[Mb-civic] In the Kill Zone: The Unnecessary Death of Pat Tillman
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Sun Dec 5 10:00:36 PST 2004
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In the Kill Zone: The Unnecessary Death of Pat Tillman
Barrage of Bullets Drowned Out Cries of Comrades
By Steve Coll
The Washington Post
Sunday 05 December 2004
Communication breakdown, split platoon among the factors contributing to
First in a two-part series
Former Arizona Cardinals safety Pat Tillman volunteered for the war in
Photos from Tuscon News
and USA Today
It ended on a stony ridge in fading light. Spec. Pat Tillman lay dying
behind a boulder. A young fellow U.S. Army Ranger stretched prone beside
him, praying quietly as tracer bullets poured in.
"Cease fire! Friendlies!" Tillman cried out.
Smoke drifted from a signal grenade Tillman had detonated minutes before
in a desperate bid to show his platoon members they were shooting the wrong
men. The firing had stopped. Tillman had stood up, chattering in relief.
Then the machine gun bursts erupted again.
"I could hear the pain in his voice," recalled the young Ranger days later
to Army investigators. Tillman kept calling out that he was a friendly, and
he shouted, "I am Pat [expletive] Tillman, damn it!" His comrade recalled:
"He said this over and over again until he stopped."
Myths shaped Pat Tillman's reputation, and mystery shrouded his death. A
long-haired, fierce-hitting defensive back with the Arizona Cardinals of the
National Football League, he turned away a $3.6 million contract after the
Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to volunteer for the war on terrorism, ultimately
giving his life in combat in Taliban-infested southeastern Afghanistan.
Millions of stunned Americans mourned his death last April 22 and embraced
his sacrifice as a rare example of courage and national service. But the
full story of how Tillman ended up on that Afghan ridge and why he died at
the hands of his own comrades has never been told.
Dozens of witness statements, e-mails, investigation findings, logbooks,
maps and photographs obtained by The Washington Post show that Tillman 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 -- some in their first firefight -- who failed to
identify their targets as they blasted their way out of a frightening
The records show Tillman fought bravely and honorably until his last
breath. They also show that his superiors exaggerated his actions and
invented details as they burnished his legend in public, at the same time
suppressing details that might tarnish Tillman's commanders.
Army commanders hurriedly awarded Tillman a posthumous Silver Star for
valor and released a nine-paragraph account of his heroism that made no
mention of fratricide. A month later the head of the Army's Special
Operations Command, Lt. Gen. Philip R. Kensinger Jr., called a news
conference to disclose in a brief statement that Tillman "probably" died by
"friendly fire." Kensinger refused to answer questions.
Friends and family describe Pat Tillman as an American original, a
maverick who burned with intensity. He was wild, exuberant, loyal,
compassionate and driven, they say. He bucked convention, devoured books and
debated conspiracy theories. He demanded straight talk about uncomfortable
After his death, the Army that Tillman served did not do the same.
"I play football. It just seems so unimportant compared to everything that
has taken place."
Pat Tillman's decision to trade the celebrity and luxury of pro football
for a grunt's life at the bottom of the Ranger chain of command shocked many
people, but not those who felt they knew him best.
"There was so much more to him than anyone will ever know," reflected
Denver Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer, a teammate at Arizona State
University and on the Cardinals, speaking at a memorial service last May.
Tillman was "fearless on the field, reckless, tough," yet he was also
"thought-provoking. He liked to have deep conversations with a Guinness,"
and he would walk away from those sessions saying, "I've got to become more
of a thinker."
In high school and college, a mane of flaxen hair poured from beneath his
football helmet. His muscles rippled in a perfect taper from the neck down.
"Dude" was his favorite pronoun; for fun he did handstands on the roof of
the family house. He pedaled shirtless on a bicycle to his first pro
"I play football. It just seems so unimportant compared to everything
that has taken place," he told NFL Films after the Sept. 11 attacks. His
grandfather had been at Pearl Harbor. "A lot of my family has gone and
fought wars, and I really haven't done a damn thing."
He was very close to his younger brother Kevin, then playing minor league
baseball for the Cleveland Indians organization. They finished each other's
sentences, friends recounted. They enlisted in the U.S. Army Rangers
together in the spring of 2002. Less than a year later, they shipped out to
In Pat Tillman's first firefight during the initial months of the Iraq
war, he watched his lead gunner die within minutes, stepped into his place
and battled steadfastly, said Steve White, a U.S. Navy SEAL on the same
mission. "He was thirsty to be the best," White said.
Yet Tillman accepted his ordinary status in the military and rarely talked
about himself. One night he confided to White that he had just turned down
an NFL team's attempt to sign him to a huge contract and free him from his
Army service early.
"I'm going to finish what I started," Tillman said, as White recalled at
the May memorial. The next morning Tillman returned to duty and was ordered
to cut "about an acre of grass by some 19-year-old kid."
The Tillman brothers served together in the "Black Sheep," otherwise known
as 2nd Platoon, A Company, 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment. They were
elite -- special operators transferred from Iraq in the spring to conduct
sweep and search missions against the Taliban and al Qaeda remnants in
eastern Afghanistan. The Rangers worked with CIA paramilitaries, Afghan
allies and other special forces on grid-by-grid patrols designed to flush
out and entrap enemy guerrillas. They moved in small, mobile, lethal units.
On April 13, 2004, the Tillman brothers rolled out with their fellow Black
Sheep from a clandestine base near the Pakistan border to begin anti-Taliban
patrols with two other Ranger platoons. A week later the other platoons
returned to base. So did the two senior commanding officers of A Company,
records show. They left behind the 2nd Platoon to carry on operations near
Khost, in Paktia province, a region of broken roads and barren rock canyons
frequented by Osama bin Laden and his allies for many years before the Sept.
Left in command of the 2nd Platoon was then-Lt. David A. Uthlaut, a recent
graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where he had been named
the prestigious first captain of his class. Now serving as a captain in
Iraq, Uthlaut declined to be interviewed for these articles, but his
statements and field communications are among the documents obtained by The
Uthlaut's mission, as Army investigators later put it, was to kill or
capture any "anti-coalition members" that he and his men could find.
"This vehicle problem better not delay us any more."
The trouble began with a Humvee's broken fuel pump.
A helicopter flew into Paktia with a spare on the night of April 21. But
the next morning, the Black Sheep's mechanic had no luck with his repair.
Uthlaut ordered his platoon to pull out. He commanded 34 men in nine
vehicles, including the busted Humvee. They towed the broken vehicle with
straps because they lacked a proper tow bar. After several hours on rough
dirt-rock roads, the Humvee's front end buckled. It could move no farther.
Uthlaut pulled his men into a tiny village called Margarah to assess
It was just after noon. They were in the heart of Taliban country, and
they were stuck.
Uthlaut messaged his regiment's Tactical Operations Center far away at
Bagram, near Kabul. He asked for a helicopter to hoist the Humvee back to
base. No dice, came the reply: There would be no transport chopper available
for at least two or three days.
While Uthlaut tried to develop other ideas, his commanders at the base
squabbled about the delay. According to investigative records, a senior
officer in the Rangers' operations center, whose name is redacted from
documents obtained by The Post, complained pointedly to A Company's
commander, Uthlaut's immediate superior.
"This vehicle problem better not delay us any more," the senior officer
said, as he later recalled in a sworn statement. The 2nd Platoon was already
24 hours behind schedule, he said. It was supposed to be conducting clearing
operations in a southeastern Afghan village called Manah.
"So the only reason you want me to split up is so I can get boots on the
ground in sector before it gets dark?"
By 4 p.m. Uthlaut had a solution, he believed. He could hire a local
"jinga truck" driver to tow the Humvee out to a nearby road where the Army
could move down and pick it up. In this scenario, Uthlaut told his
commanders, he had a choice. He could keep his platoon together until the
Humvee had been disposed of, then move to Manah. Or, he could divide his
platoon in half, with one "serial" handling the vehicle while the other
serial moved immediately to the objective.
The A Company commander, under pressure from his superior to get moving,
ordered Uthlaut to split his platoon.
Uthlaut objected. "I would recommend sending our whole platoon up to the
highway and then having us go together to the villages," he wrote in an
e-mail to the operations center at 5:03 p.m. With sunset approaching, he
wrote, even if he split the platoon, the serial that went to Manah would not
be able to carry out search operations before dark. And under procedures at
the time, he was not supposed to conduct such operations at night.
Uthlaut's commander overruled him. Get half your platoon to Manah right
away, he ordered.
But why? Uthlaut asked, as he recalled in a sworn statement. Do you want
us to change procedures and conduct sweep operations at night?
No, said the A Company commander.
"So the only reason you want me to split up is so I can get boots on the
ground in sector before it gets dark?" an incredulous Uthlaut asked, as he
Yes, said his commander.
Uthlaut tried "one last-ditch effort," pointing out that he had only one
heavy .50-caliber machine gun for the entire platoon. Did that change
anything? The commander said it did not.
"At that point I figured I had pushed the envelope far enough and accepted
the mission," Uthlaut recalled in the statement.
He pulled his men together hastily and briefed them. Twenty-four hours
after its detection, the broken Humvee part had brought them to a difficult
spot: They had to divide into two groups quickly and get moving across a
darkening, hostile landscape.
Serial 1, led by Uthlaut and including Pat Tillman, would move immediately
Serial 2, with the local tow truck hauling the Humvee, would follow, but
would soon branch off toward a highway to drop off the vehicle.
Sgt. Greg Baker, a young and slightly built Ranger nearing the end of his
enlistment, commanded the heaviest-armed vehicle in Serial 2, just behind
the jinga tow truck. Baker's men wielded the .50-caliber machine gun, plus
an M-240B machine gun, an M-249 squad automatic weapon and three M-4
carbines. Baker's truck would do the heaviest shooting if there were any
attack. Two of his gunners had never seen combat before.
Baker left the Rangers last spring; he declined to comment for these
articles. A second gunner in his vehicle, Trevor Alders, also declined to
discuss the incident.
Kevin Tillman was also assigned to Serial 2. He manned an MK19 gun in the
trailing vehicle, well behind Baker.
They left Margarah village a little after 6 p.m. They had been in the same
place for more than five hours, presenting an inviting target for Taliban
Pat Tillman's serial, with Uthlaut in command, soon turned into a steep
and narrow canyon, passed through safely and approached Manah as planned.
Behind them, Serial 2 briefly started down a different road, then stopped.
The Afghan tow truck driver said he could not navigate the pitted road. He
suggested they turn around and follow the same route that Serial 1 had
taken. After Serial 2 passed Manah, the group could circle around to the
designated highway. Serial 2's leader, the platoon sergeant, agreed.
There was no radio communication between the two serials about this change
At 6:34 p.m. Serial 2, with about 17 Rangers in six vehicles, entered the
narrow canyon that Serial 1 had just left.
"I noticed rocks falling . . . then I saw the second and third mortar
When he heard the first explosion, the platoon sergeant thought one of his
vehicles had struck a land mine or a roadside bomb.
They had been in the canyon only a minute. In his machine gun-laden truck,
Greg Baker also thought somebody had hit a mine. He and his men jumped out
of their vehicle. Baker looked up at the sheer canyon walls. The canyon was
five to 10 yards across at its narrowest. "I noticed rocks falling," he
recalled in a statement, and "then I saw the second and third mortar rounds
hit." He could hear, too, the rattle of enemy small-arms fire.
It was not a bomb -- it was an ambush. Baker and his comrades thought they
could see their attackers moving high above them. They began to return fire.
They were trapped in the worst possible place: the kill zone of an ambush.
The best way to beat a canyon ambush is to flee the kill zone as fast as
possible. But Baker and his men had dismounted their vehicles. Worse, when
they scrambled back and tried to move, they discovered that the lumbering
Afghan tow truck in their serial was stalled, blocking their exit.
Baker "ran up and grabbed" the truck driver and his Afghan interpreter and
"threw them in the truck and started to move," as he recalled. He fired up
the canyon walls until he ran out of ammunition. Then he jumped from the tow
truck, ran back to his vehicle and reloaded. When the tow truck stopped
again, Baker shouted at his own driver to move around it.
Finally freed, Baker's heavily armed Humvee raced out of the ambush
canyon, its machine guns pounding fire, its inexperienced shooters coursing
"I remember not liking his position."
Ahead of them, parked outside a small village near Manah, David Uthlaut
heard an explosion. From his position he "could not see the enemy or make an
adequate assessment of the situation," so he ordered his men to move toward
Uthlaut designated Pat Tillman as one of three fire team leaders and
ordered him to join other Rangers "to press the fight," as Uthlaut put it,
against an uncertain adversary.
Uthlaut tried to raise Serial 2 on his radio. He wanted to find out where
the Rangers were and to tell them where his serial had set up. But he could
not get through -- the high canyon walls blocked radio signals.
Tillman and other Rangers moved up a rocky north-south ridge that faced
the ambush canyon on a roughly perpendicular angle.
The light was dimming. "It was like twilight," one Ranger in the fight
recalled. "You couldn't see colors, but you could see silhouettes." Another
soldier felt the light was "still pretty good."
A sergeant with Tillman on the ridge recalled he "could actually see the
enemy from the high northern ridge line. I could see their muzzle flashes."
The presumed Taliban guerrillas were about half a mile away, he estimated.
Tillman approached the sergeant and said "that he saw the enemy on the
southern ridge line," as the sergeant recalled. Tillman asked whether he
could drop his heavy body armor. "No," the sergeant ordered.
"I didn't think about it at the time, but I think he wanted to assault the
southern ridgeline," the sergeant recalled.
Instead, on the sergeant's instructions, Tillman moved down the slope with
other Rangers and "into a position where he could engage the enemy," the
sergeant recalled. With Tillman were a young Ranger and a bearded Afghan
militia fighter who was part of the 2nd Platoon's traveling party.
A Ranger nearby watched Tillman take cover. "I remember not liking his
position," he recalled. "I had just seen a red tracer come up over us . . .
which immediately struck me as being a M240 tracer. . . . At that time the
issue of friendly fire began turning over in my mind."
Tillman and his team fired toward the canyon to suppress the ambush. His
brother Kevin was in the canyon.
Several of Serial 2's Rangers said later that as they shot their way out
of the canyon, they had no idea where their comrades in Serial 1 might be.
"We have friendlies on top! . . . No one heard me."
"Contact right!" one gunner in Greg Baker's truck remembered hearing as
they rolled from the ambush canyon.
As he fired, Baker "noticed muzzle flashes" coming from a ridge to the
right of the village they were now approaching. Everyone in his vehicle
poured fire at the flashes in a deafening roar.
"I saw a figure holding an AK-47, his muzzle was flashing, he wasn't
wearing a helmet, and he was prone," Baker recalled in a statement. "I
focused only on him. I got tunnel vision."
Baker was aiming at the bearded Afghan militia soldier in Pat Tillman's
fire team. He died in a fusillade from Baker's Humvee.
A gunner in Baker's light truck later guessed they were "only about 100
meters" from their new targets on the ridge, but they were "driving pretty
fast towards them."
Rangers are trained to shoot only after they have clearly identified
specific targets as enemy forces. Gunners working together are supposed to
follow orders from their vehicle's commander -- in this case, Baker. If
there is no chance for orderly talk, the gunners are supposed to watch their
commander's aim and shoot in the same direction.
As they pulled alongside the ridge, the gunners poured an undisciplined
barrage of hundreds of rounds into the area where Tillman and other members
of Serial 1 had taken up positions, Army investigators later concluded. The
gunner of the M-2 .50-caliber machine gun in Baker's truck fired every round
The shooters saw only "shapes," a Ranger-appointed investigator wrote, and
all of them directed bursts of machine gun fire "without positively
identifying the shapes."
Yet not everyone in Baker's convoy was confused. The driver of Baker's
vehicle or the one behind him -- the records are not clear -- pulled free of
the ambush canyon and quickly recognized the parked U.S. Army vehicles of
Serial 1 ahead of him.
He looked to his right and saw a bearded Afghan firing an AK-47, "which
confused me for a split second," but he then quickly saw the rest of Serial
1 on top of the ridge.
The driver shouted twice: "We have friendlies on top!" Then he screamed
"No!" Then he yelled several more times to cease fire, he recalled. "No one
"We thought the battle was over, so we were relieved."
Up on the ridge, Tillman and Rangers around him began to wave their arms
and shout. But they only attracted more fire from Baker's vehicle.
"I saw three to four arms pop up," one of the gunners with Baker recalled.
"They did not look like the cease-fire hand-and-arm signal because they were
waving side to side." When he and the other gunners spotted the waving arms,
their "rate of fire increased."
The young Ranger nearest Tillman on the ridge, whose full name could not
be confirmed, saw a Humvee coming down the road. "They made eye contact with
us," then began firing, he remembered. Baker's heavily armed vehicle "rolled
into our sight and started to unload on top of us. They would work in
Tillman and nearly a dozen other Rangers on the ridge tried everything
they could: They shouted, they waved their arms, and they screamed some
"Ranger! Ranger! Cease fire!" one soldier on the ridge remembered
"But they couldn't hear us," recalled the soldier nearest Tillman. Then
Tillman "came up with the idea to let a smoke grenade go." As its thick
smoke unfurled, "This stopped the friendly contact for a few moments," the
"We thought the battle was over, so we were relieved, getting up and
stretching out, and talking with one another."
Suddenly he saw the attacking Humvee move into "a better position to fire
on us." He heard a new machine gun burst and hit the ground, praying, as Pat
"I started screaming. . . . I was scared to death and didn't know what to
A sergeant farther up the ridge from Tillman fired a flare -- an even
clearer signal than Tillman's smoke grenade that these were friendly forces.
By now Baker's truck had pulled past the ridge and had come into plain
sight of Serial 1's U.S. vehicles. Baker said later that he looked down the
road, then back up to the ridge. He saw the flare and identified Rangers
even as he continued to shoot at the Afghan he believed to be a Taliban
fighter. Finally he began to call for a cease-fire.
In the village behind Tillman's ridge, Uthlaut and his radio operator had
been pinned down by the streams of fire pouring from Baker's vehicle. Both
were eventually hit by what they assumed was machine gun fire.
The last of Serial 2's vehicles pulled up in the village. All the firing
The platoon sergeant jumped out and began searching for Uthlaut, angry
that nobody seemed to know what was happening. He found the lieutenant
sitting near a wall of the village, dropped down beside him and demanded to
know what he was doing. "At that point I spotted the blood around his mouth"
and realized there were casualties -- and that Uthlaut was one of them,
wounded but still conscious.
On the ridge the young Ranger nearest Pat Tillman screamed, "Oh my
[expletive] God!" again and again, as one of his comrades recalled. The
Ranger beside Tillman had been lying flat as Tillman initially called out
for a cease-fire, yelling out his name. Then Tillman went silent as the
firing continued. Now the young Ranger saw a "river of blood" coming from
Tillman's position. He got up, looked at Tillman, and saw that "his head was
"I started screaming. . . . I was scared to death and didn't know what to
A sergeant on the ridge took charge. He called for a medic, ordered
Rangers to stake out a perimeter picket in case Taliban guerrillas attacked
again, and opened a radio channel to the 75th Ranger Regiment's operations
center at Bagram.
Seventeen minutes after Serial 2 had entered the canyon, 2nd Platoon
reported that its forces "were no longer in contact," as a Ranger-appointed
investigator later put it. It was not clear then or later who the Afghan
attackers spotted by half a dozen Rangers in both serials had been, how many
guerrillas there were, or whether any were killed.
Nine minutes later, a regiment log shows, the platoon requested a medevac
helicopter and reported two soldiers killed in action. One was the Afghan
militia soldier. The other was Pat Tillman, age 27.
His brother Kevin arrived on the scene in Serial 2's trailing vehicle.
Kevin Tillman declined to be interviewed for these articles and was not
asked by Ranger investigators to provide sworn statements. But according to
other statements and sources familiar with the investigation, Kevin was
initially asked to take up guard duty on the outskirts of the shooting
He learned that his brother was dead only when a platoon mate mentioned it
to him casually, according to these sources.
It would take almost five more weeks -- after a flag-draped coffin
ceremony, a Silver Star award and a news release, and a public memorial
attended by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Jake Plummer and newswoman Maria
Shriver -- for the Rangers or the Army to acknowledge to Kevin Tillman, his
family or the public that Pat Tillman had been killed by his own men.
Washington Post staff writer Josh White contributed to this report.
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