What Really Happened To Pat Tillman?
February 11, 2009
Pat Tillman was a heroic face of the war on terror - an NFL star who left behind a $3.6 million contract and his new wife to fight for his country after the attacks of Sept. 11. When he died in Afghanistan on April 22, 2004, the Army told his family he'd been killed by enemy fire after courageously charging up a hill to protect his fellow Army Rangers.
But as Katie Couric reports, that story didn't hold up. He had really been killed by friendly fire, shot accidentally by his fellow soldiers.
For the past four years, his family, led by his mother Mary, has been searching for answers about what really happened, beginning the day she heard the news from Pat Tillman's wife Marie.
"And she answered the phone just the way she always does. Her voice sounded just the same. And I just sort of breathed a sigh of relief, like, 'Oh, you know, everything's fine.' And I said, 'What's wrong, what's wrong?' And she said, 'He's dead.' And I said, 'Who's dead?' And she said, 'Pat's dead.' Within minutes of that, the Army had sent a soldier, a young, female soldier, to come tell me about what had happened," Mary Tillman remembers.
Asked what the soldier told her, Tillman says, "She said that he was shot getting out of a vehicle. He was shot in the head getting out of a vehicle. And that's basically all she knew."
Eleven days after his death, Pat Tillman's family held a memorial service in their hometown of San Jose, Calif.
At that time, Tillman's family was led to believe that he was killed by the enemy, which was reinforced when the Army awarded him a Silver Star for his "gallantry in action against an armed enemy." They were told his convoy had been ambushed and he had charged up a hill, forcing the enemy to withdraw and saving the lives of his fellow Rangers.
"Was there any solace in the story the military told you about how courageous Pat had been?" Couric asks.
"Well, of course. But what's interesting is the story itself seemed so contrived, even then, even before he knew that it was contrived. It had this contrived feel to it," Tillman says.
Asked why, she says, "Well, you know, the soldier, you know, running up the ridge line, firing at the enemy. You know, saving his men. It did sound kind of like a John Wayne movie."
Then, about a month later there was a stunning announcement: the Army had been investigating his death and determined that Tillman was killed by his own men.
Asked how long she thinks it took the Army to realize her son had been killed by friendly fire, Tillman says, "Oh, they knew immediately. It was pretty evident right away. All the other soldiers on the ridge line suspected that that's exactly what happened."
Tillman says it took the Army five weeks to tell her. "Even the time lapse is not what is so disturbing to us. If they didn't tell us right away exactly what happened, I mean, it would seem to me that because of the clandestine nature of the Rangers, they could've easily said, 'Well, this is, you know, we can't really divulge this,'" she says.
"It's under investigation," Couric remarks.
"It's under investigation. You know, they could've said anything. But they made up a story," Tillman says.
"Made up" a story, Mary contends, because when her son had left behind his football career to join the Army Rangers, he'd become one of the most high-profile soldiers in the U.S. military. He'd signed up to fight al Qaeda following Sept. 11, and talked about the importance of service one day after the attacks.
"You know, my great-grandfather was at Pearl Harbor, and a lot of my family has given up, 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. And so I have a great deal of appreciation for those who have," Pat Tillman said at the time.
After her son's death, Mary Tillman says she never felt like she got the straight story. And so the divorced middle school teacher launched her own investigation. Combing through Army documents, she found inconsistencies in the official military account. Tillman's brother Kevin was in the back of the convoy, but hadn't seen what happened. So she tracked down some other Rangers who were there that day.
While there is some disagreement about the details of what happened the day Tillman was killed, the Rangers 60 Minutes spoke with said it began when their commanders made a critical error, splitting their convoy into two groups as they moved through Taliban territory.
"That was a pretty scary situation you were driving into and you knew it?" Couric asks.
"And we knew it, absolutely," Russell Baer replies.
"We can all identify that feeling as we drove into that canyon and we knew this is not a good spot," Brad Jacobson adds.
Jacobson, behind the wheel of one of the Humvees in the second group, says it was dusk and hard to see.
"We start to see the walls slowly climb up, and get higher, and higher. And the sun is setting, so there's like this gigantic shadow cast into the canyon. And all you can feel is this like, ominous glow come over you. And you think about how this is not a good place to be right now. And this would probably be the best spot to, boom. You know? A mortar hits, then another round hits, and somebody starts yellin', you know, 'Mortars,'" Jacobson remembers.
The soldiers say the mortars were being fired by a handful of enemy fighters at the top of the ridge. Jacobson says his group had no idea that the other group from their unit, including Tillman, had taken up positions on a steep hill nearby in order to protect the men below. As the second convoy raced through the canyon, soldiers in the lead vehicle began firing at the hill, unaware they were shooting at their own men, including Tillman, Baer and Jade Lane.
"And all of a sudden, the vehicle starts coming around the canyon. And then they opened up again, and that's when I realized that that's where all the fire was coming from, was from the vehicle. It wasn't coming from the enemy anymore," Lane remembers.
Pat Tillman, who had crested the hill with another young soldier, took cover behind a rock. He threw out a smoke grenade as a signal. But Russell Baer says after a brief lull, the gunfire only intensified. "I considered, you know, shooting our own guys. And I had actually pointed my weapon in their direction, and you know, turned my safety director on fire. And I was ready to engage them. You just hope for the best. I mean, you're left with nothing. You can't do anything, except sit there," Baer explains.
"And scream cease fire?" Couric asks.
"Scream and do what you've been taught, you know. Give the cease fire signal," he says.
Lane and another Ranger were wounded; Tillman and an Afghan soldier fighting beside him, which may have caused some confusion, were killed. Based on the soldiers accounts, Mary Tillman believes she's pieced together her son's final moments.
"In the end, we feel he was hit in the chest. And it, you know, he had on his body armor, but, you know, it's very powerful when you're hit like that. And it stunned him and he went down. And then they shot him in the head three times," she says.
"He was screaming for them to stop," Couric remarks.
"Yeah. And he was screaming, 'Cease fire.' He was screaming his name. You know, 'I'm Pat Tillman.' Like, 'What's wrong with you?'" Mary Tillman explains.
"And what about for you, the notion that, his own brothers were firing on him?" Couric asks.
"Well, it's hard to take," Tillman says. "When we heard it was a friendly fire, I felt terrible for these soldiers. We didn't go into immediate, you know, 'Oh, these awful men, they need to be punished.' I felt terrible for these young men. And I still do, to a degree. But I don't think it was the horrible accident that they like to play this out. I think there was huge negligence involved here."
The soldiers 60 Minutes spoke to-none of whom were implicated in Tillman's death-say that most everyone in his unit suspected within a few days that he had been killed by friendly fire.
"We all knew. I just don't understand why nobody, you know, told Pat's parents, or told, you know, his brother right away," Donald Lee tells Couric. "They took the honor away from, you know, what we were doing by lying to his family."
"Did it seem like Pat's death was being treated differently than any other soldier's death because of his high profile?" Couric asks.
"Absolutely," one of the soldiers replies.
Mary Tillman believes she has evidence that the Army went to extraordinary lengths to keep what really happened under wraps. She points to the fact that Pat's uniform, which according to one soldier had the marks left by American bullets, was burned, which is against Army procedure.
Then there was the coroner, who'd refused to sign the autopsy for months because when he examined the body, he said the gunshot wounds were not consistent with the Army's original story. And remember the citation on the Silver Star which left the distinct impression Pat was killed by enemy fire? It was later revealed that the eyewitness statements had been altered. Army Ranger Bryan O'Neal testified before Congress last spring.
"Did you write these sentences, claiming that you were engaged with the enemy?" he was asked.
"No sir," O'Neal replied.
"Their testimony was altered by someone to make it appear as though Pat was killed by the enemy," Mary Tillman claims.
But she says she hasn't figured out who changed the statements or how.
Couric asked Pete Geren, the new secretary of the Army, how this could have happened.
"Who do you think, Secretary Geren, altered those soldiers' statements when it came to that Silver Star?" Couric asks.
"Well, that's one of the questions that we will never completely answer," Sec. Geren says. "But it certainly is one of the areas that that raises questions. There are so many mistakes. So many things that happened. If you add them all together, it certainly calls into question the credibility of those who handled this. And raises the kind of questions that Ms. Tillman raises. I don't blame her for that. And I don't expect her ever to believe us. But there was no effort to deceive. There were mistakes and grievous errors by the legions. And as a result, we fell short of our duty to her as a mother of one of our heroes."
"If there was no effort to deceive, why wasn't she told right away that her son's death was being investigated as a possible friendly fire incident?" Couric asks.
"She should have been and Army policy requires that she be notified right away. This was a classified mission, and the people in the operation mistakenly believed that they were not supposed to release any of the details of the investigation until the investigation was complete. They released it 35 days later. But, we've had seven investigations and they have all concluded that there was no deceit, no intentional deceit, no cover up," Geren says.
Mary Tillman says each investigation revealed the flaws of the one before and she chronicles her fight for answers in a new book, "Boots on the Ground by Dusk."
Ultimately, seven Rangers and six additional officers were disciplined for mistakes that were made in that canyon and during the subsequent investigations. But Tillman is not satisfied. She says at times, she hasn't known what to believe.
"When you're lied to, your brain goes all over the map. And things that aren't really true can appear to be true," she tells Couric.
Asked what it will take to satisfy her, Tillman says, "But that's the point that everyone seems to miss. This isn't about us. It's about what they've done to the public. This was a public deception. "
She believes the Bush administration needed a heroic story to bolster support for the war.
"You've made it very clear about your feelings toward the Bush administration and your opposition to the war in Iraq. Is that partially what's motivating you?" Couric asks.
"No," Tillman says. "If this happened under anyone's watch, I would still be doing the same thing."
"Why have you fought so hard?" Couric asks.
"Pat was a pretty honest guy," Mary Tillman says. "Not a perfect person, by any stretch. But he was a very honest. He tried to tell the truth and he would want us to do this."
Some of his fellow Rangers say that before he died, Pat Tillman expressed his fear that if something happened to him, his death would be exploited by the military and used as propaganda.
Asked what they think Pat Tillman would think of all this, Russell Baer tells Couric, "He'd hate it. I'm sure of it."
"He would be just insanely upset," Jade Lane adds. "He'd probably laugh and say this is just criminal. Those would probably be his exact words. This is criminal."
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