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Army glossed over Tillman's ill-fated mission

Just days after Pat Tillman died on a desolate ridge in Afghanistan, the U.S. Army released a brief account of his last moments — a distorted and incomplete narrative  that failed to mention that Tillman died at the hands of his fellow soldiers.
Members of the Arizona Cardinals staff set up a picture of Cpl. Pat Tillman before a public memorial service in San Jose in May. The Army initially kept details of Tillman's 'friendly fire' death from Tillman's family and the public.Jeff Chiu / AP
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Just days after Pat Tillman died from friendly fire on a desolate ridge in southeastern Afghanistan, the U.S. Army Special Operations Command released a brief account of his last moments.

The April 30, 2004, statement awarded Tillman a posthumous Silver Star for combat valor and described how a section of his Ranger platoon came under attack.

"He ordered his team to dismount and then maneuvered the Rangers up a hill near the enemy's location," the release said. "As they crested the hill, Tillman directed his team into firing positions and personally provided suppressive fire ... Tillman's voice was heard issuing commands to take the fight to the enemy forces."

It was a stirring tale and fitting eulogy for the Army's most famous volunteer in the war on terrorism, a charismatic former pro football star whose reticence, courage and handsome beret-draped face captured for many Americans the best aspects of the country's post-Sept. 11 character.

It was also a distorted and incomplete narrative, according to dozens of internal Army documents obtained by The Washington Post that describe Tillman's death by fratricide after a chain of botched communications, a misguided order to divide his platoon over the objection of its leader and undisciplined firing by fellow Rangers.

Truth glossed over
The Army's public release made no mention of friendly fire, even though at the time it was issued, investigators in Afghanistan had already taken at least 14 sworn statements from Tillman's platoon members that made clear the true causes of his death. The statements included a searing account from the Ranger nearest Tillman during the firefight, who quoted him as shouting "Cease fire! Friendlies!" with his last breaths.

Army records show Tillman fought bravely during his final battle. He followed orders, never wavered and at one stage proposed discarding his heavy body armor, apparently because he wanted to charge a distant ridge occupied by the enemy, an idea his immediate superior rejected, witness statements show.

But the Army's published account not only withheld all evidence of fratricide, but it exaggerated Tillman's role and stripped his actions of their context. Tillman was not one of the senior commanders on the scene — he directed only himself, one other Ranger and an Afghan militiaman, under supervision from others. And witness statements in the Army's files at the time of the press release describe Tillman's voice ringing out on the battlefield mainly in a desperate effort, joined by other Rangers on his ridge, to warn comrades to stop shooting at their own men.

The Army's April 30 press release was just one episode in a broader Army effort to manage the uncomfortable facts of Pat Tillman's death, according to internal records and interviews.

Family left in the dark
During several weeks of memorials and commemorations that followed Tillman's death, commanders at his 75th Ranger Regiment and their superiors hid the truth about friendly fire from Tillman's brother Kevin, who had fought with Pat in the same platoon, but was not involved in the firing incident and did not know the cause of his brother's death. Commanders also withheld the facts from Tillman's widow, his parents, national politicians and the public, according to records and interviews with sources involved in the case.

On May 3, Ranger and Army officers joined hundreds of mourners at a public ceremony in San Jose, Calif., where Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Denver Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer and Maria Shriver took the podium to remember Tillman. The visiting officers gave no hint of the evidence investigators had collected in Afghanistan.

In a telephone interview, McCain said: "I think it would have been helpful to have at least their suspicions known" before he spoke about Tillman's death in public. Even more, he said, "the family deserved some kind of heads-up that there would be questions."

McCain said yesterday that questions raised by Mary Tillman, Pat's mother, about how the Army handled the case led him to meet twice earlier this fall with Army officers and former acting Army secretary Les Brownlee to seek answers. About a month ago, McCain said, Brownlee told him that the Pentagon would reopen its investigation. McCain said that he was not certain about the scope of the new investigation but that he believed it is continuing. A Pentagon official confirmed that an investigation is underway, but Army spokesmen declined to comment further.

'Accidents happen'
When she first learned that friendly fire had taken her son's life, "I was upset about it, but I thought, 'Well, accidents happen,' " Mary Tillman said in a telephone interview Sunday. "Then when I found out that it was because of huge negligence at places along the way — you have time to process that and you really get annoyed."

As memorials and press releases shaped public perceptions in May, Army commanders privately pursued military justice investigations of several low-ranking Rangers who had fired on Tillman's position and officers who issued the ill-fated mission's orders, records show.

Army records show that Col. James C. Nixon, the 75th Ranger Regiment's commander, accepted his chief investigator's findings on the same day, May 8, that he was officially appointed to run the case. A spokesman for U.S. Central Command, or CENTCOM, which is legally responsible for the investigation, declined to respond to a question about the short time frame between the appointment and the findings.

The Army acknowledged only that friendly fire "probably" killed Tillman when Lt. Gen. Philip R. Kensinger Jr. made a terse announcement on May 29 at Fort Bragg, N.C. Kensinger declined to answer further questions and offered no details about the investigation, its conclusions, or who might be held accountable.

'In accordance with policies'
Army spokesmen said last week that they followed standard policy in delaying and limiting disclosure of fratricide evidence. "All the services do not prematurely disclose any investigation findings until the investigation is complete," said Lt. Col. Hans Bush, chief of public affairs for the Army Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg. The Silver Star narrative released on April 30 came from information provided by Ranger commanders in the field, Bush said.

Kensinger's May 29 announcement that fratricide was probable came from an executive summary supplied by Central Command only the night before, he said. Because Kensinger was unfamiliar with the underlying evidence, he felt he could not answer questions, Bush said.

For its part, Central Command, headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, handled the disclosures "in accordance with [Department of Defense] policies," Lt. Cmdr. Nick Balice, a command spokesman, said in an e-mail on Saturday responding to questions. Asked specifically why Central Command withheld any suggestion of fratricide when Army investigators by April 26 had collected at least 14 witness statements describing the incident, Balice wrote in an e-mail: "The specific details of this incident were not known until the completion of the investigation."

Few guidelines for handling friendly fire
The U.S. military has confronted a series of prominent friendly fire cases in recent years, in part because hair-trigger technology and increasingly lethal remote-fire weapons can quickly turn relatively small mistakes into deadly tragedies. Yet the military's justice system has few consistent guidelines for such cases, according to specialists in Army law. Decision-making about how to mete out justice rests with individual unit commanders who often work in secret, acting as both investigators and judges. Their judgments can vary widely from case to case.

"You can have tremendously divergent outcomes at a very low level of visibility," said Eugene R. Fidell, president of the National Institute of Military Justice and a visiting lecturer at Harvard Law School. "That does not necessarily contribute to public confidence in the administration of justice in the military. Other countries have been moving away" from systems that put field commanders in charge of their own fratricide investigations, he said.

In the Tillman case those factors were compounded by the victim's extraordinary public profile. Also, Tillman's April 22 death was announced just days before the shocking disclosure of photographs of abuse by U.S. soldiers working as guards in Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison. The photos ignited an international furor and generated widespread questions about discipline and accountability in the Army.

Commemorations of Tillman's courage and sacrifice offered contrasting images of honorable service, undisturbed by questions about possible command or battlefield mistakes.

Whatever the cause, McCain said, "you may have at least a subconscious desire here to portray the situation in the best light, which may not have been totally justified."

Working in private last spring, the 75th Ranger Regiment moved quickly to investigate and wrap up the case, Army records show.

Immediately after the incident, platoon members generated after-action statements and investigators working in Afghanistan gathered logs, documents and e-mails. The investigators interviewed platoon members and senior officers to reconstruct the chain of events. By early May, the evidence made clear in precise detail how the disaster unfolded.

Decisions held grave consequences
On patrol in Taliban-infested sectors of Afghanistan's Paktia province, Tillman's "Black Sheep" platoon, formally known as 2nd Platoon, A Company, 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, became bogged down because of a broken Humvee. Lt. David Uthlaut, the platoon leader, recommended that his unit stay together, deliver the truck to a nearby road, then complete his mission. He was overruled by a superior officer monitoring his operations from distant Bagram, near Kabul, who ordered Uthlaut to split his platoon, with one section taking care of the Humvee and the other proceeding to a village, where the platoon was to search for enemy guerrillas.

Steep terrain and high canyon walls prevented the two platoon sections from communicating with each other at crucial moments. When one section unexpectedly changed its route and ran into an apparent Taliban ambush while trapped in a deep canyon, the other section from a nearby ridge began firing in support at the ambushers. As the ambushed group broke free from the canyon, machine guns blazing, one heavily armed vehicle mistook an allied Afghan militiaman for the enemy and poured hundreds of rounds at positions occupied by fellow Rangers, killing Pat Tillman and the Afghan.

Investigators had to decide whether low-ranking Rangers who did the shooting had followed their training or had fired so recklessly that they should face military discipline or criminal charges. The investigators also had to decide whether more senior officers whose decisions contributed to the chain of confusion around the incident were liable.

'Failure to exercise fire discipline'
Reporting formally to Col. Nixon in Bagram on May 8, the case's chief investigator offered nine specific conclusions, which Nixon endorsed, according to the records.

Among them:

  • The decision by a Ranger commander to divide Tillman's 2nd Platoon into two groups, despite the objections of the platoon's leader, "created serious command and control issues" and "contributed to the eventual breakdown in internal Platoon communications." The Post could not confirm the name of the officer who issued this command.
  • The A Company commander's order to the platoon leader to get "boots on the ground" at his mission objective created a "false sense of urgency" in the platoon, which, "whether intentional or not," led to "a hasty plan." That officer's name also could not be confirmed by The Post.
  • Sgt. Greg Baker, the lead gunner in the Humvee that poured the heaviest fire on Ranger positions "failed to maintain his situational awareness" at key moments of the battle and "failed" to direct the firing of the other gunners in his vehicle.
  • The other gunners "failed to positively identify their respective targets and exercise good fire discipline. ... Their collective failure to exercise fire discipline, by confirming the identity of their targets, resulted in the shootings of Corporal Tillman."

'Responsibility to hold its leaders accountable'
The chief investigator appeared to reserve his harshest judgments for the lower-ranking Rangers who did the shooting rather than the higher-ranking officers who oversaw the mission. While his judgments about the senior officers focused on process and communication problems, the chief investigator wrote about the failures in Baker's truck:

"While a great deal of discretion should be granted to a leader who is making difficult judgments in the heat of combat, the Command also has a responsibility to hold its leaders accountable when that judgment is so wanton or poor that it places the lives of other men at risk."

Gen. John P. Abizaid, CENTCOM's commander in chief, formally approved the investigation's conclusions on May 28 under an aide's signature and forwarded the report to Special Operations commanders "for evaluation and any action you deem appropriate to incorporate relevant lessons learned."

The field investigation's findings raised another question for Army commanders: Were the failures that resulted in Pat Tillman's death serious enough to warrant administrative or criminal charges?

In the military justice system, field officers such as Nixon, commander of the 75th Ranger Regiment, can generally decide such matters on their own.

Rangers discharged
In the end, one member of Tillman's platoon received formal administrative charges, four others — including one officer — were discharged from the Rangers but not from the Army, and two additional officers were reprimanded, Lt. Col. Bush said. He declined to release their names, citing Privacy Act restrictions.

Baker left the Rangers on an honorable discharge when his enlistment ended last spring, while others who were in his truck remain in the Army, said sources involved in the case.

Military commanders have occasionally leveled charges of involuntary manslaughter in high-profile friendly fire cases, such as one in 2002 when Maj. Harry Schmidt, an Illinois National Guard pilot, mistakenly bombed Canadian troops in Afghanistan. But in that case and others like it, military prosecutors have found it difficult to make murder charges stick against soldiers making rapid decisions in combat.

And because there is no uniform, openly published military case law about when friendly fire cases cross the line from accident to crime, commanders are free to interpret that line for themselves.

Fratricide charges can vary
The list of cases in recent years where manslaughter charges have been brought is "almost arbitrary and capricious," said Charles Gittins, a former Marine who is Schmidt's defense lawyer. Gittins said that senior military officers tend to focus on low-ranking personnel rather than commanders. In Schmidt's case, he said, "every single general and colonel with the exception of Harry's immediate commander has been promoted since the accident." Schmidt, on the other hand, was ultimately fined and banned from flying Air Force jets.

Short of manslaughter, the most common charge leveled in fratricide is dereliction of duty, or what the military code calls "culpable inefficiency" in the performance of duty, according to military law specialists. This violation is defined in the Pentagon's official Manual for Courts-Martial as "inefficiency for which there is no reasonable or just excuse."

In judging whether this standard applies to a case such as Tillman's death, prosecutors are supposed to decide whether the accused person exercised "that degree of care which a reasonably prudent person would have exercised under the same or similar circumstances."

Even if a soldier or officer is found guilty under this code, the punishments are limited to demotions, fines and minor discipline such as extra duty.

Records in the Tillman case do not make clear if Army commanders considered more serious punishments than this against any Rangers or officers, and, if so, why they were apparently rejected.

Staff writer Josh White contributed to this report.