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.
"Cease fire! Friendlies!" Tillman cried out.
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. For a few moments, the firing had stopped. Tillman stood up, chattering in relief. Then the machine gun bursts erupted again.
"I could hear the pain in his voice," recalled the young Ranger who was near him. 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 stopped."
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 been told.
An unnecessary death
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 Tillman's commanders.
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 questions.
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 the same.
'I really haven't done a damn thing'
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 thing."
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.
'Thirsty to be the best'
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," White said.
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 19-year-old kid."
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.
Stuck in enemy territory
Uthlaut's mission, as Army investigators later put it, was to kill or capture any "anti-coalition members" that he and his men could find.
The trouble began with a Humvee's broken fuel pump.
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 his repair.
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 superior.
"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 called Manah.
'Boots on the ground'
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 objective.
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.
Hustling in the dark
He pulled his men together hastily and briefed them. Twenty-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 One, led by Uthlaut and including Pat Tillman, would move immediately to Manah.
Serial Two, with the local tow truck hauling the Humvee, would follow, but would soon branch off toward a highway to drop off the vehicle.
Sgt. Greg Baker, a young and slightly built Ranger nearing the end of his enlistment, commanded the heaviest-armed vehicle in Serial Two, 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 Two. 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 Two 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 One had taken. After Serial Two passed Manah, the group could circle around to the designated highway. Serial Two'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 Two, with about 17 Rangers in six vehicles, entered the narrow canyon that Serial One had just left.
Mortars start falling
Then he heard the first explosion, the platoon sergeant thought one of his vehicles had struck a land mine or a roadside bomb.
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.
'Press the fight'
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 Two 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 good."
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.
'I remember not liking his position'
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 sergeant ordered.
"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 Two's Rangers said later that as they shot their way out of the canyon, they had no idea where their comrades in Serial One might be.
'We have friendlies on top!'
"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 same direction.
As they pulled alongside the ridge, the gunners poured an undisciplined barrage of hundreds of rounds into the area Tillman and other members of Serial One 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 One 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 One 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'
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."
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 remembered shouting.
"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.
'I was scared to death'
A sergeant farther up the ridge from Tillman fired a flare — an even clearer signal than Tillman's smoke grenade that these were friendly forces.
By now Baker's truck had pulled past the ridge and had come into plain sight of Serial One'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 cease-fire.
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 Two'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.
'A river of blood'
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 Two 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 killed.
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, age 27.
His brother Kevin arrived on the scene in Serial Two's trailing vehicle.
Delaying the painful truth
Kevin Tillman declined to be interviewed for these stories 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.
Staff writer Josh White contributed to this report.