ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
In April of 2004, Pat Tillman died on a treeless hillside in Afghanistan, as he crouched behind some low boulders. The former NFL star turned Army Ranger was heard screaming: What are you shooting at? I'm Pat Tillman.
We now know he was killed in a barrage of friendly fire, but it took more than a month for the Army to acknowledge that fact. The story of Pat Tillman's life and the cover-up of how he died are told in a new book by Jon Krakauer, the author of "Into Thin Air" and "Into the Wild." On that day in 2004, Pat Tillman's platoon was split in two. He was in the first convoy, which drove through a deep, narrow canyon. His younger brother Kevin was following behind in the second convoy when they were ambushed.
Mr. JON KRAKAUER (Author, "Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman"): It was like "Star Wars", one of the soldiers said. It was just all these tracer rounds, all these bullets flying, RPGs, mortars. And Pat's group looked back and immediately realized that the other half of the platoon was being attacked.
BLOCK: Being attacked by Afghan fighters.
Mr. KRAKAUER: That's right, by tribal insurgents working for the Taliban.
BLOCK: You described Pat Tillman here. He knows his brother is back behind him there getting fired on. He sprints out. He apparently says to his fellow Ranger, let's go help our boys.
Mr. KRAKAUER: That's right. And you have to know, Pat and Kevin, the two brothers, were extremely close. I mean, this is a tight family all the way around, but Pat and Kevin, as one soldier put it, were joined at the hip.
BLOCK: Describe what happens when the back half of the platoon comes out of the canyon and start firing on the position where Pat Tillman is up on the hill. What happened? What were they thinking?
Mr. KRAKAUER: When they exited the canyon, they paused for maybe 30 seconds. By this point, Pat was in the boulders right above them. And Pat and another young private with him named Bryan O'Neal reported later - O'Neal reported that, you know, they were shooting at us at first but it seemed like no big deal. Then there was this lull and then all of a sudden, when they got back in their Humvee and started moving, the area where Pat and O'Neal were just got hammered, just sprayed by this furious fusillade of everything, you know, all kinds of machine guns. What had happened was that with Tillman and O'Neal was an Afghan militia fighter named Sayed Farhad. He had been firing suppressive fire up on the opposite canyon wall to prevent the enemy, if there were any left, from shooting down at the second half. The leader of this particular Humvee, out of the corner of his eye, he saw muzzle flashes. He saw that they were coming from a bearded guy with an AK-47. He testified that the guy had on an American uniform. But, you know, in the panic of the moment, he reflexively put the guy in the sights of his M4 and put seven rounds into his chest.
BLOCK: And he thought the Afghan was looking at him and firing at him.
Mr. KRAKAUER: Yeah, he thought the Afghan was the enemy. What then happened is that all the other soldiers in that Humvee started firing their machine guns and M4s at that same place, because they're trained to shoot where their team leader shoots. They're also trained, though, to identify their targets -positively identify your targets. None of them did that. Actually, the driver of that Humvee looked up and saw that they were Americans. He realized, wait, those are our guys. He yelled and tried to get people to stop but he was a split second too late.
BLOCK: The Rangers who were on that hill knew immediately that this was friendly fire. There was no question. But the story, obviously, we know now, that emerged from the Pentagon was very different right away.
Mr. KRAKAUER: Yeah, and which - it's not just the soldiers on the ground who were there knew it was friendly fire. People from headquarters started arriving within a few hours. And every one of them, including the lieutenant colonel who was in charge of the Second Ranger Battalion, all of them immediately understood it was friendly fire and acknowledged as much. I mean, it's not like anyone ever doubted it. And yet, within hours, certainly, and probably less, the Ranger regiment and officers, high-ranking officers back in the states, were conspiring to cover this up. There's no other way to put it. The Army, to this day, denies it but it's just - it defies belief.
They immediately, by sworn testimony, started putting in a recommendation for a Silver Star Medal. That never happened, especially if you know that the soldier in question was killed by friendly fire. And then they did this astonishing series of things that puts a lie to their expressed, you know, desire to tell the truth. They burned - like when a soldier is killed in combat, you should put, you know, his uniform, his weapon, everything, anything that can be considered forensic evidence should be sent back to the States with the body, so the medical examiners can determine the cause of death. In the case of Tillman, none of that happened. His uniform was burned. His body armor was burned. His weapon disappeared. His helmet disappeared. Part of his brain that was found on the ground disappeared.
The Army intentionally lied to the medical examiners. They knowingly deliberately lied and said he was killed by the Taliban, which really perplexed the guys who did the autopsy. They just broke regulation after regulation. They admonished Pat's platoon mates not to tell a soul. About the only person in the platoon, by the first or second day, who didn't know it was friendly fire was Pat's brother, Kevin, because everyone was told, don't tell Kevin what happened.
They sent one of Pat and Kevin's best friends, this young guy named Russell Baer, to fly back to the States with Kevin and the body. And Russell Baer was ordered not to tell Kevin anything about what happened. In no uncertain terms, he's just told he would be severely punished if he did. So he hardly said a word to Kevin on the flight back.
But then, during the memorial service, you know, he was invited by the parents afterwards to come to their home. And Baer was forced to lie to the mother, to her face, after handing her this flag that had been folded over Pat's casket. And he was so upset by having to lie to Pat's mother that Russell Baer went AWOL.
BLOCK: Jon Krakauer, there have been so many investigations now of how Pat Tillman died: there was congressional inquiry, Pat Tillman's mother wrote her own book. How did you deal with everything that was known already? How did you come to terms with trying to make something new or discover something new in this story?
Mr. KRAKAUER: Well, even to this day, there's a lot that isn't known. I interviewed members of Pat's platoon who had not been interviewed before and that was invaluable. I actually learned a lot that hasn't been known until now. So, you know, it's not like I felt like this story had been fully told. It still hasn't been fully told. I mean, you know, the commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, who I think is probably the best man for the job, nevertheless, he was as deeply involved in the cover-up as anyone. You know, he signed off on what he knew was a falsified recommendation for a Silver Star. He apologized for that but he hasn't come clean about much else. He hasn't revealed his involvement, or who he spoke to, or when he knew, or if - when Rumsfeld knew. I mean, so it's not like we know everything. We still don't.
BLOCK: Jon Krakauer, thank you very much.
Mr. KRAKAUER: You're welcome.
BLOCK: Jon Krakauer, his book is titled "Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman."
At his confirmation hearing earlier this year, General McChrystal acknowledged that the Army had failed the Tillman family. I was a part of that, he said, and I apologize for it. But McChrystal also said he didn't see any activities by anyone to deceive and that Pat Tillman absolutely earned the Silver Star.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.