Mother Questions Tillman's Death in 'Fog of War' Four years ago, Army Ranger Pat Tillman was killed in Afghanistan. The military initially reported that the former NFL star died a heroic death in an insurgent strike, before admitting he was killed by friendly fire. Mary Tillman has continued to investigate her son's death and has written a book about him.
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Mother Questions Tillman's Death in 'Fog of War'

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Mother Questions Tillman's Death in 'Fog of War'

Mother Questions Tillman's Death in 'Fog of War'

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Americans came to know Pat Tillman as a football star who enlisted after 9/11. The image in our heads is a square-jawed soldier in a beret. That's the photo that appeared on TV after he was killed in Afghanistan.

One of the images in his mother's head is of Pat Tillman as a baby.

Ms. MARY TILLMAN (Author, "Boots on the Ground by Dusk"): He was not a cuddly infant. Actually, he was a little malcontent. He didn't like being swaddled and held like most babies. He preferred to be upright. I remember I would sit in a chair and hold him up so he could bounce on my knees until my arms got so tired I could no longer hold him.

INSKEEP: Mary Tillman put that memory in a book about her son called "Boots on the Ground by Dusk."

The military said Pat Tillman died heroically under enemy fire, then admitted he was killed by his fellow Americans. And last year, acting Army Secretary Peter Geren apologized.

Secretary PETER GEREN (US Army): We as an Army failed in our duty to the Tillman family, the duty we owe to all families of our fallen soldiers: Give them the truth, the best we know it, as fast as we can.

INSKEEP: That apology was not enough for Mary Tillman. She did not agree with all the details of the Army's final story, didn't think enough people were punished. And last summer, she spent weeks studying hundreds of documents on the case. She made her own investigation of what happened in Afghanistan's mountains in 2004.

Pat Tillman's platoon was sent to check a village for insurgents when, she says, it was hobbled by a disabled vehicle.

Ms. TILLMAN: There was a broken Humvee that could not be repaired, and they were in a position where they had to kind of drag it in order to bring it along. And there were several options that the platoon leader had voiced - you know, leave the vehicle behind, bring it along. But in the end, he was in a position where he had to split the platoon and have one of the serials or convoys basically take it back to meet up with someone who could pick it up so they could repair it.

INSKEEP: So you have Pat Tillman's platoon on this mission. They divide the force. Where's Pat Tillman in all of this?

Ms. TILLMAN: Well, Pat is in the first serial.

INSKEEP: So he's with the group that goes away from this towed Humvee and off its own way?

Ms. TILLMAN: Right. And they go through this particular canyon. And the second serial is the serial that my other son, Kevin, was in. Pat's serial got through the canyon safely. The first vehicle in that serial took a wrong turn. And as they're turning around, they start hearing loud explosions, lots of fire power. And they basically assumed that it must involve the second serial somehow, even though they were under the impression they were taking a different route.

So they turn around. They get out of their vehicles to go try to assist. And Pat went up a ridgeline and got in a position where there were some rocks. And he could see some enemy above the canyon walls.

INSKEEP: So we've got mountainous terrain. We've got soldiers in different locations. We've got American military vehicles moving in directions. We've got some kind of harassing enemy fire coming from rocks somewhere and people trying to figure out what's going on all around them. Is this what you're saying?

Ms. TILLMAN: Yeah. That's absolutely true. Now, according to the Army, this vehicle came out of the canyon basically in a panic, in a fog of war, and shot up the ridgeline in a matter of four seconds. That is the story that ultimately we were told.

INSKEEP: The story of Pat Tillman's death, right there?

Ms. TILLMAN: Right.

INSKEEP: Would you talk us through those last few minutes, what you believe happened? And tell us what you know, as well as what you don't know.

Ms. TILLMAN: Well, you have to understand, and I think it's really important that people realize, that our family originally, when we learned of the friendly fire, we were very saddened by it. It's a horrible thing to know that your loved one was killed by his own men. We thought it was a terrible accident.

But I think that after looking at the documents and talking to soldiers, I have a feeling that they didn't come out of that canyon in a fog of war. And their behavior was more of an adrenaline rush, a lust to fight. And one of the soldiers was asked, did you positively identify your target? And he said no. I was shooting where everyone else was shooting. I wanted to be in a fire fight.

They also indicated that they saw people waving their arms and someone asked, well, what did it look like they were trying to tell you? And one of the soldiers responded, it looked they were trying to say, hey, it's us. And yet they shot them anyway.

INSKEEP: So you believe that the soldiers in this Humvee came out of the canyon, it was a combat situation, they were being fired on by the enemy. But then they failed one of the real grave tests - the difficult tests of discipline with a fire arm, which is knowing when to stop shooting.

Ms. TILLMAN: Right. And they admitted no one was shooting at them when they got out of the canyon. This was a harassing ambush. Certainly, while they were in the canyon, it was probably extremely chaotic and frightening. I mean, Kevin was there. He said that it was frightening. But not one vehicle was even touched by enemy fire because the canyon walls were too high.

INSKEEP: So these men saw some people on a ridgeline, they fired in that direction, and then what happened?

Ms. TILLMAN: He was hit, and he fell to what I'm assuming was a kneeling position, and then he was shot with what we believe was a three-round burst from a saw gun in his forehead.

INSKEEP: And was killed instantly.


INSKEEP: Well, Mary Tillman, having spent all this time trying to establish what the record is and now to write this book to portray your son as the human being that he was, how do you want people to remember him?

Ms. TILLMAN: Well, Pat was a complicated person, like - well, everybody's complicated. It's hard to describe people in just a few words. But everyone who came in contact with Pat would say he was very honest. He was very loyal. He took responsibility for his mistakes - everything that the government and the Army have not done for him.

You know, but he was also a very inquisitive, curious person. He liked to read. He liked to inform himself. He was…

INSKEEP: Sounds like he got that from his mom.

Ms. TILLMAN: Oh, he got that from lots of people in the family. And he got it from a lot of people he met along the way. And, I mean, he had tremendous influences from marvelous teachers, marvelous coaches, marvelous friends. And I want people to know that about him. And it's a tragic, horrible loss.

You know, there are people that say, oh, well, you know, she must be just this really grieving mother and, you know, blah, blah, blah. Well, of course, I'm grieving. I will always grieve for him. I will always miss him. We can't accept that he was treated with such disrespect and treated as a political tool, we believe.

INSKEEP: Mary Tillman is author of "Boots on the Ground by Dusk." Thanks very much.

Ms. TILLMAN: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: You can find an excerpt from Mary Tillman's book at

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

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