sheep platoon.

His initial volley missed, hitting the opposite canyon wall, but, unsure what had happened, the men halted as is proper procedure when facing an IED. And in a matter of moments, the Rangers began to unload with everything they had. In fact, they fired so many rounds they ran out and were forced to open up their ammo reserves. The effect within the canyon led to what must have been an apocalyptic-appearing show of auditory explosions and bright flashes from tracer rounds. For the Manah serial ahead, the canyon acted as a giant megaphone, amplifying everything while actually telling them nothing. And then, the Rangers ahead in the Manah serial had to decide what to do. They had no radio contact with the Broken Hummer serial, which definitely seemed to be involved in some kind of firefight, and yet they couldn’t simply traipse back into the mouth of the canyon.

In the end, the majority of the Manah serial stayed where they were, while a small group led by Staff Sergeant Matthew Weeks went back to help what they believed were their pinned-down brothers. There was a finger of rock over the mouth of the canyon that was Weeks’ goal, and the men headed out. From that point on higher ground, Weeks again broke the group apart, sending a few men – including PFC Bryan O’Neal, an allied Afghan militiaman, and Pat Tillman – to take a closer look at the action below.

From here it is best to stick to the bare facts presented by the coroner’s report. There are simply too many conflicting reports (not to mention the rather mind-boggling cover-up) to relay the fatal moments that followed. A vehicle at the front of the Broken Hummer serial, under the operational control of Sergeant Greg Baker, emerged from the canyon and opened fire on Pat’s position, including the village behind him. During a pause in the shooting, Pat was said to have thrown out a smoke grenade to signal that he and the men with him were friendlies. The advancing vehicle simply rolled forward through the smokescreen and opened fire yet again. Although there are quite a few conflicting reports, one theme has stood: witnesses say Tillman stood his ground, waving his arms over his head, screaming "I'm Pat f-----g Tillman!"

Pat Tillman was struck in the forehead by three rounds. Army medical examiners opened up the question about whether or not the shooting was criminal based in part on the location and trajectory of those bullet holes. The Army ME’s said the bullet holes suggested Tillman was taken down by an M-16 fired from just 10 yards away. However, a pair of men considered some of the best gunshot wound pathologists in the United States had a different opinion after pouring over the autopsy findings and photographs at the request of Dannie Tillman, Pat Tillman’s mother. Both experts said the apparent trajectories of the bullets along with the exit wounds and proximity of the rounds was absolutely consistent with a burst being fired from an M249 Squad Automatic Weapon (SAW). A SAW was indeed being fired from approximately forty meters away on that day.

The vehicle that opened fire on Pat’s position included a SAW, an M240B machine gun, an M2 .50 cal machine gun, and two M4’s. When the shots were fired that took Pat Tillman’s life, his brother Kevin, still in the canyon itself, could hear the report of the rounds that took his brother Pat’s life. Those bursts must echo in Kevin Tillman’s nightmares to this day.

“Loyalty to the country always. Loyalty to the government when it deserves it.” (Mark Twain)

The military and the government decided that portraying Pat Tillman as an American hero who was cut down in a firefight was the best-possible PR move. It was even true, except for the minor detail that Pat Tillman did not take enemy fire but inaptly-named friendly fire. According to the government and military brass, Tillman was killed during a fifteen-to-twenty-minute long firefight against terrorist forces, even though they knew the truth. For one month, the Tillman family and the nation at large was kept in the dark about the truth surrounding Pat’s death. And when the truth finally came out, it hit with all the effect of a raging tsunami.

Years of investigations, hours upon hours of inquiries and questioning and an astronomical number of attempts to dodge the truth later, and here we are. Myriad ROE and LOW violations. An Article 15-6 investigation finding by Captain Richard Scott, which made it clear what a clusterf*** the chain of command created on April 22, 2004, disappeared until Pat’s mother Dannie spent years fighting to bring it into the light. This week in April 2014, an ex-Ranger named Steve Elliot, who operated the M240B, came to the media expressing his fear that he was responsible for Pat’s death. He wants to tell the Tillman family how sorry he is, and how inadequate he knows those words are. Ten years have passed since Pat Tillman’s tragic death, and while he is rightly remembered as the American hero that he was (is), there will always be an extra shadow cast over his memory, thanks to the government-led cover-up.

Perhaps what happened was a collective panic when, in 2004, the military and government were in the midst of the Abu Ghraib photograph frenzy and the exposure of Rumsfeld’s “Grab whom you must. Do what you want.” program. Within two months of Pat’s death, three more “friendly-fire” incidents were falsely reported – those of Kenneth Ballard, Patrick McCaffrey, and Jesse Buryj. Maybe the government really believed they could hide the truth – or maybe they didn’t care.

It would be ridiculously easy to become entrenched in the many inconsistencies and conspiracies surrounding Pat Tillman’s death. Those who would denigrate his patriotism by saying he was privately antiwar should be ashamed of themselves. What people need to remember is not how he died, but how he lived. Duty and honor may have been the cornerstones of his actions, but loyalty was his heart and soul. If there was one thing to be taken from the way he died, it would be that: loyalty. Pat Tillman went back to save his men, including his blood brother, and he died for it. Pat Tillman was, above all else and with his dying breath, loyal.

“Whenever there is a grain of loyalty, there is a glimpse of freedom.” (Algernon Charles Swinburne)

Author’s Note: Also killed that day was the Afghani militiaman, and Platoon Leader Uthlaut and an RTO were wounded. Pat Tillman was promoted posthumously to Corporal. He was also awarded the Silver Star, Purple Heart, and Meritorious Service Award posthumously. His other medals include: Army Achievement Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, Army Service Ribbon, Presidential Unit Citation, Joint Meritorious Unit Award, Army Superior Unit Award. He also had his Parachutist Badge, Combat Infantryman Badge, and, of course, his Ranger Tab.

Memorials

ASU retired Pat Tillman’s number 42 jersey and the Cardinals retired his number 40. The football locker room entry at Sun Devil Stadium has been named “The Pat Tillman Memorial Tunnel.” ASU also created a “PT-42” patch as a permanent part of their uniform. Pat Tillman’s Veteran’s Center opened on the Tempe campus in 2011. The Cardinals named the plaza at their University of Phoenix Stadium the “Pat Tillman Freedom Plaza.” On November 12, 2006, a bronze statue of Tillman was unveiled by the Cardinals as well. A bridge spanning the Colorado River, completed in 2010, bears the name “Mike O’Callaghan - Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge.” Starting in 2006, the annual Pat’s Run – run on a 4.2 mile course in honor of his jersey number - began as a major fundraiser for the Pat Tillman Foundation, which was created in 2004 and is headed by his widow, Marie.

There are also military-related memorials. The Tillman Military Scholars Program began in 2008 and is now beginning to see the fruits of its labors. There is now an FOB Tillman near the Pakistan border. And in 2005, the NFL’s money - $250,000 – helped create the first USO center in Afghanistan, named The Pat Tillman USO Center.

There are too many memorials and books to list. Pat Tillman is remembered in death in ways that will last for decades to come. Perhaps that is a bit ironic for a man who tossed aside fame in favor of service to his country, but hopefully future generations will see him for what he was: a man who valued loyalty above all, even at the expense of his own life.

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