FORT BRAGG, N.C. - Former pro football player Pat Tillman was probably killed by friendly fire as he led his team of Army Rangers up a hill during a firefight in Afghanistan last month, the U.S. Army said Saturday.
Tillman walked away from a $3.6 million NFL contract to join the Army after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Previous military statements suggested he was killed April 22 under enemy fire.
"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 in impaired light" with 10 to 12 enemy combatants firing on U.S. forces.
A senior Pentagon official told The Associated Press it appeared the gunfire that killed Tillman came from a U.S. soldier, but since there were Afghan soldiers present also, it was not completely clear.
An Afghan military official told the AP 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 an explosion.
The Afghan official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, also contradicted U.S. reports that the American soldiers had come under enemy fire.
Kensinger, who heads Army Special Forces, took no questions Saturday morning after reading the statement.
When Tillman was awarded the Silver Star, the Army said he was killed after his platoon was split into two sections for what officials called a ground assault convoy. Tillman was in charge of the lead group.
His group was safely out of the area when the trailing group came under mortar and small arms fire, according to the Army, and he ordered them 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 award announcement said. "Only after his team engaged the well-armed enemy did it appear their fires diminished.
"As a result of his leadership and his team's efforts, the platoon trail section was able to maneuver through the ambush to positions of safety without a single casualty," the announcement said.
Tillman, a member of the elite Ranger unit since 2002, was posthumously promoted from specialist to corporal and also awarded a Purple Heart.
"The result of this investigation in no way diminished the bravery and sacrifice displayed by Cpl. Tillman," said Kensinger, who heads Army Special Forces.
A woman who answered the phone late Friday at the home of Tillman's uncle said the family would have no immediate comment.
Sgt. Matt Harbusky, 25, of the Fort Bragg-based 30th Engineer Battalion, was getting ready to play a round of golf Saturday at a golf course on the base. Harbusky said how Tillman was killed does not change his bravery.
"He gave up more than anyone I know that's in the military to serve," he said. "A lot of us sacrifice something , but no one sacrificed as much as he did to join. And it doesn't really matter how he was killed, it's sad."
The friendly fire account was first reported by the Arizona Republic and The Argus of Fremont (Calif.) on Saturday.
"It does seem pretty clear that he was killed by friendly fire," Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., a member of the House Armed Services Committee, told the Republic. Franks said his panel was alerted to the information by the Army's Legislative Liaison Office.
The Afghan official told the AP that two groups of soldiers had drifted some distance 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, citing an account given to him by an Afghan fighter who was part of that group, not Tillman's.
"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."
U.S. military officials in Kabul had no immediate comment.
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.
The Arizona Cardinals safety 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.