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