Pat Tillman’s mother recalls command blunders behind ex-Cardinals safety’s death

NFL

When Pat Tillman was killed in Afghanistan on April 22, 2004, the news stunned his fellow Americans. He was one of the most famous soldiers since Elvis Presley and perhaps the most famous American killed in combat since legendary war correspondent Ernie Pyle in World War II.

The story of Tillman’s death at age 27 — and of the aftermath of the tragedy — revolves around a series of inexplicable command decisions that, even today, confound his family and those who served with him. Commanders ordered half of Tillman’s platoon to drive through a canyon highly vulnerable to ambush. After Tillman’s death, commanders concocted and disseminated a false narrative to conceal the reality that he’d been killed by friendly fire. Their continued lack of accountability about these command decisions and the subsequent cover-up have served as an ongoing impediment to closure for Tillman’s family and platoon mates.

For the past two decades, although many sought to relegate the saga to history and move on, Mary “Dannie” Tillman has led a fight for a complete account of what happened to her son, how the commanders made the decisions that she says led to his death, why the truth was manipulated and why those responsible were never held fully accountable for their actions.

In the prime of Pat Tillman’s career as an NFL safety, and despite a contract offer to remain an Arizona Cardinal for three years and $3.6 million, he stepped away to serve his country eight months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The decision to become a combat infantryman with the elite Army Rangers made the former Arizona State All-American a household name.

“He always wanted to try to do the right thing — not that he did the right thing all the time, but he tried — and he defended his friends whenever they were in some kind of trouble,” his mother told ESPN last month. “I just think it [the 9/11 attacks and their aftermath] trivialized football … and I think he felt like he should do more.” Tillman and his brother Kevin, who was 14 months younger, enlisted together. In their first deployment, they were part of a standby backup team in the April 1, 2003, rescue of Pfc. Jessica Lynch, an injured prisoner of war under care in an Iraqi hospital — an action later revealed to have been misrepresented to the public by the U.S. military. On April 22, 2004, their Army Rangers platoon of about 40 soldiers was on deployment in one of the most dangerous places on earth: eastern Afghanistan’s Khost Province, near the border with Pakistan.

Commanders at a remote base — over the objections of the men and their leaders on the ground — ordered the platoon split into two convoys. The first, with Pat, was to go through a narrow, steep and foreboding canyon, to arrive by dusk at a village and search the next day for enemy fighters and weapons caches. The second, with Kevin, was to follow just behind via a different route to transport a disabled Humvee. But unbeknownst to the first convoy, the second diverted to the same path, minutes after the first convoy, which made it out of the canyon unscathed.

Moving as slowly as 1.5 mph to accommodate towing the Humvee through the unyielding rocky terrain, the second convoy was ambushed. Platoon members in the first convoy heard gunfire, and Tillman rushed to a position on a ridge, looking back toward the canyon and the gunfight, accompanied by platoon mate Bryan O’Neal and allied Afghan militiaman Sayed Farhad. Farhad was situated about 10 feet in front of Tillman and was armed with an AK-47 assault rifle, the preferred weapon of Afghan fighters, whether allies or enemies of the U.S. forces.

As soldiers of the second convoy emerged from a firefight in the canyon, looking into the setting sun, they fired toward the ridge, prompted in part by the sight of an Afghan firing an AK-47 in their general direction. Tillman shouted and threw a smoke grenade to signal his comrades to stop. But he, along with Farhad, also 27, were shot dead by their American comrades — friendly fire.

Many of Tillman’s platoon mates knew almost immediately what caused his death but were told not to discuss it — a standard requirement pending an investigation — and told to not even tell Kevin, who was at the back of the second convoy and didn’t see how his brother had died.

The Army would then mislead the Tillman family and the world.

On April 28, 2004, the military’s joint special operations commander, then-Brig. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, approved awarding the Silver Star posthumously for Tillman’s heroism. The citation said Tillman died under “devastating enemy fire.” McChrystal later told Pentagon investigators that, the day after the approval, he sent a high-priority “P4,” or “personal-for,” memo notifying top-ranking military officials that they — and President George W. Bush — should avoid using similar language in public pronouncements. McChrystal said he suspected friendly fire several days before approving the medal. Nine days after Tillman’s death, McChrystal was promoted to major general, reaching four-star rank in 2009.

Author Jon Krakauer reported, however, that McChrystal was among several high-ranking generals, including Gen. John Abizaid and Lt. Gen. Philip Kensinger Jr., who were informed on the day of Tillman’s death that he had been a victim of friendly fire. Investigators never pinned down McChrystal’s precise role in allowing the false account to advance, nor was he disciplined. He declined our interview request, as did Abizaid. Efforts to reach Kensinger were unsuccessful.

About an hour before a nationally televised memorial tribute in California two weeks after the fatal episode in the mountains of Afghanistan, eulogist and Navy SEAL Steve White — a friend of the Tillman brothers — received the military’s phony account of Pat’s death and, believing it to be factual, included it in his eulogy. Not a word about friendly fire.

Four investigations by the military laid out much of what happened. The first cited those involved for “gross negligence” for what was termed a likely friendly fire incident. Subsequent probes escalated the seriousness of failures higher up the chain of command. The final investigation, completed in 2007, recommended disciplinary action against nine officers, including four generals. Yet many questions remained about the decisions, the obfuscation and the culpability, prompting Congress to get involved.

Testifying at a 2007 congressional hearing, Kevin Tillman said: “Through the amazing strength and perseverance of my mother, the most amazing woman on earth, our family has managed to have multiple investigations conducted. However, while each investigation gathered more information, the mountain of evidence was never used to arrive at an honest or even sensible conclusion.”

Journalists, including from ESPN, also sought and uncovered more details of Tillman’s death, the subsequent deception and the scapegoating of his platoon mates. The military’s lies compounded the family’s and platoon’s grief and trauma. Dannie Tillman said she started to believe the worst — that the Army had murdered Pat — despite having no evidence.

She spent a dozen years pursuing countless leads, compiling files upon files, and collecting photos and videos. She co-wrote a 2008 book titled “Boots on the Ground By Dusk: My Tribute to Pat Tillman.” In 2017 she was introduced to retired Lt. Col. Pete Blaber, a decorated commander of a Delta Force unit who had served in her sons’ Ranger Regiment battalion before they joined, and also in Panama, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I asked him to find the truth, as close to the truth as he could get, and he promised he would,” Dannie Tillman said.

“In that first conversation,” Blaber told ESPN, “she said to me, ‘If the roles were reversed and it was me who was killed, Pat would never give up until he found the truth.'”

Blaber said he reviewed a mountain of material from Dannie Tillman and agreed to investigate her son’s death: “The only thing I said to her was, ‘Look, in the end, I’m gonna tell you exactly what I think, and it may not be what you want to hear.’ And she said, ‘That’s why I asked you to do this. I don’t want you to tell me what you think I want to hear. I want you to tell me what you think happened so we can prevent it from happening again.'”

The result, after what Blaber says were more than 100 interviews — 16 of them with members of Tillman’s platoon — was a 2023 self-published book, “Common Sense Leadership Matters: Toxic Leadership Destroys.” In it, he revisits and dissects the ultimately deadly mission and the actions of officers before and after Tillman’s death. “The lack of accountability, especially when you compare it to the devastation that it wreaked on the entire platoon,” Blaber says, “was probably the most eye-opening experience of this whole thing.”

Regarding Pat Tillman’s actions on the day he died, Blaber said, “One of the things that bothers me most about the false Silver Star [account] they wrote is that if they had told the truth — and wrote the real Silver Star narrative — no one would ever have any doubt about him deserving it and earning it. They literally did not tell the true story of what Pat Tillman [did] and how heroic he was that day. He saved the guy next to him [O’Neal], threw a smoke grenade” and, by most accounts, got the second convoy to stop firing.

ESPN’s interview with Dannie Tillman is excerpted below, edited for clarity and length. She discusses her quest for truth, her conclusions and her reflections on the 20th anniversary of her son’s death:

​​Pat died on April 22nd. How did they inform you?

I noticed there was a message on my phone, and it was my youngest son [Richard]. He seemed extremely agitated and upset, so I called him right back, but he didn’t answer. [Then she was urged to call a relative of Pat’s wife, Marie.] So I called him and he answered right away. And he just said, “Dannie, call Marie.” And he kind of hung up. I was just terrified and so I kind of paced around, terrified to call her. I called. She answered, like she always does. You know, she had that little lilt in her voice. And then she didn’t say anything. Then I said, “Marie, what’s wrong?” And she just said, “He’s dead.” And I said, “Who’s dead?” And she said, “Pat’s dead.” That’s how I found out. Yeah.

What do you remember thinking?

I was pretty much hysterical. In fact, I ran out in my front yard. I think my shoes came right off my feet. A car came up the driveway, and it was one of the soldiers, a young woman, to tell us what had happened. And I told her it was OK. ‘Cause she was very young and very emotional. And I just said, “It’s OK, I already know. You don’t have to.” And she said, “Ma’am, I have to. It’s my duty.” So she told us that he had gotten shot in the head getting out of a vehicle and that he died an hour later in a field hospital. Which, you know, was not the case.

So for the next five weeks, what was your sense of how Pat had died?

We didn’t know what had really happened. And then we went to the memorial, which was May 3rd. Steve White, the Navy SEAL friend of theirs, read the narrative. They just said that [Pat] had run up this ridgeline trying to protect the serial [second convoy of Rangers] coming through. And he was shot by the enemy and all that stuff. But we just were trying to deal with the loss. And we were worried about Kevin. He was home, and he was in shock, just like we all were. But he had been over there with them.

And your assumption must be that even though Kevin hadn’t witnessed Pat’s death, he was there in the same unit, he’s gonna know what happened.

Right. He’s gonna know what happened. But they lied to Kevin, too. The coroner would not sign the autopsy because they didn’t believe he was killed by the enemy, based on his wounds. So they were forced to tell us. And I found out ’cause I got a phone call from The Arizona Republic [newspaper] just before Memorial Day. And the person that called just said, “Well, Mrs. Tillman, what are your thoughts about what the military told you?” or something like that. And I said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” And they said, “Well, what do you think about Pat being killed by friendly fire?” I think I just said, “I have nothing to say,” and I hung up the phone. And I was just beside myself.

There are the misrepresentations of what happened and the actual decision-making that led to Pat’s death. How do you process, after all these years, those two separate things?

Well, I haven’t processed it very well [laugh] all the time. And a lot of the information that we got, I was convinced that he was killed on purpose. Not so much by the guys themselves, but that somebody orchestrated it. I mean, that’s how crazy — it sounds like a big, giant conspiracy and that I’m nuts. But I did think that.

But you don’t think that now?

No. And Pete [Blaber] helped with that.

Why would [those who gave the orders] risk these lives, 40 men out there in this platoon, to tow a hopelessly damaged Humvee?

Well, arrogance. Arrogance and maybe some kind of hubris. I don’t know why they would do that. It was like they weren’t even paying attention to what was going on out there.

Why do you think the military misled you about the circumstances of Pat’s death?

Based on what Pete’s found out, I think it’s because they screwed up. And they know they screwed up. I think that they did it, too, because it was an opportunity to use Pat. He wouldn’t let them use him in life. But when he died, I think they thought it was an opportunity to glorify what happened to him, therefore using him as a recruiting tool. I don’t think Pete quite agrees with that, because I think I ran it by him. But he believes that they did this because they knew very well they were culpable and they were trying to cover that up.

When you say “culpable,” you mean all the decisions?

Splitting the platoon. Just really bad decisions. And then weird things like they didn’t have any air support. Things we found out, and we’d ask ’em and they’d lie. And every report we got. And there were four investigations. … And there’s all these things that are so different. Why did I think that there was something more nefarious involved, not just an accident? It’s because the pile-on of lies was so outrageous that all we could think is, “Well, they’ve got to be covering up something worse than an accident.” Why would they go to this trouble to cover up a mistake? And that’s exactly what happened.

How long did it take for you to be satisfied that you knew as much as could be known?

Probably two years ago I started, because with Pete’s assistance I’ve become a lot better in terms of just accepting that this was not intentional. That he wasn’t set up to be harmed. And it’s a terrible accident.

I felt like going after the truth and having these investigations [by the military], one after the other after the other, was really hurtful to these soldiers, because they had to keep answering these questions over and over again, and they were scapegoated. So I feel like it’s important for me to acknowledge that. And I’m still not letting the chain of command off the hook for what they did to Pat and his legacy and to us. And they’ve never paid a price. And it’s 20 years now. And these people are in a better position than they were then. And how is that possible?

It just sickens me that these people that made these horrible decisions could not go back to their men, at least, and say, “We really blew this. We caused this to happen because of our bad orders.”

And more than that, [the commanders told his platoon mates]: It’s your fault.

Oh, yeah. They blamed it on those guys, those young kids. They’re kids. And yeah, it’s just horrific what they did to them.

Just to be clear, after all these years, what do you believe now?

I do believe it was an accident. I believe that the guys in [the first vehicle of the second convoy, who fired] were overzealous and scared. And face it, they’re young guys. They’re in a firefight. But you have to understand, too, that there’s so many things that were lied about and seemed to be doctored. Documents seemed to be doctored. And it’s like: Why would you go to that trouble to cover up a friendly fire?

And yet they had to know at some point the truth would come out.

Yes. But “the truth” [laugh] is what you tell first to people. That’s what sticks. It takes years to get that narrative out of their head. And they know that. They know that that first story is what’s gonna stick, to the majority of people. And so they’re not really that worried about it. I think they think, Well, this is gonna come out so piecemeal. And people are not going to process it. And we’ll just get away with it. And they did. They did.

Why have you been so relentless?

Well, because Patrick would be. A lot of people think: Oh, that mother, why doesn’t she shut up, and can’t she just let her son be a hero? My obsession with this for all this time has been very concerning for people around me at times.

What would they say?

You know, “Just let it go. You’ve gotta let it go.” There’s times I do, I’m not really honed in on it so much. But it doesn’t take a lot to get me down that rabbit hole again.

How would you describe the way the military handled this and the way it treated your family for the last 20 years?

Oh, it’s horrific. It’s shameless. Not only did they lie to us, they lied to the whole country about it. If someone this high-profile and his family can be treated this way, then what are they doing with other families that don’t have the voice? Nobody expects their leaders to do this. And of course it speaks to what is so concerning to Pete, that not only did this harm our family, in more ways than I can express here, but it harmed many of these soldiers.

The chain of command just threw it downwards. And a lot of these guys [in the platoon] have been harmed with PTSD, with moral injury, moral trauma. It’s because they’ve been betrayed. They’ve been betrayed by their leaders, who don’t have the courage to admit they made a mistake. And of course people forgive mistakes. You may be angry at first. You may question. You may be upset. You may beat on their chest, “How did you make this happen?” But eventually you come to terms with it and you’re grateful that they told you the truth. But we can’t say that about them. I’m still angry about it. I mean, there’s no contrition. They’ve never apologized to us. They’ve never apologized to the soldiers that they gaslighted basically into thinking that this was all their fault. It’s just lies upon lies upon lies. And they did it so tactically, so strategically.

How soon after Pat’s death, is it your understanding that then-Brig. Gen. Stanley McChrystal knew what had happened?

I would think it would be within 24 hours. They would have to. I mean, their heads would fly if they didn’t let ’em know. So I think he knew. I think Abizaid knew. And what’s interesting is when they asked Abizaid at that congressional hearing: Where were you when you got the P4 memo? And he just hemmed and hawed.

He is in the congressional hearing saying: Oh, I have too many things to worry about. I can’t be worried about what happened to Pat Tillman. Well, OK. Then why were you in Afghanistan [six days after Tillman’s death] talking to his platoon leader? And the only thing I can think of is because they wanted to know what [wounded Platoon Leader Lt. David] Uthlaut knew. Because Uthlaut thought he was hit by the enemy, too. But I think that’s why Abizaid was there. That’s my opinion.

Who do you want apologies from?

I don’t think it would matter anymore for me. I’d like to see them have some accountability. I’d like to see McChrystal have accountability. I’d like to see all those corporations [that hire McChrystal as a consultant or to give speeches] turn on him and say: You know, your track record isn’t really that great in terms of integrity and honesty and truthfulness. So maybe we don’t want you to advise us anymore.

And what about the commanders?

All of ’em, same thing. They all have various degrees of speaking engagements, working in think tanks, things like that. Sadly, a lot of them are probably gonna retire soon, so they’ll probably never see a consequence.

There are the people who lied, and then there are the people who made the decisions that cost Pat his life. Do you put them into the same category?

Not the guys in the vehicle. I want to make sure that I’m clear: The guys in the vehicle [who fired upon Pat’s position], I mean, it was an accident. And I think they suffer for that all the time. But the people that made those decisions [to split the platoon, transport the broken Humvee and try to get to the village by nightfall] — the TOC [tactical operations center, a command post] — I don’t think they probably gave it a second thought.

Those officers who made those decisions that day, the decisions that led to Pat’s death, what have they communicated to you over the years?

Nothing. I never hear from them. They’ve never been in touch with me.

What’s your message to Pat’s platoon mates on this anniversary?

Well, I just hope that whatever memories they have of what happened, that they can try to let it go. Because they have a life to live. And Pat would want them to live that life. And he would have been very forgiving if he knew the circumstances. I feel like he would empathize with them a lot. Yeah.

What do you want Pat’s legacy to be?

That he was a human being. That he’s not some square-jawed guy in a beret, even though he was beautiful. But he was a human being. And he was funny. And he was smart-alecky. And he was like everybody else. And he was very passionate. And he did have passion for the country and what it stood for. He died doing something that he volunteered to do. It has brought attention to what the government, political people and military people, what they’re capable of. Because Pat is not the only one. He’s not the first one. And he’s not the last. They lie to people every day, sadly. And they don’t have to.

What do you think you’ll be thinking on the 20th anniversary?

Probably just like every other anniversary. I mean, just missing him. Missing life with him with everyone. Everyone’s changed. And people change all the time. But I mean in a sad way, a lot of people have changed. And a lot of it’s because of the lies. I think a proper healing could have taken place if they told us the truth right away. But the healing was jagged.

What does closure mean for you?

Doing as much as I can. Thinking I’ve done as much as I can to get to the truth. And that’s closure.

Are you there?

I’m getting there. Yeah, I’m pretty sure that I’m there. It’s just, it is hard to let go. Because in some weird way, and a lot of people are probably gonna accuse me of that — and there’s some truth to that — it keeps me connected to him. But these are valid concerns I have, so that’s real.

ESPN Producer Frank Saraceno contributed to this story.

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