How Pat Tillman Died

This is the second in a three-part series on the death of Pat Tillman. Click here to read the first installment: Pat Tillman Everyone’s Political Football.

This is where there are conflicting stories, partly because of the “fog of war,” but more importantly to evade possible prosecutions… and the Pandora’s box of counter-accusation a recrimination that might be opened by prosecutions.

I won’t belabor the minutiae.

A vehicle under the control of Sergeant Greg Baker, with a driver, an M240B machinegun, an M2 50-caliber machinegun, an M249 Squad Automatic Weapon (SAW), and two M4s (the standard assault rifle now used by the infantry) came out of the canyon and fired on both the village and Pat’s position. Pat and Thani were killed; and Uthlaut, along with his radio operator, Jade Lane, were wounded.

What is established is that Baker directed the fires, and that after firing at Pat’s position once, the vehicle advanced and fired on the same position again, probably to regain visibility after Pat threw a smoke grenade in an attempt to alert them that they were firing at “friendlies.”

The distance was between 35-85 meters. My own examination of the photo imagery suggests to me that the distance is much closer to the low number. The length of the longest building in the hamlet was 29 feet (iirc), and an extrapolation from the seen-from-above images shows the distance between the shooters’ position and Pat’s to be around four times that (116 feet, or 35 meters). SSG Weeks (now SFC Weeks) supported this estimation when I called him on the phone last year.

In later accounts, Army investigators would attempt to pump up the number of enemy combatants, upgrade an RPG into a mortar, suggest a far more efficacious ambush, equivocate about light conditions, and extend the distance between the shooters and Pat to as much as 200 meters.

Since there is nothing in the actual statements or physical evidence to support these claims, I am assuming there was a motive to mislead. My assumption is that these distortions were designed to introduce “mitigating” circumstances in a homicide.

My contention from having seen the Rules of Engagement (ROE) and from familiarity with the Law of Warfare is that this warrants a re-investigation into the question of whether there was a criminal homicide.

The reason the killings were both intentional and illegal has to do with the rules for firing. It is a violation of the Law of Warfare to fire into a village if one is not receiving fire from that village. Baker’s team did fire into a village from which there was no fire received, and they had not been under enemy fire for several minutes. The Rules of Engagement (ROE), which are theater-specific, and which supercede both doctrine and SOP for firing, required “positive identification” of the target.

The investigators and the Army have consistently thrown sand in the eyes of the public on this account. This is an arcane but crucial point. Doctrine says an infantryman fires at “known, suspected, and likely enemy targets.” Doctrine is highly decontextualized and general. The Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) in the Ranger Regiment is to orient one’s fires on the fires of the leader (Baker, in this case). SOPs are specific to the unit, but not the theater. Rules of Engagement (ROE) are specific to the theater, contextualized, and in every case become the highest of these three guidelines … superceding all others. ROE has the force of a General Order in the theater of operations.

When questioned about why they fired, various Rangers and leaders repeated that they fired at “known, suspected, and likely enemy positions.” This is a legalistic mantra. Unfortunately, this doctrinal criterion was circumscribed by the ROE, which required “positive identification” of targets.

The distance between the shooting vehicle and Pat’s position was easily near enough to make an identification of a standing Pat Tillman and Bryan O’Neal… two American soldiers, wearing distinctive uniforms and battle-gear, including Kevlar helmets, and waving their arms. (In the lull in fire when Baker’s vehicle moved forward to see past the smoke, Pat and Bryan apparently thought they had been identified as “friendly,” so they stood up… only to be cut down by another volley of machinegun fire.)

QUESTION: Why would investigators and the chain of command conceal this loss of fire discipline and fire control — which led to the death of two men — inside the manufactured premise of “an intense firefight”?

HYPOTHESIS: A “hang-together or hang separately” strategy evolved, in which each member of the chain — from SPC Alders, who admits firing his Squad automatic weapon (SAW) at two men whose hands were raised, to SSG Baker, to MAJ Hodne, who ordered the platoon split for a daylight movement, in violation of both common sense and a Regimental directive concerning daylight movement (including CPT Saunders, who had to “go on record” with these orders to split and move during daylight), to [fill in the blanks] everyone who was responding to a “show progress” directive from Public Affairs, that resulted in “bureaucratic over-interpretation” by Hodne, i.e., the false sense of urgency to get “boots on the ground before nightfall.”

If Baker is prosecuted for ROE violations (firing into a village and failing to make positive identification of Pat and the AMF soldier who were killed), he will then be forced to testify in detail about the split-order, which leads directly to questions about the “sense of urgency” to have “boots on the ground before nightfall.” If Hodne or Company Commander Captain William Saunders (who passed Hodne’s order to Uthlaut by radio, and later received immunity in advance of changing a statement that Hodne gave the order) is relieved, then they are potential disaffected officers who can point out that command emphasis on “showing progress” was the basis of the false sense of urgency that led to this contravention of a Regimental Directive against daylight overland movement and the tactically unsound order to split the unit in order to check the box on a time line.

Now, and only now, can we get to the sequence of events in the subsequent cover-up. First, however, we have to deal with the recent AP story and the flurry of conspiracy theories to which it has given rise.

Note: Martha Mendoza’s article that is cited and excerpted here is — according to reliable sources — not what the author originally wrote. It was given its spin by editors at AP.)

AP News
Jul 27, 2007 01:49 EDT

Army medical examiners were suspicious about the close proximity of the three bullet holes in Pat Tillman’s forehead and tried without success to get authorities to investigate whether the former NFL player’s death amounted to a crime, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press.

“The medical evidence did not match up with the, with the scenario as described,” a doctor who examined Tillman’s body after he was killed on the battlefield in Afghanistan in 2004 told investigators.

The doctors – whose names were blacked out – said that the bullet holes were so close together that it appeared the Army Ranger was cut down by an M-16 fired from a mere 10 yards or so away.

Well, there are doctors and there are doctors.
The proximity of bullet wounds is not sufficient to determine the distance from which a round is fired. Two of the best gunshot wound pathologists in the country, at Dannie Tillman’s request, accompanied me to the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Rockville, Maryland earlier this year to examine the autopsy findings and autopsy photographs for Pat Tillman. Both agreed that the trajectories, exit wounds, and proximity of rounds are most consistent with a burst fired from the M-249 Squad Automatic Weapon, like the one fired from around 40 meters away by Specialist Trevor Alders outside Manah on April 22, 2004.

The AP story set the conspiracy theorists alight, and when I dismissed the “assassination theory,” a correspondent told me I was “naive” (this person having never read the documents in the case and never having spent a day in the military).

“I wonder if all the soldiers in that platoon were actually soldiers,” asked the correspondent ominously.

“No,” I replied with a bit of pique. “The Black Ops folks always hire 20-year-olds (one member of the shooter vehicle was 19!), and put them in deep cover — which they study between playing video games and sharing high school lies.

Here’s a slab of conspiracy-mongering with my comments:

The task organization of the platoon that placed that particular vehicle, with those particular troops, in this situation… with Pat exactly where he was… was decided on an ad hoc basis, less than an hour before it happened, after an all day delay, caused by a busted vehicle. The decision was made by a 1st Lieutenant [SG: was he in on it?], and forced on him after an argument by members of the TOC in Khowst [SG: were they all in on it?], and altered at the last minute by an Afghan jinga truck driver [SG: was he in on it?] who’d been randomly hired in Magarah to tow the broken vehicle on that very day, after consultation between the platoon chain of command [SG: were they all in on it?] Pat’s position was decided by Pat, after being released from an earlier position by an acting squad leader [SG: was he in on it, and did he control Pat’s mind in Pat’s selection of exactly that place in the boonies of Paktia Province?], who was himself sent forward in response to gunfire in a canyon. [SG:Did the Black Ops people put the ruts in the road that trashed the hummer that caused the delay that stalled the Blacksheep Platooon in Magarah for more than six hours, where they were sussed out by three part-time guerrillas — were they in on it too? — who played their role by staging an ineffectual ambush along a last-minute route determined by the inability of the jinga truck that was towing the busted vehicle to climb through the originally planned (less than one hour before) wadi?]

I love how conspiracists refer to others as “naive,” when they themselves cannot describe the difference between correlation and causation, and attach themselves to stories that are only possible in the minds of scriptwriters.

Real Black Ops are straightforward affairs, with planning designed to minimize complexity and reduce the number of independent actors and “moving parts”… but that makes a lousy script. But if this is what you want to believe, then we’ll leave you to the Illuminati. In the real world, power has to mobilize such awesome resources on its own behalf precisely because it cannot exercise the kind of control you suggest. No one can.

In response, I received this from another correspondent: “I’m not at all interested in promoting any ‘conspiracy theories,’ I’m just wondering if this new information moves Tillman’s cause of death due to ‘friendly fire’ closer to a possibility of a deliberate fragging.”

I replied:

Not unless it occurred in front of at least eight people, all of whom had great respect for him, and who conspired to cover this fragging up together.

Two of the top gunshot specialists in forensic pathology in the nation examined Pat’s autopsy reports and photos and agree with me that this was likely a squad automatic weapon (same caliber as an M-4). The army dummied up the distances, then drew them down to 85 meters to support a “fog of war” thesis (as opposed to the actual serial violations of the ROE that did occur… more likely at around 40 meters. The three shots that killed Pat were actually two tight, and one flyer, all head shots and each instantly fatal on its own account.

Now think in slow motion. Let me begin with the terminal ballistics one never sees in films and on tv.

Destruction of the connection between the brain stem and the rest of the body causes a body to fall… straight down. No, people do not fly through the air like the stunt-people in Hollywood (unless shot from an extremely close distance). Straight down. This happens instantly. The new theory proposed by some so-called expert, says that this tight shot-group (less than 4 inches) could only have been fired by someone shooting on semi-automatic (one shot at a time, in rapid succession). A fully-automatic weapon, like the Squad Automatic Weapon (SAW) that is presumed (by two of the top forensics experts in the country) to be the lethal weapon, according to this theory, cannot fire this shot group because automatic weapons can not be controlled for this tight a shot-group.

This premise is the basis of the presumed distance (10 meters) and mode of fire (semi-auto)/weapon (M-4) in the new AP-inspired theory. Two problems: (1) the theory about auto fire is wrong, and (2) Pat was shot in the face three times, while facing downhill, and standing on a steep incline dropping to his front.

Number (2) first.

For this to have been an M-4 fiing on semi, the shooter would have had to fire, re-acquire [aim], fire, re-acquire, and fire again, before Pat fell to the ground (straight down, on a steep forward-inclining piece of terrain, with a large stone in front of him to prevent him tumbling down the hill). Even a very good rapid-fire shooter could not have placed all three shots together (from a standing or other non-prone-supported position at 35-40 meters) quickly enough to fire the second and third shots before Pat fell away from the sight alignment.

The only 5.56 mm weapon on the scene that could have placed those shots that quickly in the same place was the SAW… cyclic rate of auto-fire: 850 rounds per minute (14 rounds per second, ergo, three rounds in 2/10 of a second).

To the constraints of physics and physiology now add on the statistical improbability that a bunch of enlisted people would willingly participate as accessories after the fact in a cold-blooded murder (that just happened to coincide with an unplanned –[but ineffectual — ambush)… and we begin to appreciate how unlikely this scenario is.

Now for number (1). I’ll happily go to the range with anyone who cares to set it up today (or chose anyone who has been trained to fire the SAW), and demonstrate that these tight groups very well can be fired from a SAW, when they are part of a continuous firing cycle that allows the gunner to first walk the fire onto a target, then tighten down on the weapon as he orients on the impact signature (The rock in front of Pat was covered with bullet strikes.).

There are family members who will not easily dismiss this, and who can blame them after the government has lied and covered up again and again and again on this case. I don’t fault them; and in fact I have great affection for them. The depth of their sense of betrayal would make anyone think the worst, and want someone to prove otherwise. More than this… if this case becomes one about a conspiracy to murder, the focus is taken off the likely suspects for the real cover-up and crime, and the ones who all these sacrifices of Generals have been designed to protect… Donald Rumsfeld, Lawrence DeRita, and probably George W. Bush. They are all loving this right now.

Let me say for the record, again, that I do not believe that Pat Tillman was targeted for assassination.

A second lieutenant and an infantry sergeant are not tasked with anything as politically sensitive as assassination. I am speaking as an alumnus of Delta Force, one of the few organizations that actually might be entrusted with this kind of operation (and then only very rarely). It doesn’t matter what you see in the movies.

The decisions that placed Pat Tillman at exactly the place and exactly the time of his death were made ad hoc, on the spot, at a series of junctures that could not have been controlled, including a vehicle that unexpectedly broke down, one key decision made by an Afghan jinga truck driver and Pat’s own decision (following two on-the-spot decisions by members of his platoon in direct response to a completely unexpected situation) to move forward into the position where he was shot.

The mystique of Special Operations (including the Rangers, who are the Special Operations’ shock infantry component) is useful as a deterrent, but it is not reflective of a reality. The Pentagon and others want you and the rest of the world to believe this mystique, because your fear and the fear of the rest of the world is what maintains the efficacy of a huge bluff. This government wants us to spin out as many scary fantasies as possible, because it serves the dual purpose of either portraying opponents of the military as “conspiracy nuts” or promoting precisely the myth of spooky invincibility that keeps us in line.

I came straight from the bowels of this system, and I have written three books exposing the worst aspects of the military. If they haven’t yet cut my brake lines or shot me when I’m out fishing, then they didn’t kill Pat Tillman because he criticized the war in Iraq and read a book by Noam Chomsky…

…Key facts, as presented in this series … have already “escaped,” e.g., the Scott investigation and the fraudulence of awarding a Silver Star as part of a cover story. These facts are now, for the Administration and the Pentagon, inescapable.

All that is missing right now is someone with a little integrity and courage, and subpoena authority, to use these facts to tear the rest of the mask away.

All that is required, however, to discredit those asking the questions is our own insistence on the least plausible scenario, no doubt inspired by a righteous mistrust and loathing of people like Donald Rumsfeld and Lawrence Di Rita, when the existing facts do not support that scenario.

There is nothing the Pentagon would rather do with this case, aside from making it evaporate, than turn it into a debate about whether Pat was assassinated or not. He wasn’t, and so they can not only poke fun at any of us who propose that hypothesis, they can relax as we all bark up the wrong tree.

What they do not want is a rigorous examination of the motives, decisions, and events that might lead a larger public to see how they have been spinning prevarications to call an imperial Oil War democracy-building.

Pat Tillman, and many who knew and cared for him, at some point believed, based on the evidence before them, that he was bound for a place in history of some kind… in football. What neither he nor they could know was that football fame would emerge as just a stepping stone to a far more significant role in history: contributing to the end of an illegal war, and bringing down (hopefully) a dangerous clique of international scofflaws.

The crimes of this Administration are more serious and vile by orders of magnitude than the mere imagined assassination of one young man.

And now, at last, I will briefly describe the cover-up.

Pat Tillman was the most well-known enlisted man in the entire military. When he enlisted, Pat received a personal letter from Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld thanking Pat for his enlistment. So Pat was on Rumsfeld’s radar immediately. The fog of fame began then as the spin on Pat’s enlistment was that he took a break from a lucrative football career because of 9-11. That’s not how it was. Pat saw young men being marched off to war; and he didn’t want to use his talent as an exemption. It’s different.

The day Pat was killed outside Manah, officialdom developed a multiple personality disorder. On the one hand, there was bureaucrat’s panic, because it was known almost at once that this was a case of “fratricide.” On the other hand, the scriptwriters smelled a story with Pat’s corpse propped up like a Greek statue that would draw all eyes away from the debacle of Fallujah-Najaf and the wanton racist cruelty of Abu Ghraib. So there was the bureaucrat’s instinct to hide the facts in a period of waning legitimation; and there was the flack’s instinct to tell a lie. Hiding a thing and lying about it are two different things, and they can be contradictory. That’s how both the hiding and the lying began to unravel.

At the highest levels, there was a decision to be made about how far one could get away with the lie in the short term, and hide their own complicity in case the lie was exposed in the long term.

On April 29, Major General Stanley McChrystal — commander of the task force that the Rangers served in Afghanistan, and head of the most secretive joint-service force in the US military — sent a memo to John Abizaid, telling him to warn everyone all the way to Commander-in-Chief George W. Bush, an investigation “will find that it is highly possible Cpl. Tillman was killed by friendly fire… I felt that it was essential that you received this information as soon as we detected it in order to preclude any unknowing statements by our country’s leaders which might cause public embarrassment if the circumstances of Cpl. Tillman’s death become public.”

No reference to telling the truth… “which might cause public embarrassment if the circumstances of Cpl. Tillman’s death become public.”

According to an unnamed source, Abizaid misled Congress on August 1, 2007, when he stated that this memo — from the General in theater who directed the most politically-sensitive and secret operations in the military, which include units like Delta Force (now operating under a new name) — did not “reach him” for “10 to 20 days.”

This memo, it must be assumed, was a living organism that had to exercise its own initiative to “reach” its intended recipient.

Pat Tillman’s death by friendly fire –instead of the enemy fire described in a fraudulent Silver Star citation drafted by officers who knew how Pat was killed — was explosive news. Yet on August 1, 2007, Rumsfeld, his former-Joint Chiefs Chair Meyers, and the ex-CENTCOM Commander John Abizaid — not one of them — could remember when, where, or how they learned of this explosive news.

We’re talking about a man at the top whose middle name was “Micromanager”.

• Since the day he took command of the Pentagon, Rumsfeld has been using his famous “8,000-mile screwdriver” to tilt the civil-military balance his way. According to his critics, he is Robert McNamara reborn—an arrogant micromanager, contemptuous of soldierly expertise and certain of his own infallibility.
(Andrew Bacevich, Los Angeles Times)

• It says Mr Rumsfeld has held 139 meetings with the Joint Chiefs of Staff since the beginning of 2005, and 208 meetings with the senior field commanders. The retired generals complained that Mr Rumsfeld was a “micromanager” who often ignored the advice of senior commanders. (Mark Mazzetti and Jim Rutenberg, Sydney Morning Herald)

• Was Donald Rumsfeld a micromanager? Yes. Did he want to be involved in all of the decisions? Yes. (Michael DeLong, Retired Marine Lt. Gen, former deputy commander of the U.S. Central Command during the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, New York Times)

[On Rumsfeld’s micromanagement of torture see Andrew Cockburn’s series here.]

But little Donnie Rumsfeld can’t remember when, where, or how he learned of Pat Tillman’s death, and he doesn’t interfere in the business of his officers, and I am the rightful King of Connecticut.

Since I’m not bearing that ridiculous pretense of objectivity that “journalists” so audaciously lay claim to, and since I am not a lawyer schooled in absolute empiricism, I can only say what seems to be apparent to me from this testimony… which Congress left unchallenged.

They pissed on our legs and told us it was raining. Liars, every goddamn one of them. Liars, con-men, and criminals. Based on the evidence, this is what I believe. Someone has to say this out loud. Dannie Tillman has been trying to tell us this for three years.

Tomorrow: Inside the Labyrinth of Lies.

STAN GOFF is the author of “Hideous Dream: A Soldier’s Memoir of the US Invasion of Haiti” (Soft Skull Press, 2000), “Full Spectrum Disorder” (Soft Skull Press, 2003). He is retired from the United States Army. His blog is at

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Stan Goff retired from the US Army in February 1996. He is a veteran of the US occupation of Vietnam, and seven other conflict areas. His books include Hideous Dream: A Soldier’s Memoir of the US Invasion of Haiti (Soft Skull Press), Full Spectrum Disorder: The Military in the New American Century (Soft Skull Books), Borderline: Reflections on War, Sex, and Church (Cascade Books), Mammon’s Ecology: Metaphysic of the Empty Sign (Cascade Books), Tough Gynes: Violent Women in Film as Honorary Men (Cascade Books), and Smitten Gate (a novel about Afghanistan, from Club Orlov Press).