Pat Tillman was probably killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan after a U.S. soldier mistakenly shot at an Afghan soldier in the former NFL player’s unit, military officials said Saturday.
Tillman walked away from a $3.6 million contract with the Arizona Cardinals to join the Army after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Previous military statements suggested he was killed by enemy fire.
According to an Army investigation, Tillman was shot to death on April 22 after the friendly Afghan soldier in Tillman’s unit was mistakenly fired upon, and other U.S. soldiers then fired in the same direction.
“While there was no one specific finding of fault, the investigation results indicate that Cpl. Tillman probably died as a result of friendly fire while his unit was engaged in combat with enemy forces,” Lt. Gen. Philip R. Kensinger Jr. said in a brief statement to reporters at the Army Special Operations Command.
Kensinger said the firefight took place in “very severe and constricted terrain with impaired light” with 10 to 12 enemy combatants firing on U.S. forces.
But an Afghan military official told The Associated Press on Saturday that Tillman died because of a “misunderstanding” when two mixed groups of American and Afghan soldiers began firing wildly in the confusion following a land mine explosion.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, the Afghan official said, “(There) were no enemy forces” present when Tillman died.
Kensinger, who heads Army Special Forces, took no questions Saturday morning after reading the Army statement. An Afghan Defense Ministry official declined to comment on whether enemy forces were present, while U.S. military officials in Afghanistan referred all queries to Fort Bragg.
In Washington, Pentagon officials refused to comment on the Afghan report.
According to the Army’s investigation, Tillman’s team had split from a second unit when a Ranger whom the Army did not identify fired on a friendly Afghan soldier, mistaking him for the enemy.
Seeing that gunfire and not realizing its origin, other U.S. soldiers fired in the same direction, killing Tillman and an Afghan soldier. Two other Rangers were wounded in the gunfight.
“The results of this investigation in no way diminished the bravery and sacrifice displayed by Cpl. Tillman,” Kensinger said.
Tillman, 27, left his position as a starting safety for Arizona to join the Army following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. He was posthumously promoted from specialist to corporal and awarded a Purple Heart and Silver Star, one of the military’s highest honors, awarded for gallantry on the battlefield.
Thousands of people, including celebrities and politicians, attended a memorial service at Sun Devil Stadium earlier this month. At a memorial service in his hometown of San Jose, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., called him “a most honorable man.”
“While many of us will be blessed to live a longer life, few of us will ever live a better one,” said McCain, who spent 5½ years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.
A woman who answered the phone Saturday at the home of Tillman’s uncle, Hank Tillman, said the family would have no comment on the findings in the Army’s investigation.
At Fort Bragg, an officer with the 30th Engineer Battalion said the circumstances of Tillman’s death do not change his heroism.
“A lot of us sacrifice something, but no one sacrificed as much as he did to join,” Sgt. Matt Harbursky said as he prepared to play a round of golf at the base course. “And it doesn’t really matter how he was killed, it’s sad.”
Prior to Saturday, the Army’s most complete account of Tillman’s death came in his Silver Star citation, which said he was killed after his platoon split into two sections for what officials called a ground assault convoy. Tillman was in charge of the lead group.
When the trailing group came under mortar and small arms fire, the Army said Tillman ordered his team to return.
“Through the firing, Tillman’s voice was heard issuing fire commands to take the fight to the enemy on the dominating high ground,” the citation said. “Only after his team engaged the well-armed enemy did it appear their fires diminished.”
The Afghan official gave the AP a differing account, based on his conversation with an Afghan fighter from the group that was separated from Tillman’s. The Afghan soldier said the two groups drifted apart during the operation in the remote Spera district of Khost province, close to the Pakistani border.
“Suddenly the sound of a mine explosion was heard somewhere between the two groups and the Americans in one group started firing,” the official said.
“Nobody knew what it was — a mine, a remote-controlled bomb — or what was going on, or if enemy forces were firing. The situation was very confusing,” the official said.
“As the result of this firing, that American was killed and three Afghan soldiers were injured. It was a misunderstanding and afterwards they realized that it was a mine that had exploded and there were no enemy forces.”
Tillman’s platoon was in the area as part of an effort called Operation Mountain Storm, in which they were charged with rooting out Taliban and al-Qaida fighters.
Tillman became the first NFL player to die in combat since the Vietnam War. He was one of about 100 U.S. soldiers to have been killed in Afghanistan since the United States invaded in 2001.
Associated Press writer Stephen Graham contributed to this report from Kabul, Afghanistan and AP Military Writer Robert Burns contributed from Washington.