In the end, Pat Tillman died for the sake of a broken Humvee. Out patrolling the Afghan back country with fellow Rangers in search of Taliban and al Qaeda militants, one of the Humvees in his unit broke down so completely that it couldn’t be repaired on site, and the vehicle couldn’t be airlifted out of the wilderness via helicopter because most of the Army’s helicopters were being used in Iraq, and the Army required four days notice to send one out in Afghanistan. And it couldn’t be ditched, because Humvees cost money.
So Tillman’s regiment was ordered to split in two against the wishes of everyone in the group, including the platoon leader in charge, who made repeated requests to command to keep the group united, all of which were denied without much explanation. This was done because towing the Humvee out of the woods was going to throw the regiment off schedule. They were due to reach the town of Mana that evening and conduct a sweep for enemy combatants. But there was no dire need to get to Mana so quickly, other than to fill an arbitrary timetable. Regardless, orders were orders, and the caravan split in two (so that half the regiment could get to Mana on time), eventually ending up going in separate directions. Serial One (Pat Tillman’s group) took the high ground. Serial Two towed the busted Humvee through a tight canyon. Once in the canyon, Serial Two was attacked by mortars from a Taliban ambush.
Rangers in the second vehicle of the Serial began firing back, continuing to do so as they emerged from the canyon. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the caravan traveling through the valley, Tillman’s group had heard the skirmish and rushed to provide cover fire from above, with Tillman joining two other soldiers (one an Afghan) behind a large boulder. As the second Humvee emerged from the canyon, they mistook Serial One’s cover fire for enemy fire and continued shooting.
They continued shooting despite direct Army orders to positively identify all targets before opening fire. They continued shooting despite clearly seeing the friendly Afghan soldier wearing the distinct camo pattern of the US Army (he ended up being killed). They continued firing despite the fact that Tillman and PFC Bryan O’Neal raised their hands to signal that they had laid down their guns and were Americans. Indeed, before being shot to death, Tillman screamed out his name to his comrades over and over, to no avail. And the boulder he was hiding behind was, by some estimates, less than TEN YARDS AWAY from the firing Humvee. They continued to fire despite being ordered to cease fire repeatedly (they couldn’t hear the orders over the gunfire).
I knew Pat Tillman died from friendly fire, but I assumed he had been killed by a stray American bullet in the middle of an enemy skirmish. This isn’t true. Tillman and his two fellow soldiers were fired on for over fifteen minutes with heavy artillery before the shooting stopped. One of the men shooting was a callow Ranger named Trevor Alders, who changed his shooting position to fire on Tillman’s group despite Army rules forbidding gunners from freelancing. Alders was the soldier who ended up killing Tillman, firing three small rounds from his Squad Automatic Weapon into Tillman’s forehead. The three bullets exploded inside Tillman’s head, and his brain was blown out onto the rocks below and O’Neal’s uniform. According to O’Neal:
“I remember hearing what I thought was running water. I thought that Pat had urinated on himself. I asked Pat if he had urinated on himself, but he did not answer. I looked at the rock next to us, and I remember seeing a stream of blood.”
Once Tillman was killed, the Army went to astonishing lengths to cover up how he died. All KIA American soldiers are required to be sent home with their uniform and equipment for forensic testing. Tillman’s clothes and possessions were instead burned by the Army, including a notebook he specifically asked not be discarded, his corpse sent back to America naked and raw. Also deliberately burned was an ammo can containing pieces of Tillman’s brain. Tillman was awarded a posthumous Silver Star despite no one officially signing the necessary forms. I may be wrong, but the firefight that left Tillman dead appeared to be his very first time in a live combat situation.
The Army also ordered soldiers in Tillman’s platoon to not disclose to anyone that Tillman was killed by a fellow Ranger. This meant they weren’t allowed to tell Kevin Tillman, who was also in the regiment, about how his brother died. Day after day, fellow Rangers had to walk around Kevin Tillman knowing how Pat had died, without being able to just come out and tell him the truth. Nor did the Army ever give a full explanation to the rest of Tillman’s family about how he died. His mother learned he died from friendly fire through a call from a newspaper reporter. For weeks after Tillman passed away, the Army purposely led those close to Tillman to believe he had been killed by enemy forces. Immediately after Tillman was killed, Kevin Tillman made his fellow Rangers swear they’d take revenge on whoever committed the crime. Little did he know.
At Tillman’s memorial, the Army gave a false account of how Tillman died to a friend of his in the Navy SEALS, Steve White, (who had no reason to think the story was a lie) who then revealed the story during the memorial, the first time Tillman’s family or America had “learned” the story of his death. Email records show that press manipulation of Tillman’s story went all the way to Bush White House.
No one went to jail for Pat Tillman’s death. Trevor Alders and a handful of others were demoted into the regular Army (Alders vehemently protested the demotion. One fellow Ranger described him as “pathetic”), along with the platoon leader who begged Central Command to not split the regiment in two. “Shit rolls downhill,” is how one Ranger explained it.
Where Men Win Glory isn’t Jon Krakauer’s best book. In fact, for the first 150 pages or so, it’s a pretty dry read. There’s a shitload of back history about modern day Afghanistan (Surprise! It’s fucked!) intertwined with Tillman’s childhood and football career. This is all necessary information, but sometimes it gets a little dull and hard to follow.
But once the story turns to Tillman’s death and the myriad ways in which the Army tried to suppress the truth, it becomes devastating. The truth about Tillman was finally uncovered for a couple of reasons: his notoriety, and his family’s dogged determination to get answers. But Tillman is merely one soldier. If the Army was more than willing to actively sugarcoat his death in the midst of conflict, how many other families have they lied to? How many mothers go to sleep at night thinking their son passed away one way without ever knowing the real facts? Hundreds? Thousands? According to Krakauer, forty-one percent of all American casualties in Iraq are caused by friendly fire, an estimate considered low because of underreporting.
Krakauer’s book reveals, as I’m sure many other books have, that the US military is just as fraught with bureaucratic nonsense and petty political bullshit as your office back home, if not more so. What Tillman’s story illuminates is how that sad reality contrasts with the incredibly noble intentions of many who volunteer to fight for our country. These people are willing to fight and die, and they rarely get reciprocal treatment from the US government, especially when killed by their fellow soldiers. You probably already knew this, but to see it play out at such a personal level, it makes you want to punch a wall.
Despite never wavering from joining the Army, Tillman constantly feared the toll his absence would take on his family and new wife back home. But he joined the Army for three years because he felt that serving his country would justify the relatively cozy life he would enjoy back in America once he returned home. He wanted to start a family and play football again. And he wanted to earn the right to live that life and bask in it. It was part of a personal quest for him to become a complete person who lived a passionate existence filled with memorable highs and lows. And he ended up being punished mightily for it, for his love for intense living.
It’s hard not to feel like a lesser man when you read about what Tillman sacrificed. But it’s also hard not to think that, by joining the Army, Tillman made an extremely noble mistake. When you consider the gross, widespread negligence of both Tillman’s fellow soldiers and the Army, AND the Department of Defense, why would anyone bother joining the fight anymore? The US Army treated Pat Tillman like a goddamn sucker, and it’s one of the most shameful things you’ll ever read about. It makes you wonder if Tillman died not for his country, but for his government. Only the former is worth dying for.