- The Washington Times - Friday, November 10, 2006

In a remote and dangerous corner of Afghanistan, under the protective roar of Apache attack helicopters and B-52 bombers, special agents and investigators did their work.

They walked the landscape with surviving witnesses. They found a rock stained with the blood of the victim. They re-enacted the killings — here the U.S. Army Rangers swept through the canyon in their Humvee, blasting away; here the doomed man waved his arms, pleading for recognition as a friend.

“Cease fire, friendlies, I am Pat [expletive] Tillman!” the former NFL star shouted, again and again.

The latest inquiry into Tillman’s death by friendly fire should end next month. But the Associated Press has combed through the results of 2-1/4 years of investigations — reviewed thousands of pages of internal Army documents, interviewed dozens of people familiar with the case — and uncovered some startling findings.

One of the four shooters, Staff Sgt. Trevor Alders, had recently had PRK laser eye surgery. Although he could see two sets of hands “straight up,” his vision was “hazy,” he said. In the absence of “friendly identifying signals,” he assumed Tillman and an allied Afghan — who also was killed — were enemy.

Another, Spc. Steve Elliott, said he was “excited” by the sight of rifles, muzzle flashes and “shapes.” A third, Spc. Stephen Ashpole, said he saw two figures, and just aimed where everyone else was shooting.

Squad leader Sgt. Greg Baker had 20-20 eyesight, but claimed he had “tunnel vision.” Amid the chaos and pumping adrenaline, Baker said he hammered what he thought was the enemy but was actually the allied Afghan fighter next to Tillman: “I zoned in on him because I could see the AK-47. I focused only on him.”

All four failed to identify their targets before firing, a direct violation of fire discipline techniques drilled into every soldier.

There’s more:

• Tillman’s platoon had nearly run out of vital supplies, according to one of the shooters. They were down to the water in their drinking pouches, and were forced to buy a goat from a local vendor. Delayed supply flights contributed to the hunger, fatigue and possibly misjudgments by platoon members.

• A key commander in the events that led to Tillman’s death both was reprimanded for his role and meted out punishments to those who fired, raising questions of conflict of interest.

• A field hospital report says someone tried to jump-start Tillman’s heart with CPR hours after his head had been partly blown off and his corpse wrapped in a poncho; key evidence including Tillman’s body armor and uniform was burned.

• Investigators have been stymied because some of those involved now have lawyers and refused to cooperate, and other soldiers who were at the scene couldn’t be located.

• Three of the four shooters are now out of the Army and beyond the reach of military justice.

Taken together, these findings raise more questions than they answer in a case that already had veered from suggestions that it all was a result of the “fog of war” to insinuations that criminal acts were responsible.

The Pentagon’s month-plus failure to reveal that Tillman was killed by friendly fire raised suspicions of a cover-up. One investigator told Tillman’s family that officials haven’t ruled out that Tillman was shot by an American sniper or deliberately murdered by his own men — though he also gave no indication the evidence pointed that way.

“I will not assume his death was accidental or ‘fog of war,’ ” said his father, Pat Tillman Sr. “I want to know what happened, and they’ve clouded that so badly we may never know.”

For Mary Tillman, this is more than a personal quest.

“This isn’t just about our son,” she said. “It’s about holding the military accountable. Finding out what happened to Pat is ultimately going to be important in finding out what happened to other soldiers.”

And so, almost two years after three bullets through the forehead killed the star defensive back — a man President Bush would call “an inspiration on and off the football field” — the fourth investigation is now underway, asking this question: Was a crime committed?

Shocked and outraged by the September 11 attacks, Tillman, a San Jose, Calif., native, walked away from a multimillion-dollar contract with the Arizona Cardinals to join the elite Army Rangers. He enlisted with his brother Kevin, who gave up a chance to play professional baseball. The Tillmans were deployed to Iraq in 2003, then sent to Afghanistan.

The mission of their “Black Sheep” platoon in April 2004 sounded straightforward: Clear a region along the Pakistan border of insurgents and weapons. But a broken-down Humvee stalled the unit on an isolated road. A mechanic couldn’t fix it, and a fuel pump flown in on a helicopter didn’t help.

Tillman’s platoon must have presented an inviting target. There were 39 men — including six allied Afghan fighters trained by the CIA — and about a dozen vehicles.

They were already running behind, and high-ranking commanders were “pushing us pretty hard to keep moving,” said then-Maj. David Hodne.

The order came down to split the platoon in two to speed its progress. Then-Capt. William C. “Satch” Saunders initially told investigators that Hodne had issued the order, but later, after he was given immunity from prosecution, he acknowledged it was his decision alone.

The decision was foolhardy, Hodne later said. Divided in two, “they didn’t have enough combat power to do that mission,” he testified. (Other commanders have insisted that splitting the platoon was safe.)

An investigator, Brig. Gen. Gary M. Jones, would later find that an “artificial sense of urgency” to keep Tillman’s platoon moving was a crucial factor in his death.

An officer involved in the incident told AP they had heard of insurgent activity in this region, historically a Taliban hotbed. That suspicion would be confirmed when the Black Sheep drove through a narrow canyon, its walls towering about 500 feet, and came under fire from enemy Afghans.

Chaos broke out and communications broke down. And then a Humvee packed with pumped-up Rangers opened fire, killing the friendly Afghan and Tillman.

After killing Tillman, at least one of the same Rangers turned his guns on a village where witnesses say civilian women and children had gathered. The shooters raked it with fire, the American witnesses said; they wounded two additional fellow Rangers, including their own platoon leader.

In the days after the shootings, the first officer appointed to investigate concluded that the gunmen demonstrated “gross negligence” and recommended further investigation. That report was shelved after a commander said it focused too heavily on pre-combat inspections and procedures rather than on what had happened.

A second, more in-depth investigation placed the blame on squad leader Baker and his subordinates.

“While a great deal of discretion should be granted to a leader who is making difficult judgments in the heat of combat, the command also has a responsibility to hold its leaders accountable when that judgment is so wanton or poor that it places the lives of other men at risk,” the investigator, Lt. Col. Ralph Kauzlarich, concluded.

The Army punished seven people all together, but no one was court-martialed; four soldiers received relatively minor punishments under military law, ranging from written reprimands to expulsion from the Rangers. One, squad leader Baker, had his pay reduced and was effectively forced out of the Army.

Still questions remained: Who killed Tillman? Why did they fire? Were the punishments stiff enough?

“I don’t think that punishment fit their actions out there in the field,” said Kevin Tillman, who saw nothing from the trailing element on the day his brother was killed.

“They were not inquiring, identifying, engaging [targets]. They weren’t doing their job as a soldier,” he told an investigator. “You have an obligation as a soldier to, you know, do certain things, and just shooting isn’t one of your responsibilities.”

And so, in November 2004, acting Army Secretary Les Brownlee ordered a third investigation, which resulted in 2,100 pages of transcripts and detailed descriptions of the incident, but no new charges. The report, completed Jan. 10, 2005, was provided — with many portions blacked out or removed entirely — to the Tillman family which found it wanting.

Pressed anew by the Tillmans, the Pentagon inspector general announced a review of the investigations in August 2005. And in March 2006, the Army launched a new criminal probe.

Acting Defense Department Inspector General Thomas Gimble has called this investigation the toughest case he has ever seen, according to people he recently briefed.

Investigators are looking at who fired at Tillman; they are also looking at the officers who pressured the platoon to move through a region with a history of ambushes; the soldiers who burned Tillman’s uniform and body armor; and at everyone in the chain of command who kept the circumstances of Tillman’s death from the family for more than a month.

Military investigators this year visited the rugged valley in a dangerous region of eastern Afghanistan where Tillman was killed.

According to one person briefed by investigators, the contingent included at least two soldiers who were at the incident — Staff Sgt. Matthew Weeks, who was up the hill from Tillman when he was shot, and Sgt. Kellett Sayre, the driver of the Humvee that carried the Rangers who shot Tillman.

Gimble and the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command, known as CID, are aiming to finish their work by December, say lawmakers and other officials briefed by Gimble.

CID is probing everything up to and including Tillman’s shooting. The inspector general’s office has a half-dozen investigators researching everything that happened afterward.

Investigators have taken sworn testimony from about 70 people, some of whom said they were questioned for more than six hours. But Gimble said investigators have struggled to locate key witnesses, even some who are still in the military.

Moreover, those who are now out of the Army, including three of the four shooters, can’t be court-martialed. They could be federally charged in the civilian justice system, but that would be highly unusual.

Gimble promised lawmakers this fall that his investigation “will bring all to light.” He has committed to releasing detailed findings to key legislators, Pentagon officials and the Tillman family, and a synopsis to the general public, congressional aides said.

Gimble declined an AP request for an interview.

Some lawmakers have warned that if this probe does not clear up all questions on Tillman’s death, they may press for hearings or an outside probe.

“I’m very impatient and at times cynical,” said Rep. Mike Honda, a Democrat who represents the San Jose district where Tillman’s family lives. But, he said, the honor of the military — and the confidence of the public in the military and the government — are at stake.

“So if we pursue the truth and wait for it,” he said, “it may be worthwhile.”


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