A Ranger platoon is typically organized into three squads, each consisting of two “fire teams” of six or fewer men. When Uthlaut was forced to hastily divide his platoon back in Magarah, he put Third Squad (commanded by Weeks) in Serial One and assigned the bulk of First and Second squads to Serial Two. Because the two convoys needed to be of more or less equal size, however, Uthlaut pulled two men from Second Squad and added them to Serial One. These two soldiers were Private O’Neal, a baby- faced eighteen-year-old who was the youngest, greenest member of the entire unit; and SpecialistPatrick Tillman, the leader of O’Neal’s fire team.
Tillman— twenty- seven years old, previously employed as a strong safety in the National Football League—was unquestionably the most famous enlisted man in Afghanistan. When the World Trade Center came crashing to earth on September 11, 2001, he had been a star player with the Arizona Cardinals, renowned for patrolling the defensive backfield with riveting intensity. But Tillman came from a family with a tradition of military service that went back several generations, and he believed that as an able- bodied American he had a moral obligation to serve his country during a time of war. He didn’t think he should be exempt from his duty as a citizen simply because he played professional football. So after the 2001 NFL season he walked away from a $3.6 million contract and volunteered to spend the next three years of his life as an infantryman in the U.S. Army. His brother Kevin, fourteen months younger than Pat, had enlisted at the same time and was a member of Uthlaut’s platoon as well.
When the platoon was split in Magarah, Kevin had been assigned to Serial Two. Now, as Pat listened to the exploding mortar shells and the pop-pop-pop-pop of rifle fire, he was hyperaware that his little brother was somewhere back in the confines of the canyon getting hammered. The moment Sergeant Weeks directed the Rangers to move up the hill, Tillman sprang into action. “Pat was like a freight train,” says Private Josey Boatright, recalling how Tillman sprinted past him. “Whoosh. A pit bull straining against his leash. He took off toward the high ground, yelling, ‘O’Neal! On me! O’Neal! Stay on me!’ ”
According to O’Neal, Pat told him, “ ‘Let’s go help our boys,’ and he started moving. And wherever he went, I went.”
The route to the village ascended a steep gully, the bottom of which was six thousand feet above sea level. Between his weapons, body armor, night- vision optics, CamelBak water bladders, grenades, and extra ammunition, each Ranger was carrying more than sixty pounds of dead weight. Thus burdened, within seconds of leaving the vehicles, everyone was gasping for air, but the sounds of the nearby battle—moving noticeably closer by the minute—kept the Rangers pushing upward despite the pain. When they reached the village, the Rangers performed a “hasty clear,” passing quickly through the settlement without pausing to search inside any of the buildings, and then hurried toward the crest of a spur that rose above the village.
Tillman was among the first to arrive atop the spur, which was devoid of trees or other cover. After pausing for a few seconds to assess the lay of the land, he continued over the crest and scurried down the other side to a pair of low boulders, accompanied by O’Neal and a twenty-seven-year-old Afghan soldier named Sayed Farhad. These rocks afforded only minimal protection from enemy fire but provided an excellent view of the wadi where Tillman expected Serial Two to emerge from the mouth of the gorge.
A few minutes later two vehicles came speeding out of the canyon and stopped ninety yards beneath the boulders. Several Rangers climbed out of a Humvee and gazed up toward Tillman and O’Neal, who waved to let their buddies know they were up there and had them covered. It appeared as though Serial Two had escaped the ambush and everything was copacetic. And then, without warning, hundreds of bullets began to pulverize the slope around Tillman, O’Neal, and Farhad.
Ever since Homo sapiens first coalesced into tribes, war has been part of the human condition. Inevitably, warring societies portray their campaigns as virtuous struggles, and present their fallen warriors as heroes who made the ultimate sacrifice for a noble cause. But death by so- called friendly fire, which is an inescapable aspect of armed conflict in the modern era, doesn’t conform to this mythic narrative. It strips away war’s heroic veneer to reveal what lies beneath. It’s an unsettling reminder that barbarism, senseless violence, and random death are commonplace even in the most “just” and “honorable” of wars. Consequently, and unsurprisingly, when soldiers accidentally kill one of their own, there is tremendous reluctance to confront the truth within the ranks of the military. There is an overwhelming inclination to keep the unsavory particulars hidden from public view, to pretend the calamity never occurred. Thus it has always been, and probably always will be. As Aeschylus, the exalted Greek tragedian, noted in the fifth century b.c., “In war, truth is the first casualty.”
When Pat Tillman was killed in Afghanistan, his Ranger regiment responded with a chorus of prevarication and disavowal. A cynical cover- up sanctioned at the highest levels of government, followed by a series of inept official investigations, cast a cloud of bewilderment and shame over the tragedy, compounding the heartbreak of Tillman’s death.
Among the several thousand pages of documents generated by military investigators, some baffling testimony emerged from the Ranger who is believed to have fired the bullets that ended Tillman’s life. In a sworn statement, this soldier explained that while shooting a ten- round burst from his machine gun at the hillside where Tillman and O’Neal were positioned, he “identified two sets of arms straight up” through the scope of his weapon. “I saw the arms waving,” he acknowledged, “but I didn’t think they were trying to signal a cease-fire.” So he pulled the trigger again and sprayed them with another ten- round burst. How was one supposed to make sense of this?
Or this: in July 2007, the Associated Press published an article reporting that the Navy pathologist who performed Tillman’s autopsy testified that the forensic evidence indicated Tillman had been shot three times in the head from a distance of thirty- five feet or less. The article prompted widespread speculation on the Internet and in the mainstream press that he had been deliberately murdered.
Many other details about the fatal firefight that found their way into the public domain were similarly perplexing. Perhaps the greatest mystery, however, surrounded not the circumstances of Tillman’s death but the essential facts of his life. Before he enlisted, Tillman was familiar to sports aficionados as an undersized, overachieving football player whose virtuosity in the defensive backfield was spellbinding. But during the four years he spent in the NFL, Tillman played for the Arizona Cardinals—a mediocre small- market team that was seldom in the limelight—so his name wasn’t widely recognized beyond the realm of hard- core football fans.
Although it wasn’t Tillman’s intention, when he left the Cardinals to join the Army he was transformed overnight into an icon of post-9/11 patriotism. Seizing the opportunity to capitalize on his celebrity, the Bush administration endeavored to use his name and image to promote what it had christened the Global War on Terror. Tillman abhorred this role. As soon as he decided to enlist, he stopped talking to the press altogether, although his silence did nothing to squelch America’s fascination with the football star who traded the bright lights and riches of the NFL for boot camp and a bad haircut. Following his death on the battlefield, the public’s interest in Tillman shot through the roof. The posthumous media frenzy shed little light on who he really was, however. The intricate mosaic of personal history that defined his existence was obscured by the blizzard of hype.
Unencumbered by biographical insight, people felt emboldened to invent all manner of personae for Tillman after his passing. Most of these renderings were based on little more than rumor and fantasy. The right- wing harridan Ann Coulter claimed him as an exemplar of Republican political values. The left- wing editorial cartoonist Ted Rall denigrated him in a four- panel comic strip as an “idiot” who joined the Army to “kill Arabs.” Neither Coulter nor Rall had any idea what motivated Pat Tillman. Beyond his family and a small circle of close friends, few people did.