by Kevin Tillman
Editor’s note: Kevin Tillman joined the Army with his brother Pat (left) in 2002, and they served together in Iraq and Afghanistan. Pat was killed in Afghanistan on April 22, 2004. Kevin, who was discharged in 2005, later wrote a powerful, must-read document. The following essay was first published Oct. 19, 2006.
It is Pat’s birthday on November 6, and elections are the day after. It gets me thinking about a conversation I had with Pat before we joined the military. He spoke about the risks with signing the papers. How once we committed, we were at the mercy of the American leadership and the American people. How we could be thrown in a direction not of our volition. How fighting as a soldier would leave us without a voice… until we got out.
Much has happened since we handed over our voice:
Somehow we were sent to invade a nation because it was a direct threat to the American people, or to the world, or harbored terrorists, or was involved in the September 11 attacks, or received weapons-grade uranium from Niger, or had mobile weapons labs, or WMD, or had a need to be liberated, or we needed to establish a democracy, or stop an insurgency, or stop a civil war we created that can’t be called a civil war even though it is. Something like that.
Somehow our elected leaders were subverting international law and humanity by setting up secret prisons around the world, secretly kidnapping people, secretly holding them indefinitely, secretly not charging them with anything, secretly torturing them. Somehow that overt policy of torture became the fault of a few “bad apples” in the military.
Somehow back at home, support for the soldiers meant having a five-year-old kindergartener scribble a picture with crayons and send it overseas, or slapping stickers on cars, or lobbying Congress for an extra pad in a helmet. It’s interesting that a soldier on his third or fourth tour should care about a drawing from a five-year-old; or a faded sticker on a car as his friends die around him; or an extra pad in a helmet, as if it will protect him when an IED throws his vehicle 50 feet into the air as his body comes apart and his skin melts to the seat.
Somehow the more soldiers that die, the more legitimate the illegal invasion becomes.
Somehow those afraid to fight an illegal invasion decades ago are allowed to send soldiers to die for an illegal invasion they started. Somehow American leadership, whose only credit is lying to its people and illegally invading a nation, has been allowed to steal the courage, virtue and honor of its soldiers on the ground.
Somehow faking character, virtue and strength is tolerated.
Somehow profiting from tragedy and horror is tolerated.
Somehow the death of tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people is tolerated.
Somehow subversion of the Bill of Rights and The Constitution is tolerated.
Somehow suspension of Habeas Corpus is supposed to keep this country safe.
Somehow torture is tolerated.
Somehow lying is tolerated.
Somehow reason is being discarded for faith, dogma, and nonsense.
Somehow American leadership managed to create a more dangerous world.
Somehow a narrative is more important than reality.
Somehow America has become a country that projects everything that it is not and condemns everything that it is.
Somehow the most reasonable, trusted and respected country in the world has become one of the most irrational, belligerent, feared, and distrusted countries in the world.
Somehow being politically informed, diligent, and skeptical has been replaced by apathy through active ignorance.
Somehow the same incompetent, narcissistic, virtueless, vacuous, malicious criminals are still in charge of this country.
Somehow this is tolerated.
Somehow nobody is accountable for this.
In a democracy, the policy of the leaders is the policy of the people. So don’t be shocked when our grandkids bury much of this generation as traitors to the nation, to the world and to humanity. Most likely, they will come to know that “somehow” was nurtured by fear, insecurity and indifference, leaving the country vulnerable to unchecked, unchallenged parasites.
Luckily this country is still a democracy. People still have a voice. People still can take action. It can start after Pat’s birthday.
Brother and Friend of Pat Tillman,
~ Kevin Tillman
One day, God willing, Russell Baer was going to tell his son this story. One day, after the boy’s heart and brain had healed, he was going to point to that picture on the kid’s bedroom shelf of the man doing a handstand on the roof of a house, take a deep breath and say:
“Mav, that’s a man who lived a life as pure and died a death as muddy as any man ever to walk this rock, and I was there for both. That’s the man, when your heart stopped for an hour and they slit you open neck to navel, who I prayed to because … well, because you wouldn’t exist if he hadn’t died, and I wouldn’t be half of who I am if he hadn’t taught me how to live. That’s Pat Tillman, the man you take your middle name from, and I’ve been waiting for you to ask since the day you were born.”
Russ never got that chance: Maverick Patrick Baer died on Monday. So now Russ has Pat’s story stuck in his heart. …
Maybe it’s best to keep it simple, to start with the day Russ first laid eyes on Pat, keep the moralizing to a minimum and let everyone figure out what Pat’s story says about human beings and fear and the country in which we live.
Start with the day, in December 2002, when the big green duffel bags hit the ground in front of the barracks at Fort Lewis in Washington, followed by the boots of the new Rangers joining Russ’s platoon, the Black Sheep. Russ watched them, trying to guess which one of the cherries was the famous football player, the one—truth be told—he had never heard of until his mates began saying, “Did you hear? Pat Tillman’s been assigned here.”
Maybe it was because Russ wasn’t raised on the religion of NFL Sundays, or because the whole world disappears for a man once the Army begins melting and molding him into a Ranger, but somehow —even though he had grown up only 40 miles from Pat’s home in San Jose— Russ had never heard of the guy or his much-ballyhooed decision to walk away from the Arizona Cardinals and a $3.6 million contract to enlist in the aftermath of 9/11. So 22-year-old Private First Class Baer kept quiet and listened to the chow-hall chatter.
“I’ll treat him just like a normal person,” one platoon mate vowed.
“He’s nothing special,” said another. “I’ll make him do push-ups.”
“That dude was stupid to give up football,” more than a few said. “I’d never do that.”
Pat’s younger brother, Kevin, fresh out of the Cleveland Indians’ farm system, was coming too. Likely a couple of meathead jocks, Russ thought, remembering the big-shot athletes at his high school in Livermore, Calif. It wasn’t hard to pick out Pat from the pack of rookie Rangers: Had to be the guy carrying those big green bags into the barracks as if they were marshmallows.
The newbies—Rangers who hadn’t undergone the last and harshest phase of the weeding-out process required to become “tabbed Rangers”—spent those first two days scurrying like headless chickens, stammering and spilling socks from their bags as officers barked at their heels, outraged by gear that wasn’t tied down properly, unit identifiers that weren’t sewn onto everything just so. Not the Tillmans. They didn’t rattle.
But a man can’t walk into a Ranger unit with Pat’s self-assurance, reputation and anvil jaw without every antenna on the base going up, probing for arrogance. Russ conducted his own reconnaissance, poking his head into a smelly little squad room to watch Pat receive his lessons. Man, he walked away thinking, he liked Specialist Tillman. Humble, soft-spoken, polite, tuned in; swift to volunteer for crap chores, swift to knock out the 25 push-ups the punks four years younger than he was—but with one more stripe—ordered him to do.
A week later Pat and Russ started bantering at the shooting range, and Pat laughed that unforgettable laugh—his head jolting back, his eyes disappearing into that crinkly face, his hands clapping his thighs, a high-pitched hoo-hoo-hoo-hooooooo howling from his throat until his lungs gasped for air—the laugh of a man who didn’t give a rat’s ass what you thought of him or the carnival.
Damn, Russ could talk Allen Ginsberg and Ralph Waldo Emerson with a big-time jock Army Ranger. He could let loose a side of himself that he’d bottled up the day two years earlier when he signed his enlistment papers, the Russell Baer who holed up in the latrine with his journal, or on an off day hunched over a coffee and a book and a notepad among strangers in a Seattle café.
Pat loved oddballs—writers, hippies, hermits, weed-smoking ballplayers—who weren’t afraid to show their asses, loved reading their quotes and anecdotes aloud and declaring, “Now that’s something to live by,” then scrawling a salty retort in the margin. At first it jarred Russ, whose reverence for literature didn’t let him lay ballpoint to book page, but then he began to do likewise.
Pat just had that way, with colonels and coaches and Nobel Prize winners, too, of slicing through rank and reputation, of turning every encounter into nothing more or less than two human beings talking. Hell, the guy introduced himself to strangers simply as “Pat,” and if they asked what he did before strapping it on for Uncle Sam, he’d say he studied some back at Arizona State and quickly ask about them, never mentioning the summa cum laude or the Pac-10 defensive player of the year award, and certainly not the NFL. And still, something about him made you walk away wanting to learn more, laugh more, run more, give more.
Who else showed up in a college assistant coach’s office at 1 a.m., asking what he thought of Mormonism with such zest that both ended up reading the Book of Mormon so they could discuss it in detail? Who else in the NFL or the U.S. Army took a book everywhere, even on 10-minute errands, read The Communist Manifesto, Mein Kampf, the Bible and the Koran, so he could carve out his own convictions … then bought you the book and picked a philosophical fight just to flush out some viewpoint that might push him to revise his, push him to evolve? Gays, for instance. By the last few years of his life, his narrow view of them as an adolescent had so altered that he would argue they were the most evolved form of man.
Most people, Russ felt, are just pieces of everybody else, off on some mimic’s mission all their lives. It’s as if there’s a padlock on who they really are and just a few figure out the combination and then the whole damn thing pops open, the treasure of possibility becomes theirs. That was Pat, so … so … hell, even his mom, Mary, when she tried to get her arms around him, would just end up throwing them in the air.
He was the most respectful gutter mouth you ever met, the politest man ever to reach across a restaurant table and dunk his sticky hands into your glass of water. So playful and so serious, so transparent and so mysterious, so kind and so frightening, so loud and so silent … so juxtaposed, Mary would say. So at ease with himself that he could meet you wherever you were.
Where Russ was, just one week before the Black Sheep shipped out for the Iraq invasion, was on his belly in the rain on the shooting range, up to his elbows in mud and frustration, unable to dial in the optics on his SAW gun and hit the damn target for his weapons qualification even though he’d been handling that machine gun with ease for more than a year. Then Pat dropped to his knees and began encouraging him. Russ had spent most of his first 22 years marinating in negativity.
His mother had cleared out five months after his birth, and his father, a 14-year Army man, had remarried eight years later to a career military woman with a short fuse. Russ had swallowed her anger, turned numb, then begun turning that anger outward, getting into fights and blaming others for his troubles, drifting from one school to another until age 16 … then dropping out of school and home as well, moving to his grandparents’ house, working three jobs and homeschooling himself, searching for some model of the man he ached to be.
Maybe he’d finally found that man. Russ relaxed as Pat knelt beside him, then realized that a loose screw on his sight was causing his misfires and began banging bull’s-eyes. Their unit packed up a few days later, removed its mascot from the wall—the mountain sheep’s head that accompanied 2nd Platoon, Alpha Company, 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment everywhere it went—chucked it into a parachute bag and flew to Saudi Arabia. Pat, Kevin, Russ, and the Black Sheep were going after Saddam Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction.
No, Russ isn’t proud of this part, but it’s too important to skip past. It happened in a tent in Saudi Arabia on the day the Black Sheep took perhaps the war’s first casualty, just before the invasion began. Russ and Pat, monitoring radio reports from buddies who’d slipped into Iraq by helicopter, listened as the chopper crew chief was shot and one of their platoon mates took a bullet that ricocheted off his sternum and exploded out of his shoulder.
So here it was at last, the specter of death, the dry mouth, the beginning of the self-discoveries Russ had signed on for. Discovery 1: He wasn’t ready. As the grim news crackled, he grabbed a mate’s Maxim magazine, fixed his eyes on a naked woman, nudged his neighbor and said, “Hey, look at this chick.”
It was as if Pat saw right through the surface—the callous perv—to the core: a kid walling off his fear. Pat reached over, took hold of Russ’s hands and said softly, “Can you please put that away? Some of our guys are getting hurt right now. We need to focus on them.” Russ nodded, grateful to be called back to his better side without being shamed.
It began that day for Russ, the long raggedy curve that it takes to turn a life around. A man could be strong and soft at the same time, he realized. He could manage fear by looking straight at it, could take charge of a moment in the most unmilitary of ways, without bristling or bellowing.
The Black Sheep followed the invasion into Baghdad, spent their days pulling perimeter security around the airport and going house to house in search of the Iraqi leaders pictured on the infamous 52 playing cards, and their nights flinching from the pigeon crap raining through the shrapnel-shredded hangar where they slept. Pat was so inclusive, so interested even in the screwiest private, any pettiness in the platoon began evaporating; the Black Sheep became tight.
Trouble was, Russ so treasured his time with Pat that he couldn’t bear to share it with some of the knuckleheads gathered around him. He’d wait until they’d fallen asleep or flaked away to their video games and skin magazines, then beeline toward Pat and Kevin. One would glance at the other two and say, Let’s have a coffee and —bingo— the Baghdad Book Club was in session, three men talking literature and ideas to the far side of midnight, Pat’s eyes glittering just as they did during all-night conversations around a fire in the front yard of his childhood home whenever he returned there.
That’s how they found themselves atop a bunker south of Baghdad late one night in March 2003, on the eve of the rescue of Army Pfc. Jessica Lynch, knowing a bloodbath might await them the following night, when they would encircle the hospital in Nasiriyah where she lay wounded. They sat there, perched above their sleeping mates, watching the Marines bombard a town five miles away, drinking in the beauty of a desert sky strobe-lit by the explosion of 155-mm shells.
Russ didn’t know yet that Pat had written to his mom, delighting in the serendipity of having found a little brother in his platoon named Baer. “Bear” was what Pat and Kevin had grown up calling their youngest brother, Richard, the one so upset when Kevin began talking of enlistment that he’d hurled a 24-pack of beer against a wall behind Pat’s house near Phoenix and began running, only to trip and fall flat on his face. But Russ felt so much brotherly trust and caring that night in Iraq that he offered to read to Pat and Kevin from his own notebooks, his Latrine Letters. They loved Baer’s seething snapshots of life as a Ranger in a savage place.
Let’s all just fucking scream
and attempt to stretch our
already shrunken hearts.
We’ve all got cruel intentions
climbing up our throats,
ready to spit into the eyes of any savior
that’s already 15 minutes too late.
You didn’t talk politics over there, not while you were still in the sandbox. But that night, as Pat watched another orange and white flash-bang shudder the distant town, he shook his head and said, “This war is so fucking illegal.” Russ, for the first time, realized how wobbly a tightrope Pat was walking between his integrity and his duty.
Even later in their 3 1/2-month deployment in Iraq, as it began to appear that they’d been sent on a nukes-and-biochemical-weapons wild-goose chase, Russ never heard Pat go further than, “This is all bullshit.” But surely Pat’s fame and fierce independence had unsettled higher-ups from the day he enlisted. They had tried to persuade him to be a recruiting poster boy in Washington rather than a Ranger.
Surely, one family member was convinced, once the Army got its first glimpse of Pat’s psychological profile—he was the one who stood outside the Cardinals’ team prayer circle, the one who couldn’t wait to have a mutual friend arrange a meeting with renowned anti-war leftist Noam Chomsky after his discharge—it never would have allowed him to become a Ranger if it hadn’t had to, because he was Pat Tillman.
“As a football player and soldier, Pat inspired countless Americans to unify. It is my hope his memory should always remind people we must come together. Pat’s service, along with that of every man and woman’s service, should never be politicized in a way that divides us. We are too great of a country for that.
Those who serve fight for the American ideals of freedom, justice, and democracy, they and their families know the cost of that fight. I know the very personal costs in a way I feel acutely every day.
The very action of self expression and the freedom to speak from one’s heart — no matter those views — is what Pat and so many other Americans have given their lives for. Even if they didn’t always agree with those views.
It is my sincere hope our leaders both understand and learn from the lessons of Pat’s life and death, and also those of so many other brave Americans.”
Hell, at the Army recruiting office the day he enlisted, before he’d even signed his papers, one of those jalapeño drill sergeants lined up Pat, Kevin and a gaggle of other recruits and started fire-breathing contradictory orders. “Look, you’re confusing everybody and being unreasonable,” Pat told the astonished sergeant. “You’re treating us like assholes, and we haven’t even signed up to be treated like assholes yet.” At first it was a curiosity to Pat, then an irritation, when he kept receiving orders to undergo additional psychological evaluations.
Everybody who thought he’d enlisted purely out of patriotism, they missed reality by a half mile. Sure, he loved America and felt compelled to fight for it after more than 2,600 people at the World Trade Center were turned to dust. But his decision sprang from soil so much richer than that. The foisting of all the dirty work onto people less fortunate than an NFL safety clawed at his ethics.
He had uncles and grandfathers on both sides who’d fought in World War II and the Korean War, one who’d taken a bullet in his chest, another who’d lost a finger and one who’d been the last to leap out of a plane shot from the sky. On a level deeper than almost any other American, he’d reaped the reward of those sacrifices: the chance his country afforded him to be himself, all of himself.
He yearned to have a voice one day that would carry, possibly in politics, and he was far from the sort of man who could send others into a fire that he had skirted. His relentless curiosity, his determination to live his life as if it were a book that would hold its reader to the last word, pushed him into the flames as well. The history of man is war, he told his distraught brother Richard, so how, without sampling it, could he ever know man or himself completely? “Are you fucking crazy?” was all Richard could splutter.
Some people, only a few, decide early in their lives the world will remember their names. Some people—fewer still—understand that the cleanest and most powerful way to do that is by never asking the world to remember their names, by letting their lives do that. “Let people find things out about you,” Pat told B.J.Alford, his roommate and teammate at Arizona State. “Don’t tell them.”
In Pat’s first journal, at age 16, in one of his first entries — 11 years to the day before he died — he wrote:
I consider myself an atheist, however, in the back of my mind, I wonder if there is something greater. I feel as though I am destined for something “gothic” or the elite. Some state in which I have achieved all that can be achieved. Glory, prestige, peace of mind. Nirvana. Obviously I won’t know if my intuition is worth a shit until I’m dead. Therefore, I do not believe in preaching. I do not know the answer, so I cannot state my hypothesis as truth. My hypothesis isn’t even educated. It’s more like a stab.
Only a few times in his life did he let it slip out. Drinking beer on a cliff one day in Santa Barbara, just after the Arizona Cardinals picked him from the dregs of the 1998 draft, he stared off at the Pacific and told Alford, “People are going to know who I am.”
“Relax, Pat, you’re a seventh-rounder,” said Alford.
Pat fixed him with a look, but said nothing. He wasn’t talking football.
Something else he figured out early: Fear was what stood between a man and an extraordinary life, and the surest way through it was to stare it down over and over, until that gaze became habit. As a teenager, Pat was swinging one day from branch to branch, 20 feet up, through the trees outside his house, when neighbor Peggy Melbourne heard a thud. She ran outside and found him lying on the ground, groaning. He dusted himself off, then ratcheted up the risk, more than once turning to a pal in the passenger seat as he drove 75 mph on the freeway, asking him to hold the wheel, then shimmying out the window and draping himself over the roof, only to reappear a few minutes later through the opposite window.
Sure, he could be an idiot. He could tie one on at a buddy’s wedding and then decide the best way to celebrate was to scale the outside of his seven-story hotel. Marie Ugenti, his high school sweetheart and future wife, knew better than to waste her breath.
The one time he let friends talk him out of taking a risk—a 60-foot cliff dive at Lake Tahoe with a menacing outcropping of rock—it ate him up so much that he returned two weeks later and did a swan dive, backward.
But the wildest one of all was the leap at Sedona, the wonderland an hour-and-a-half’s drive from Phoenix where he’d test himself during college against the river and the crazed jumble of red rocks. There he discovered a cliff with a 40-foot drop to the boulders below. Nearly 20 feet away was the top of a tree, 10 feet below the cliff. Pat fell silent, calculating. He retreated 20 yards, all the space he had, and began to run.
If he didn’t reach that tree, death, paralysis or a bundle of broken bones waited below. Even if he did reach it, the tree appeared to be dead, most of its branches snapped off—would it hold his weight? At full speed he flung himself across the breach, struck the tree trunk so hard that it crushed the wind from his lungs as he wrapped his arms around it and hugged for dear life … then gathered himself, too dazed and too wise for a whoop, but not for a smirky little smile.
Braveheart. That’s who he wanted to be, said a friend who saw the glow in Pat’s eyes as he watched the movie about the Scottish warrior. Trouble was, Pat’s wisdom quest was too honest, had carried him clean past that plane where good and evil are fixed and far-flung from one another, to a higher ledge up in the swirling fog where a man could see how right and wrong might rotate and trade places. It just became harder and harder to be Braveheart.
Until 9/11, when for a moment there was moral clarity, a clarion call to arms, a chance to be that man. Sitting atop that bunker, 11 days into the invasion of a country that had hatched none of the 9/11 terrorists, it was dawning on Pat with each blast-wave lighting up the desert: That moment already was gone. Dawning on him that he’d flung himself into thin air on faith, in search of his highest self, toward a hollow tree that might not hold his weight.
That bloodbath the Black Sheep anticipated the next night, when they took part in Saving Private Lynch? It never happened. The “blaze of gunfire” that an early news report described as having occurred when Special Ops forces swooped in to rescue her from a Nasiriyah hospital and Pat’s platoon provided perimeter security? It never happened either: Iraqi forces had fled the day before, and Iraqi doctors were waiting to hand her over. Private Lynch hadn’t been stabbed or shot by the Iraqis, as intelligence reports and then news accounts had indicated, nor had she emptied her rifle “fighting to the death” before her capture; her rifle had jammed and she never fired a shot.
One thing really did happen, though: Pat, who’d been a business-marketing major at Arizona State, discovered firsthand how wars and soldiers get marketed by government and media alike, and how you can find yourself cast in the commercial whether you auditioned for it or not.
A little over a month later, in May 2003, the Black Sheep went home to Fort Lewis, shook the sand from their underwear and started letting off steam. Forty of the boys poured into their saloon, the Steilacoom Deli & Pub, six miles from the base, to throw a farewell party for a departing officer, only to discover that the bar had been taken over in their absence by another Army platoon. One of the interlopers unloaded a “Fuck you!” on the Black Sheep’s company commander, and before you knew it, chairs and bodies were flying, one of those barroom brawls that usually only happen in bad movies.
Russ tried to play peacemaker, but the meathead he was mediating with suddenly grabbed his throat. While Russ was deciding whether to have at him, a big screaming blur grabbed the meathead and tossed him aside like a pencil. That blur was Pat, but his goal, it became clear, was to prevent harm, not inflict it. Turning, he saw a clot of a half-dozen combatants lurching toward a soldier from the other platoon who had passed out on the floor, with a little help from a Black Sheep’s choke hold. Pat blitzed that way, spread his arms and drove the whole crew, his guys and their guys, across the pub so they wouldn’t trample that sorry customer on the floor.
Repeated at the top of his lungs, his last words were, “I’m Pat fuckin’ Tillman! Why are you shooting at me?”
Pat wasn’t new to mayhem—once, at a pal’s south-of-the-border bachelor party, he’d ended up in a Mexican clink. But he’d learned something crucial about life and about the swirling fog when he was 17, outside a Round Table Pizza not far from his home. He’d always been protective of Jeff Hechtle, a high school buddy who’d undergone more than a dozen operations as a result of cancerous moles that covered two thirds of his head. So when someone ran into the pizza parlor and shouted, “Jeff’s getting jumped!” Pat, who’d been drinking at a party earlier that night, bolted into the parking lot, where several guys were tangling with his friend.
As a child Pat was so sensitive that his eyes filled with tears when he saw homeless people. Even as a teenager he would still pack Keek, the cat pillow his grandmother had sewn for him when he was a toddler, and Fluff, his baby blanket with a bunny on it, for overnights at friends’ houses and even, in later years, for Arizona State football camps. That softness could undermine his extraordinary aims, and so he’d paved over it with a hardness to match. Both drove him out of that pizza shop to defend Jeff. He caught the tail end of the melee and went after a man in his early 20s who, it turned out, wasn’t the one who had initiated the fight. The man, and several of his teeth, ended up lying on the asphalt.
Everyone took off but Pat. Already, even in the wake of high school pranks that backfired, he lived by a creed of accountability, by a motto he’d soon hear from his Arizona State football coaches and make his own: Take it in the forehead. He gave his battered opponent his name and phone number. The Tillmans got a phone call later that night, the young man’s father saying that his son was hospitalized and vomiting from a head injury. Suddenly Pat was staring at a felony assault charge, the threat of a lawsuit and a potential football scholarship going up in smoke, and in the crossfire between two parents whose marriage would dissolve two years later. His mother wanted to take the $40,000 that she’d just inherited from her grandmother and pay off the aggrieved family. His father, a lawyer, insisted that Pat had done the right thing and that offering money would be an admission of guilt. Pat reeled out of his house, sobbing, and climbed a eucalyptus tree.
Through his tears he looked down on a home where a boy could be a dreamer, an adventurer … a child. A home with a small black-and-white TV that received just one fuzzy channel … surrounded by a yard that hawks, deer, raccoons, wild boars and feral cats tumbled into from the hills of a 4,000-acre park, crawling with trails that he and his brothers roamed … nestled across the street from a creek that fed a reservoir where ropes hung from thick branches that begged a boy to grab and swing and let go.
He came down, at last, from the eucalyptus, into a world where a knight rushing to the aid of a companion in distress could be a villain, where a man too hasty and too sure of doing the right thing could wreak a bloody, tangled mess. He pleaded guilty to felony assault, entered a juvenile detention center a few days after his high school graduation and was mistakenly placed in solitary confinement for the first week. He served 30 days, did 250 hours of community service, and his family paid $40,000 in damages.
He learned something large. He learned that he’d better begin really learning, that truth’s more slippery and the consequences more dire than he’d ever dreamed when he sketched out that path for himself in his journal as a 16-year-old. But he wouldn’t abandon it. “We’ve got to strive for more,” he’d invariably conclude in those debates about the world’s woes around the Tillmans’ front-yard fire. “Just because it hasn’t been done doesn’t mean it can’t be done.”
Weeks passed after that wild night at the Steilacoom Deli & Pub. Pat and Kevin left Fort Lewis to enter Ranger School, the 61-day trial by hellfire that a man had to pass to become a tabbed Ranger. It culminated with a week and a half in the swamps of Florida that slashed 16 pounds off the average trainee, caused hallucinations, skin diseases and even hair loss due to malnutrition, stress and 20-hour days exposed to the elements, and made sure that nearly half of all candidates never stitched the sacred black and gold Rangers tab onto the left shoulder of their uniforms. The Tillmans stitched theirs, then Russ got his too, and Pat greeted him back at Fort Lewis with a brother’s hug.
Next came months of drudgery, days on the base filled with mindless tasks and barracks gossip. Pat grew restless—the Rangers’ intensity didn’t match his. Bob Ferguson, the Seattle Seahawks general manager who had drafted Pat when Ferguson was with the Cardinals, called Pat’s agent, Frank Bauer—the only NFL agent whose job was to say no to every commercial offer made to his client, on philosophical grounds—and told him that he wanted to make a Seahawk of the man who’d been Fergy’s favorite player in 30 years as an NFL administrator.
“Can’t,” said Bauer, “he’s got a year left in the Army.” But then someone told him Pat’s circumstances were unique and that he might, having already served a tour in a war zone, be able to get an early discharge.
Bauer called Pat. The urge to return to a simpler, cleaner battlefield, to swap uniforms again and race into a stadium rocking from the thunder of 60,000 throats, rushed through him.
He called Bauer back a week later. No, he told him. He hadn’t fulfilled his commitment. He hadn’t yet tasted live fire.
Every day, when Russ turns on his computer, he sees that photo of Pat in fatigues, his face buried in a watermelon, sucking life to the rind … two days before his death. And Russ is right back there, in southeastern Afghanistan in spring 2004, when the Black Sheep became snake eaters—roughing it with the natives, mingling with them to get tips and going through villages house to house to flush out the enemy and their weapons.
You couldn’t relax your guard, not even when villagers were smiling and shouting, “Eh, America!” and pushing cups of tea into your hands, not even when Afghan coalition forces wearing old U.S. Army fatigues were hopping into your Hummer and grinning. Every sensory neuron kept firing, scanning for danger, because every grin, every teacup, every uniform could cloak a bullet or a bomb meant for you.
But there was Pat, in his second week of poking into the shadows of mud and stone hovels that might be crawling with Taliban fighters, accepting a chunk of watermelon from an Afghan and smearing his face in it, tasting it and smelling it and feeling it drip off his nose.
Only afterward would the midnight coffee Russ shared under the stars that night with Pat and Kevin become charged with meaning: their final one together. Having learned from Navy SEALS he had met in Iraq, Pat had turned their ritual into art, pulling out a little Coleman stove, a French press and a packet of his favorite beans. They laughed long and hard that night, never dreaming that the machinery of death had already been set in gear, that a busted fuel pump on one of the platoon’s ground mobility vehicles (GMV) was its first grinding cog.
A new fuel pump arrived by airlift later the next night. The unit mechanic installed it the following morning, but still the GMV wouldn’t start. A decision was made to pull the vehicle with tow straps, but after a few hours on those dirt roads, the shocks, struts and steering were shot, the vehicle immovable and the Black Sheep marooned in Magarah, a half-dozen dried mud and rock houses, staring at a real soup sandwich.
Hours began to slow-tick away in the heat of April 22. If only Pat could wander off on his own, with a compass, backpack and weapon. He’d come back with Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein both, his friends would joke—although some weren’t joking. First Lieutenant David Uthlaut, the Black Sheep’s crackerjack platoon leader, e-mailed a request to the Forward Operating Base (FOB) for a Chinook to swoop in, harness up the disabled GMV and … well, the chopper could drop it in the Indian Ocean for all he cared.
The locals gathered, eyeballing the Black Sheep. Sure, it was a hoot when several Rangers paired off with villagers and flopped in the dirt to wrestle, and when Pat trounced Magarah’s finest in a rock-throwing contest. But Uthlaut’s dilemma became dire. His commanders at the FOB, fearing the GMV would become a propaganda trophy, wouldn’t let him abandon the vehicle, nor could they spare a Chinook to sling-load it away. So grenade the sonofabitch, groused his men, but then everyone’s tails would’ve been in a sling.
Thirty-five Rangers, a dozen vehicles and the six Afghan soldiers attached to the unit sat alongside a creek, watching fields of blue and red poppy flowers glisten in the sun as morning turned to late afternoon. The officers at the FOB, impatient, pressed Uthlaut: Solve the damned problem and get boots on the ground in nearby Manah, the last village on the Black Sheep’s checklist for that sector, then return to base for reassignment. A crowd of Afghans gathered and listened when a local tow-truck driver appeared, offering to winch the busted GMV onto the back of his vehicle and haul it to the nearest highway, where it could be handed off to American forces coming from the FOB.
Uthlaut relayed the offer back to base. The company commander seized on it, ordered him to split his platoon into two serials—one escorting the albatross GMV to a rendezvous point on the highway, the other proceeding to Manah—and to move out, now. Uthlaut, steamed, e-mailed back his disagreement and then radioed it, hoping that officers would overhear and amend the command. It meant splitting his firepower, relying on a local, traveling in daylight and arriving in Manah after sundown, too late to begin clearing operations. Why not move at night and arrive there at dawn, especially after sitting in one place for so long that half the countryside knew his platoon’s whereabouts? Objection overruled.
Suddenly orders were being barked, vehicles were pulling out. Pat and Russ would join 14 other Rangers and four Afghan soldiers traveling in Serial 1 to Manah. Serial 2, including Kevin and the towed turkey, would leave a few minutes later and take another road through the mountains to the highway. Just before their exodus a one-legged man approached the platoon with a message: An Afghan doctor who lived on a nearby hill had something to tell them. The Black Sheep, who could tarry no more, blew him off and left in a cloud of dust.
Was the doctor trying to warn of an ambush? A more appetizing opportunity than this, no enemy could possibly conjure. No, wait, yes it could. The tow truck—a jinga, the locals called it—tried to but couldn’t negotiate the steep, twisting dirt road through the mountains. Serial 2 would have to turn around and take the longer path to the highway, following Serial 1’s route for a stretch through the narrowest of canyons. The jinga driver knew the way. He’d lead them.
Serial 1, in six vehicles up ahead, entered the canyon, its walls so sheer it felt like a cave and so tight in spots that vehicles had just inches of clearance. Russ’s guts tightened. This was exactly the sort of terrain where, in Army training videos, he’d seen Afghans pick apart the Soviets during their war two decades ago. “This is Ambush Alley,” he told a Ranger beside him. They made it through the gorge unscathed, passed a cluster of four houses, then missed their turnoff to Manah and pulled to the side of the road.
Serial 2 entered the canyon and got the same ominous feelings. “Reminds me of the opening of The Lone Ranger,” one Black Sheep said, “where all the Texas Rangers got killed.” Suddenly an explosion ripped through the canyon.”IED!” someone shouted—but no, it wasn’t an Improvised Explosive Device hidden along the road. More explosions shook the canyon, rocks cascading from the 650-foot-high walls: mortar or rocket-propelled grenades launched from the ridgelines.
The jinga driver froze, and the four Ranger vehicles behind him were pinned, the gorge too narrow to squeeze around him and escape. The squad leader in the GMV behind the jinga, Staff Sgt. Greg Baker, screamed and waved at the Afghan driver to Move! Move!—got no response and shattered the driver’s window with a blow from his M-4 rifle.
Pat and his serial might never have heard or responded to that first explosion if they hadn’t missed their turn and pulled over. But they did, at 6:34 p.m., and were now running back toward the canyon in fire teams of two to four men. Oh, fuck, Russ thought. Here it was: his and Pat’s first firefight.
Pat took off, then turned. There was confusion in the eyes of a young Ranger, 18-year-old Spc. Bryan O’Neal, whom he’d taken under his wing months earlier. “Follow me!” he called, and the kid came on the run. “Let’s go kill the bad guys!” All the Afghans in Serial 1 stayed with the vehicles … except one. He went with Pat.
Russ, for the first time, saw Pat move when it was life and death. Damn, he thought—hauling all that gear and that big SAW gun uphill, scaling five-foot stone walls, crossing the rock rubble of that lunar landscape, Pat was flat-out flying. He had mates in Ambush Alley. He had a brother in the kill zone.
Three to four football fields. That’s how much ground he had to cover to get back there. He and his two men raced past the four houses. From one bolted a woman, screaming, and a flock of children.
Pat, who often played football with no pads other than those on his shoulders, shouted back to a trailing sergeant: Could he rip off his body armor so he could really run? Request denied.
Pat and his advancing platoon mates began taking fire from the northern ridgeline as they scrambled toward a hill near the kill zone. A radio operator behind them tried to call Serial 2 to inform them of Serial 1’s new position. No response. He tried to call in aerial support. No response.
Pat reached the hill first, and was caught in a crossfire all his own: his need to protect O’Neal, the young Ranger at his side, and his own screaming need to keep going and take out the Taliban threatening his mates and brother. He crested the hill and positioned his two men behind boulders, taking small-arms fire from both ridgelines and firing back. Now they were the ones nearest to the dirt road and to the chaos in the canyon. Pat retraced his steps, went back over the hill, near Russ’ position, and asked permission to go even closer and attempt to take out the enemy on the southern ridgeline. The sergeant nodded. Russ watched Pat run back over the crest, vanishing from his view for the last time.
Back in the canyon, Serial 2’s lead GMV finally got the jinga driver to move his vehicle, then maneuvered around it. The gorge twisted, and the lead GMV—bristling with a .50-caliber heavy machine gun on the roof, an M240B rack-mounted machine gun, a SAW gun, three M-4s and buckets of adrenaline—got around the bend, to where the canyon opened wide. The squad leader, Baker, saw muzzle flashes on the hill to his right and a bearded Afghan soldier. At last, an enemy position they could fire on, unlike the unreachable enemy atop the canyon walls. Wrong. It was the Afghan soldier 10 to 15 yards from Pat, wearing old U.S. desert camouflage fatigues, firing his AK-47 at the Taliban up on the ridgeline.
“Contact!” someone shouted. Baker began firing his M-4 at the Afghan, just as Pat returned to his position and began to tell O’Neal of his attack plan. The machine guns in the GMV, following Baker’s lead, unloaded on the hillside. The Afghan soldier dropped dead.
“Stop! Friendlies! Cease fire!” Pat and the other Black Sheep from Serial 1 screamed from the hill. But the gunners on that lead GMV, still deafened by the blasts inside that tight gorge and now by the .50-caliber gun blazing on the roof, couldn’t hear them. The fire from the ridgelines seemed to have ceased, the Taliban apparently in retreat. Pat and his mates raised their arms and waved them back and forth to signal cease-fire. Some of the men in the GMV didn’t see the gesture, others didn’t recognize its meaning. They kept firing.
The driver of the GMV, meanwhile, had spotted Serial 1’s vehicles up ahead and realized those were Black Sheep on the hill. “Friendlies on top!” he shouted. No one heard him. A hot .50-caliber brass casing fell from the roof and burned him. Some of his mates heard his howl of pain and thought he’d been hit by enemy fire, heightening their confusion.
On the hillside Pat heard his young partner’s cries from the boulder below his. “Hey, don’t worry,” Pat called to O’Neal, “I’ve got something that can help us.” Popping up to fling a smoke grenade he hoped would halt the hail of fire, he drew a fusillade of bullets, zinging all around him, pocking his bulletproof vest. The men in the lead GMV thought the smoke had come from an exploding mortar round.
The lead GMV kept moving along the dirt road, but the firing stopped. Russ and O’Neal later recalled seeing it stop, perhaps 33 to 55 yards from Pat’s position, and some of the men inside it getting out. The men in the GMV would say later they didn’t leave the vehicle and the distance they shot from was never that close. Pat and O’Neal, thinking that at last the gunners had realized their blunder, stood and exchanged a few words of relief.
Suddenly, the machine guns opened up again. “Cease fire, friendlies!” Pat howled in disbelief. Russ, hugging the ground, waiting to be hit, heard Pat screaming words he never would have for the first 27 years, five months, and 15 days of his life:
“I am Pat fucking Tillman, dammit! I am Pat fucking Tillman!”
O’Neal, bracing for his own death, suddenly heard pain in Pat’s voice. A moment of silence passed, then he heard what sounded like water gurgling down the hill, felt his shoulder dampening.
O’Neal turned. It wasn’t water. It was a river of blood. The back of Pat’s head was gone.
Oh my God! Oh, my God!” Russ heard O’Neal screaming when the shooting finally ceased. Russ saw O’Neal yanking off his helmet and trying to tear off his bloody clothes. Russ then saw platoon mates go over toward O’Neal with a stretcher and carry a body down that hill. But Russ’ mind refused to ask whose body it was or to add things up, because one plus one would equal devastation.
He pulled security for three quarters of an hour, his eyes scanning the terrain for the enemy to make sure the ambush was over, his head still in the sand. A vehicle pulled up, Kevin perched in the turret. He’d been far to the rear, in the last vehicle of Serial 2, and knew nothing about what had happened to Pat or the two other Black Sheep, Uthlaut and his radio operator, who’d been wounded, possibly, by the spray of bullets from that lead GMV. He kept asking where Pat was, wondering why he hadn’t heard his brother’s booming voice, but no one, as yet, had found the courage to tell him. “Hey, what’s up?” Kevin finally called out to Russ. Just then, a sergeant approached Kevin and said softly, “I’m sorry, I hate to be the one to tell you this … but your brother was killed.”
“What?” said Kevin. “What? … WHAT?”
All at once Russ felt as if there were a black hole inside of him, sucking everything into it. He watched a helicopter take away Pat’s body; a second one came for Kevin. Quietly, in small groups, the men began comparing their versions of what had occurred. The unspeakable realization began to grip the Black Sheep.
America’s most renowned soldier was dead, and they had killed him.
Beautiful Tragedy: In This Moment
Thoughts, at last, began to form in the fog of Russ’ mind as he awoke the next morning. Damn, he wondered, how could that have happened, a total clusterfuck, with men of this quality, men he respected and loved, Army Rangers? Sure, you squeeze off a few rounds in the direction your squad leader fires—that’s understandable. But then you’re taught to scan and wait, identify an enemy target before you start blazing again. Why had so many guys just kept shooting and shooting?
But he hadn’t been in their shoes, seen or felt what they had while roaring out of that trap in the canyon and thinking they were running into the ambush’s second wave. Some of them would say later that the light was bad, all they could see were shapes and muzzle fire because the sun was setting behind that hill. Some —not unlike Pat’s old football teammates, wide receivers Pat had flattened during light-contact scrimmages— felt Pat had been overaggressive, placing his team at risk, even though he had received permission for the position he’d staked.
The sun rose on their silent camp. Russ saw the haunting in those gunners’ eyes, and he felt sick for them. They’d been hung out to dry —all of them, he felt— by leadership decisions made back at the FOB.
The platoon headed back there that day, and the haunting only grew worse. Notices went around, high- and low-ranking soldiers alike called to testify in the Army’s initial investigation into Pat’s death. The Black Sheep wept and couldn’t sleep, one of them growing dizzy at each reference to the horror. They gathered in a large room with a chaplain and officers to vent —a “critical incident stress debrief,” in Army lexicon—where they yelled at each other, then talked and cried on each other’s shoulders. A colonel told some of them that everyone was to blame, not any individual. It wasn’t enough. The platoon, Russ felt, was destroyed, the men in it damaged for the rest of their lives.
Russ missed the stress debrief. As the Tillmans’ closest platoon mate, he was chosen to escort Kevin on a flight to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, to stare for hours at that refrigerated coffin. The two men flew in silence, Russ under orders to say nothing about the incident, “until we get the facts,” and Kevin still assuming the enemy had killed his brother, too stunned and grief-stricken to ask Russ for details.
Dread began to boil inside Russ. In a few days he’d be representing the U.S. Army at Pat’s memorial service, the lone Ranger there who’d been anywhere near Pat when he was killed, facing Pat’s family and friends … under a gag order. He was willing to defy that order, to clean latrines for the rest of his life for the sake of Pat’s family, but he knew bullets were hissing everywhere that day … what if the conclusions he’d drawn were somehow wrong? What if he told Pat’s mom her son had been blown away by his own men and suddenly found himself in a media firestorm, only for Army investigators to uncover evidence proving otherwise?
On the saddest day of his life, he was going to have to squirm and evade the people who loved Pat most.
All he wanted to do, in those few days at his grandmother’s house before Pat’s service, was sleep, find the bottom of a few beer bottles and stare into space, but his cousin yanked him out of bed and dragged him to —of all places— the Sunshine Saloon Sports Bar in Pleasanton, Calif. A young woman named Tammy Wright happened to be sitting at a table there, and though in a mood to meet no one, Russ met the love of his life on a night when he would’ve been 7,500 miles away if Pat hadn’t died. Funny, Pat had told Russ that his old girlfriend was all wrong for him.
The Army, already confused by Kevin’s insistence there be no minister or prayers at the repatriation ceremony for Pat’s body, was bewildered to learn Pat hadn’t wanted a military funeral or 21-gun salute—that it was enough to just go out as a human. His widow, Marie, had those wishes on paper, signed by Pat, to prove it. Instead Pat was cremated, his ashes scattered in the Pacific Ocean and his memorial service held at the park in San Jose where he had stood 10 years earlier at his high school graduation.
When the nationally televised memorial service was held, 11 days after Pat’s death, the Army’s top commanders in the U.S. had already been informed that it was a potential fratricide. They kept that news to themselves, and the hero drum kept pounding. Richard Tillman, trying his best to keep faith with his brother, walked to the microphone and said “He’s not with God. He’s fucking dead.”
Russ nearly disintegrated when the bagpipers blew Amazing Grace as he delivered the folded Stars and Stripes to Pat’s parents and opened his mouth to say, “On behalf of a grateful nation….” The touch of Mary Tillman’s hand kept him from breaking down. Then, for two days, he joined the two-week wake held by Pat’s friends and family in the Tillmans’ front yard, all-nighters spent drinking beer and swapping every Pat story they could muster to keep him alive.
One by one or in little groups off to the side they’d ask Russ to tell them whatever he knew about how Pat had left this world. The hardest—it killed him—was when Kevin asked. Russ kept telling them he saw Pat charging up that hill and going over it, with bullets flying everywhere, bullets from both sides … and then lapsing into silence, choking on what he couldn’t say.
Then it was time for Russ to report back to the men he once trusted more than any on earth, to the organization he once counted on to make him a man. Russ went AWOL.
Here’s the thing about integrity: it’s so easy to stretch, a limp rubber band. How were men who made their living in a bureaucracy—say, the military or the government—to understand the forces at work here? How were people who are accustomed, as most of us are, to giving truth a little pull here, another tug there, for the sake of the institution or their careers, to foresee the tension that would be created when they began stretching the story of the death of a man who put so little stock in institutions or careers, and so much in living an honest life?
Donald Rumsfeld wasn’t the only senior Pentagon figure involved in the events following Tillman’s death. At the time, the now-retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal headed the famed Joint Special Operations Command, running the most secretive Pentagon’s efforts in Afghanistan — including Tillman’s Army Rangers platoon. Seven days after Tillman was killed, amid the mounting evidence of fratricide, McChrystal sent a memo up the chain of command as a heads-up to the president and other senior officials who might make speeches about the incident.
“I felt it was essential you receive this information as soon as we detected it,” McChrystal wrote, “in order to preclude any unknowing statements by our country’s leaders which might cause public embarrassment if the circumstances of Corporal Tillman’s death become public.”
The “if” at the end of the general’s statement was particularly concerning to the Tillman family, in part because subsequent investigations revealed that McChrystal was well-aware of the fact Tillman’s death was a case of fratricide when he sent the memo. Krakauer, in his book, described McChrystal going to “extraordinary lengths to prevent the Tillman family from learning the truth about how Pat died.” Appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee in 2009, McChrystal told lawmakers, “We failed the family.” He added, “It was not intentional.”
How could they know the dynamic they were trifling with as they crafted official statements describing the heroic death of a prize soldier, as they ordered a second investigation when the first one produced such awkward word couplings as “gross” and “negligence”? How could politicians, so determined to couple “honor” and “freedom,” so familiar with limp rubber bands, anticipate the recoil?
Ordinary people feeling pressured—or could it be reflexive now?—to cast the best possible light, to spin anything that happened in life … even death. Ordinary people, never pausing to consider DNA, unaware of how out of the ordinary were the blood relatives of the dead man. A brother who was in that canyon, who knew all the soldiers involved and who’d be rejoining them upon their return from Afghanistan, a philosophy major who’d be waiting with big questions now that his head was beginning to clear. A father who made a living from confrontation, a lawyer equally ready to hurl legalese or obscenities at generals or the Secretary of Defense once the Army admitted, five weeks after Pat’s death, that fratricide had occurred and began disbursing information that raised as many questions as it answered. And a mother. …
Oh, that mother. A woman with no TV, no closet in her bedroom, no need for cosmetics or fashionable clothes, none of the usual numbing agents or distractions. A woman who’d grown up in a family of soldiers, vacationing at Fort Ticonderoga and West Point, eating up military history during monthly family picnics on Gettysburg’s Little Round Top as her father and an uncle walked her through tactical masterstrokes and turning-point blunders, then coming back for second and third helpings as a history major at San Jose State. She’d both admired and protested war-makers, joining demonstrators in Chicago to shout Hell, no! to Vietnam. Intimidated by the glare of four-star generals wielding 1,800-page reports? Hah. As a special-ed teacher, she’d stared down trailers full of emotionally disturbed teenagers from whom colleagues fled, shrieking.
She’d gone through life’s grinder without losing her gristle or her grin. She’d lost her father, an international banker, to a heart attack when she was 18, weathered a divorce and now lost a son in baffling circumstances in a war she didn’t believe in. All that was left of him to fight for was the spirit of his life, that burning authenticity, and so she came home each afternoon from a day of teaching learning-disabled kids, took a deep breath, dug into a massive plastic bin full of documents that she and her ex-husband had compelled the military to produce, turned on her creeping, clogged-artery computer … and went to work. Googling alternate sources, e-mailing experts, telephoning Black Sheep, petitioning congressmen, plying every conscience and pulling every lever she could with the dead weight of her son’s gold-ingot name. Cross-referencing eyewitness testimony, underlining contradictions, scrawling retorts in the margins—like son, like mother: No way!?????… Why the story?… Total Nonsense…. Total Bulls—…. Why all the incompetence?… I’m not buying that!
Post-it notes piling up, bags beneath her eyes deepening, fist pounding on a table as she howled, “Are you fucking kidding me?” to a brigadier general as stories kept changing, as the estimates of the distance between the gun-blazing GMV and Pat kept varying—ballooning as high as 270 yards, shrinking as low as 33—as descriptions of the lighting differed wildly, as eyewitnesses told her that the shooting occurred not in one continuous four-second helter-skelter drive-by the way her family at first was told but in volleys, with stops and starts, perhaps over the course of nearly a minute. She and her brother Mike measuring off the distances on the hillside behind her home and shaking their heads in disbelief when Mike, from 55 yards, could see Mary’s earrings and the three buttons on her blouse. Running back to her computer, firing off another 32 questions for Sen. John McCain to unload on the Pentagon. Mary Tillman was a bulldog.
Yes, it was true, she and Pat had always been fascinated by conspiracy theories, the back-room machinations of power and money. But what was she supposed to do when, Mary says, an Army coroner told her that he did not sign an initial casualty report that stated her son had been killed by enemy fire, because he knew the enemy at that distance wasn’t skilled enough to send three bullets that close together through a man’s forehead?
How was she supposed to let go when so many lapses in judgment and standard procedure seemed to have occurred? How was she supposed to respond when she learned that the testimony of soldiers was changing, that culpability was vanishing, that Pat’s uniform and body armor had been burned within three days of his death, that the initial investigator’s report was buried and redone after he recommended that “certain leaders be investigated” for “gross negligence” in deciding to split the platoon and have it travel in daylight, and that two gunners be punished for gross negligence and loss of control.
What was she supposed to think when she read one officer’s conclusion the Tillmans, “not being Christian, I’m not really sure what they believe or how they can get their head around death. So, in my personal opinion, sir, that is why I don’t think they’ll ever be satisfied.”
Mary avoided TV cameras and news crews. Too melodramatic, that game. She let the antiwar boat float by. Too muddy, that water. One man’s story. One man’s determination to live an honest life … turned on its head and spun in circles by his death. She’d let her son’s story stand on its own, let others detect patterns, connect dots.
The Army awarded her son a Silver Star for valor, perhaps unprecedented for a victim of fratricide. Pat’s family felt it was a token to appease them, another attempt to use him in the propagation of patriotic myth. The Army was confounded. Following its first investigation, headed by a captain in Pat’s battalion, it had produced a 109-page investigation by a lieutenant colonel in Pat’s regiment, then been pressured by the Tillmans into a far more extensive one spearheaded by a brigadier general.
The Army disciplined seven men for the incident, penalties ranging from pay-cuts and loss of rank to dismissal from the Rangers and return to the rank-and-file Army. Mere wrist slaps, the family felt, little more than a soldier might get for cursing a superior officer. Their questions and pressure kept mounting, compelling a fourth investigation, this one by the Department of Defense’s Inspector General.
Nonetheless, I felt I had to testify before Congress this spring so I could set the record straight once and for all. I saw it as a chance to say—again—that I never took credit for anything I didn’t do, and that I don’t know why the military and media tried to make me a legend. I also wanted to show my support for Pat Tillman, the football star and soldier. The military had put out the story that he’d been killed by the enemy in Afghanistan, but actually it was friendly fire. The Tillman family is still looking for the whole truth.
Yes, the Army finally admitted, it had violated its own regulations by waiting more than a month to inform the Tillmans their son had died as a result of fratricide, but only out of a desire to wait until it had gathered all the facts. As for the burning of the uniform and body armor that might have shown bullet evidence, the Army countered it was done only because the bloodied gear was considered a potential biohazard and hygiene issue, that they might stir emotion, and because officers in the field had already determined fratricide was a foregone conclusion.
How far up the chain of command did such decision making go? Would the Army—which told Kevin about the fratricide only after his mates returned to Fort Lewis a month after Pat’s death— ever have done even that if it hadn’t had to because Kevin was in the platoon?
“I never had the sensation anybody wanted me to do anything except to tell the truth,” one officer testified in a subsequent investigation. “I was told over and over, ‘This is ugly, but find the truth and let’s get out and let’s get it done.’ … I think you’d have a hard time finding any impediments or that the investigation was blocked or smeared in some way.”
Mary didn’t have a hard time.
“You try to picture, How did my child die? and it keeps changing,” she said. “It’s like Pat has died seven times in my head. You think you’re losing your mind for months. They attached themselves to his virtue and then threw him under the bus. They had no regard for him as a person. He’d hate to be used for a lie. I don’t care if they put a bullet through my head in the middle of the night. I’m not stopping.”
Finally, last March, the Inspector General’s office asked Army investigators to open a fifth investigation, this one to determine if the negligence involved was criminal. Now Mary could only wait. Two years had passed since that day she’d picked up the phone and heard Pat’s wife cry, “He’s dead!” Two years, and finally the armor she’d worn for the battle, the distance that she’d kept between herself and the words on those thousands of pages so she could use them as weapons, began to disintegrate, leaving her defenseless against the grief.
She wanted no one outside her circle to know about that grief. Because then she, too, would be using something pure as a tool. Just imagine a mother alone in a house typing Where is my son? into a Google box and pressing the search button. That’s what Mary Tillman did one night.
Here’s what’s amazing: If you type “Where is my son?” into a Google box and press the search button, you actually get answers—22,700 of them! They’re not real answers to Mary Tillman’s question, of course, no more than any of the myths we reach for when we’re lost or scared, but we grab for them anyway because they make us feel better, for a while.
So much do we need them that we’ll even take the guy who came right out and said that the myths are a load of crap and hoist him on our shoulders to make another myth.The President did it, materializing on the massive video screen at an Arizona Cardinals game in a taped homage to Pat and the global war on terror seven weeks before he was up for reelection in 2004. The Defense Department, with the Abu Ghraib prisoner-abuse scandal breaking a week after Pat’s death, did it as well.
Even Russ, who cherished Pat for standing on his own without the myths, would discover how hard it is not to reach for one when life ambushed him again. It’s what we do to get by, because none of us wants to drink ourselves into oblivion, the way Russ began doing after he’d lost his role model. None of us wants to lie in bed all night without sleeping, as he did, then doze off at last, only to awaken, crying out, wet with sweat. None of us wants to feel like a victim, lose all appetite for life, and then start screaming at the woman we love, the way Russ started doing to Tammy.
Under threat of court-martial, he’d reported to Fort Lewis after two days on the lam, lost a rank and swabbed toilets for weeks, but none of that mattered to him. He just couldn’t trust anymore. He lost 30 pounds. He stopped writing in his notebook. But it wasn’t only in his pen that words got stuck. He was shocked, now and then, to find himself stammering, his brain misplacing words. He wanted to punch a wall when a sergeant major told the platoon, “You guys need to get over the whole Tillman thing and get on with your life. I’m tired of hearing about it. Get over it.” But far worse was Kevin’s frigid silence, his assumption that Russ had been part of a deception.
Kevin entered sniper school at Fort Bragg, learned the solitary man’s killing art, and was asked if he wanted to deploy again to Iraq. Even in the swirl of all his anger and sorrow, he still felt bound in a pact with his brother to see this commitment through. His mother and uncle flew to North Carolina and begged him not to go, and when he learned he’d be sent over with men involved in Pat’s death, that, finally, was just too much. He went to a commander and took a pass.
One day at Fort Lewis, Kevin’s and Russ’s eyes finally met. They talked it out, and Kevin told Russ he understood. Russ later told Kevin and his mother everything he saw the day Pat died. But something inside Russ remained broken. He left the Army in February 2005, 10 months after Pat’s death.
Eight months later, Maverick Patrick Baer entered the world. He was born with his heart facing backward, and three other life-threatening cardiac defects. It would be nice to say that Mav’s birth is what turned his dad’s life around, but this isn’t fairy-tale time. One night, unable to contain his hurt and rage, Russ began throwing things and shouting again at Tammy. “You don’t understand!” he howled.
“I’ll call the police if you don’t stop,” she cried. “I don’t feel safe with you. I think you need help.”
“I don’t care anymore,” he said.
He pulled out the video of Pat’s memorial service and watched it again and again, 15 times, crying and murmuring, “I miss you, I wish you were here.” He and Tammy wrapped each other in a head-to-toe hug and wept.
He realized that it would take a lot more than hoisting each beer to Pat before he drank it, more than wearing a silver bracelet engraved with Pat’s name and the date of Pat’s death. If he really treasured his lost friend, he’d begin living by the values he had treasured in Pat. So Russ dug in, began scribbling reminders to himself about goals and personal responsibility and sticking them everywhere. He cut way back on his drinking. He wrote a letter to Pat, thanking him for showing him how to change his life.
But life hammered him again. It was the night after Maverick underwent heart surgery, when he was five months old, and all at once arched his back and froze as Russ and Tammy stared down at him. Suddenly the nurse was shouting “Code blue!” and a dozen people were storming in, ordering Russ and Tammy to get out, leaving them in the hallways watching their child turning gray and flopping like a fish as doctors and nurses pounded on him, shoved tubes into him, sliced open his chest and began massaging his heart. Still they couldn’t get it beating. “Get back from the doorway!” one cried to Russ. “You’re at risk for posttraumatic stress disorder!”
“I’ve already got it!” Russ cried back.
His son slipping away in front of his eyes, Russ found himself doing the strangest thing, pleading in his head, If you just get him through this, Pat, I’ll do EVERYTHING I can to be the best I can be. I don’t care how you give him back to me, even if he’s a vegetable and I have to feed him through a tube when he’s 75, please, I don’t care, just keep him alive! That’s right: a guy who didn’t believe in an afterlife praying to another guy who didn’t believe in an afterlife—and who was dead—to rescue his boy.
A nurse came out finally and told them that Maverick’s brain had gone without oxygen for nearly an hour, that he’d suffered massive liver and kidney damage and that even if he survived, he might never walk, talk or see.
Two more surgeries were done, and then the damnedest things began to happen. His eyes opened and slowly began to focus, then one day he grinned, then one day his hand began grabbing his parents’ fingers and squeezing, just like any other kid’s, and Russ couldn’t help feeling that somehow it was because of Pat, and that now he had to live up to that promise he’d made.
But then that myth fell apart too. On Sunday, near midnight—six months after that terrifying night in the hospital—Maverick began vomiting blood. Apparently, his pulmonary artery had ruptured, and three hours later the 11-month-old baby was dead.
So Russ is going to walk around forever with the story he was holding for his son.That’s the thing about Pat. He won’t go away, because he’s become a symbol of our best side and how we’ll give even that away for a soothing lie. We’ll hear about people who believe in myths more than ever because of Pat, and about people who have lost that belief because of him. We’ll hear about young people coming out of the Pat Tillman Foundation’s leadership program at Arizona State and fanning out, in Pat’s name, to change the world.
Perhaps, in the aftermath of the current criminal investigation, we will hear another version of Pat’s story from the officers who made the decisions the day he died. Then the trigger-pullers—the ones perhaps not lucky enough to have raced out of a pizza parlor at 17 and learned what can happen to a man when his adrenaline’s up and he’s certain he’s doing the right thing—might come forward with their Pat, as well. We’ll read books about him and likely watch movies made by men who went to Afghanistan and walked in that canyon in search of his spirit.
But if we really want to know who Pat was, our best chance, maybe our only chance, is to look hard at that picture of a half-naked man doing a handstand on a roof. Doing something he loved to do just because it was hard and scary, sort of like telling the truth.
When Pat was killed, Marie and the Tillman family received thousands of small donations, from $5 bills to $100 checks. Eventually, the total surpassed $1 million, so they started the foundation.
Early on, Marie met two veterans who had returned to Arizona State, Pat’s alma mater, with grand ambitions and little support. She wanted to help them. So in 2008 she sharpened the foundation’s focus, concentrating on aid to soldiers or their spouses as they transition out of combat and onto college campuses. They’re known as Tillman Scholars—520 of them so far—and they’ve received $15 million in support to date. They didn’t lose hope. They embody it.
Further Reading on the Tillman Story
“Code of Honor”(Sports Illustrated, May 3, 2004) This may have been the first national written public announcement of the tragedy. I am not certain about this; however, I am certain this article is how I first learned of Pat Tillman’s death, as its cover will be forever etched in my mind.
“Barrage of Bullets”(Washington Post, Dec. 5, 2004)
Extraordinary two-part series about Tillman’s death and its aftermath–perhaps the best account yet written. Includes timelines and interactive maps of the battlefield where he was killed.
“Family Demands the Truth” (San Francisco Chronicle, Sept. 25, 2005)
Another thorough accounting of Tillman’s service, fratricide, and the military cover-up that followed.
From the above SF Chronicle report.
“Criminal Probe in Tillman Case Set to Open”(Washington Post, March 5, 2006)
The most recent major news development in the affair.
“The Mysterious Death of Pat Tillman” (New York Times, Nov. 6, 2005)
Frank Rich puts Tillman’s death into the context of other Bush administration cover-ups, from Pvt. Jessica Lynch to Scooter Libby.
“Tillman’s Parents Are Critical Of Army”(Washington Post, May 23, 2005)
Blistering quotes that lay bare the family’s anger toward the military.
‘They tried to attach themselves to his virtue; then they wiped their feet with him.’ Robert Scheer (Truthdig, March 8, 2006)
Boots on the Ground Mary Tillman (2008)
Why Can’t We Just Play Ball? The Militarization of Sports and the Redefinition of Patriotism By William Astore (Tom Dispatch August 19, 2018)
A thoughtful analysis of the commercialization of the military through its NFL advertising campaign, and how this controls our public narrative of the US military.
ESPN Sports Century A video documentary of Pat Tillman’s story in 6 parts.
“Live it Like Pat”
A short Flash movie about Tillman’s life.
Pat Tillman Foundation
Organization dedicated to “inspiring and supporting others striving to promote positive change in themselves and the world around them.”
Sourcing: The information in this Sports Illustrated story “Remember His Name” about the personal life of Pat Tillman came from interviews with the family members, friends, agents, coaches, teammates, team administrators and platoon mates listed below.
The account of events occurring immediately prior to and during the battle in which Tillman died, along with the military’s actions following his death, came from the sworn testimony of U.S. Army personnel in the reports on investigations conducted in 2004 by Lieut. Col. Ralph Kauzlarich and in 2004 by Brig. Gen. Gary Jones.
That testimony was complemented by the eyewitness account provided by Russell Baer. Those interviewed were B.J. Alford, Russell Baer, Frank Bauer, Mark Brand, Kenny Chapman, Perry Edinger, Bob Ferguson, Alex Garwood, Scot Gillis, Rob Gilmore, Sherri Greer, Terry Hardtke, Jeff Hechtle, Ben Hill, Larry Marmie, Dave McGinnis, Peggy Melbourne, Sydney Melbourne, Keith Poole, Mark Poole, Jared Schrieber, Lyle Setencich, Bruce Snyder, Mike Spalding, Doug Tammaro, Kevin Tillman, Marie Tillman, Mary Tillman, Patrick Tillman, Richard Tillman, Brian Willis, Tammy Wright. The Army had no comment last week on its latest investigation into Tillman’s death.