WASHINGTON - The first Army investigator who looked into the death of Pat Tillman in Afghanistan last year found within days that he was killed by his fellow Rangers in an act of ‘‘gross negligence,’’ but Army officials decided not to inform the family of the former star of the Arizona Cardinals and Arizona State University or the public until weeks after a nationally televised memorial service.
A new Army report on the death shows that top Army officials, including the theater commander, Gen. John Abizaid, were told that Tillman’s death was fratricide days before the service.
Soldiers on the scene said they were immediately sure Tillman was killed by a barrage of American bullets as he took shelter behind a large boulder during a twilight firefight along a narrow canyon road near the Pakistan border, according to nearly 2,000 pages of interview transcripts and investigative reports obtained by The Washington Post.
The documents also show that officers made erroneous initial reports that Tillman was killed by enemy fire, destroyed critical evidence and initially concealed the truth from Tillman’s brother, also an Army Ranger, who was near the attack on April 22, 2004, but did not witness it.
‘WE CAN DO BETTER’
Brig. Gen. Gary Jones prepared the report in response to questions from Tillman’s family and from Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. Jones concluded that there was no official reluctance to report the truth but that ‘‘nothing has contributed more to an atmosphere of suspicion by the family than the failure to tell the family that Cpl. Pat Tillman’s death was the result of suspected friendly fire, as soon as that information became known within military channels.’’
‘‘Notifying families in a timely way that they have had a loved one killed or severely injured is complex and imperfect work. We can do better,’’ said Paul Boyce, an Army spokesman. ‘‘At the heart of every notification effort is a commitment to compassion and completeness in providing information as it is known to those who sustained the loss. That is what happened in the case of Corporal Tillman, and that effort continues to this day.’’
In interviews with Jones, soldiers who were with Tillman when he died said they immediately reported that other Rangers, riding in a Humvee, emptied their weapons at his position on a hill without first identifying who they were shooting. Perceiving they were in a heated firefight, the soldiers rounded a corner and used several high-powered weapons to kill an Afghan Militia Force soldier working with the Rangers before pausing and turning their guns on Tillman. About 65 meters away, Tillman had been waving his arms and throwing a smoke grenade to signal his unit that he was not an enemy fighter.
Jones reported that ‘‘some soldiers lost situational awareness to the point they had no idea where they were.’’
Tillman’s death was an enormous blow to the image of the Army and the Special Forces because of his storybook personal narrative. Tillman turned down a multimillion-dollar football contract with the Arizona Cardinals to enlist in the Army after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He and his brother joined the elite Army Rangers and deployed to Iraq and later Afghanistan, hunting the Taliban and al-Qaida through mountainous terrain.
While parts of the unit’s mission were classified — one of six volumes of Jones’s report contains entirely classified material — Jones found that the operation on April 22, 2004, was a routine ‘‘confirm or deny’’ trip to determine whether enemy combatants were in the town of Manah. Commanders did not think hostile forces were in Manah, the report said, but an order to hurry up and get troops on the ground there before dusk was passed on because ‘‘we were trying to get them back and save them for the next part of the fight,’’ an unnamed officer said in redacted documents.
Tillman’s platoon had to split up because of a broken Humvee. Tillman’s half went ahead toward the town. When the second half of the platoon followed through the canyon, it reportedly came under enemy fire. Tillman grabbed another Ranger and the Afghan soldier and got into position to lend fire support. When the second half of the platoon rounded a corner, they mistook the trio as foes.
REASONS FOR CONFUSION
In the documents, the soldiers who fired on Tillman cite many reasons for the confusion: The sun was going down and lighting conditions were bad; soldiers shot where they saw muzzle flashes but did not appropriately determine a target; they shot in the same direction as their team leader, assuming that he was firing at the enemy.
‘‘I’ve replayed the events of that day and my actions in response to the events in my mind countless times . . . given the same circumstances and having the same information I had, I would do the same thing,’’ one soldier wrote in response to his punishment, which was getting kicked out of the Rangers. ‘‘I engaged men that I believed to be the enemy with the intent of killing them.’’
Another soldier wrote: ‘‘I wish that I would have taken a half second to positively identify the targets instead of following another SOP (shoot where your team leader shoots). Maybe CPL Tillman would still be alive or maybe the outcome would still have been the same, but at least I wouldn’t have to live with the guilt and reexperience that ambush while I sleep.’’
After the shooting, Tillman’s brother was not informed about what had happened and was flown back to the United States with his brother’s body. Officers told the soldiers not to talk about the incident ‘‘to prevent rumors’’ and news reports.
"I mean, it’s horrible that Pat was dead. Absolutely horrible. But it hurts even more to know that it was one of our own guys that did it . . .’’ one soldier told Jones. ‘‘We just, we didn’t want to get anything, you know, bad said about the regiment or anything like that. That was my guess to what the whole thing was about. We didn’t want the world finding out what actually happened.’’
The first report about Tillman’s death within Army channels — sent at 4:40 p.m. April 22 — said that Tillman died in a medical treatment facility after his vehicle came under direct and indirect fire, attributing the gunshot wounds he received to ‘‘enemy forces.’’ An investigation was immediately launched, and several documents show that the local chain of command was largely convinced it was fratricide from the beginning.
The next day, Tillman’s Ranger body armor was burned because it was covered in blood and was considered a ‘‘biohazard.’’ His uniform was also burned. Jones noted that this amounted to the destruction of evidence.
‘IT WAS FRATRICIDE’
Soldiers reported they burned the evidence because ‘‘we knew at the time, based on taking the pictures and walking around it it was a fratricide. . . . We knew in our hearts what had happened, and we weren’t going to lie about it. So we weren’t thinking about proof or anything.’’
An initial investigation found fratricide just days later. Top commanders within the U.S. Central Command, including Abizaid, were notified by April 29 — four days before Tillman’s memorial service in San Jose, Calif., where he was given a posthumous Silver Star Award. Jones concluded that Tillman, who was bravely leading his fire team into battle, was given the award based on what he intended to do.
The family learned about Tillman’s fratricide over Memorial Day weekend, several weeks later. Commanders felt they could not hold on to the old version because the Rangers were returning home and ‘‘everybody knows the story,’’ the documents show.
Seven soldiers were given reprimands for their actions, the most serious of which were for dereliction of duty and failing to exercise sound judgment and fire discipline in combat operations. Jones did not address the appropriateness of the punishments.
One of the initial investigators, who issued a finding of ‘‘gross negligence’’ by the soldiers who shot Tillman, told Jones he felt the punishments did not fit with his finding. The investigator said he felt the chain of command allowed the soldiers to change their stories to protect individuals.
‘‘They didn’t get their due just punishment,’’ the investigator, whose name is censored in the report, told Jones.