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Wednesday, December 08, 2004 - Page updated at 12:20 A.M.
By Steve Coll
First in a series
It ended on a stony ridge in fading light. Spc. 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 had been 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 and joined the Army, ultimately giving his life in combat in Taliban-infested southeastern Afghanistan.
Millions of stunned Americans mourned his death 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.
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 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 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.
From Cardinals to "Black Sheep"
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 in 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 spring 2002. Less than a year later, they shipped out to Iraq.
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-Qaida 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, 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 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 The Post obtained.
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.
A busted Humvee, a divided platoon
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 edited out of 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 Manah, a southeastern Afghan village.
By 4 p.m. Uthlaut thought he had a solution. 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 be unable 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, his commander said.
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.
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 1, led by Uthlaut and including Pat Tillman, would move immediately to Manah.
Serial 2, 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 2, 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 was an attack. Baker, who left the Rangers last spring, declined to comment for these articles as did a second gunner, Trevor Alders.
Kevin Tillman was also assigned to Serial 2. He manned an MK19, a weapon capable of firing 350 small grenades a minute at a range of more than 2,200 yards.
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.
Serial 2 briefly started down a different road, then stopped. The Afghan tow-truck driver said he couldn't navigate the pitted road. He suggested they turn around and follow the same route Serial 1 had taken. After Serial 2 passed Manah, the group could circle around to the designated highway. Serial 2'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 2, with about 17 Rangers in six vehicles, entered the narrow canyon that Serial 1 had just left.
Tomorrow: The ambush begins.
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