Before the Super Bowl on February 12th, the NFL ran a brief segment on Pat Tillman, a former linebacker who quit a promising and lucrative career in professional football to join the U.S. Army after the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001. The segment lauded Tillman’s heroism, devotion to duty, and ultimate act of sacrifice; it assured viewers that, while Tillman “ultimately lost his life in the line of duty,” his courage and patriotism live on and inspire others today.
The segment neglected to mention a few important details, however.
On April 22nd, 2004, Tillman was shot and killed in Afghanistan. The U.S. military almost immediately reported that he had been slain by enemy combatants in an ambush outside the village of Spera. While the loss was obviously tragic, there was nothing immediately remarkable about the incident; Tillman was merely the latest name on an increasingly long list of American casualties of the War on Terror. But more sinister events were playing out behind the scenes.
In reality, Tillman had been struck by friendly fire: rounds discharged by American troops. Within hours of the incident, U.S. officials were aware that Tillman had been killed, not by hostile forces, but by his own comrades. In spite of this, the U.S. military informed Tillman’s family and the public that Tillman had perished after putting himself “in the line of devastating enemy fire.” At Tillman’s nationally televised memorial service, this flagrant farce continued: a Navy SEAL spun a narrative, provided to him by the Pentagon, in which he recounted how Tillman had given his life in the act of “braving” the attack. Meanwhile, several soldiers, including Bryan O’Neal and Russell Baer, were reportedly given explicit instructions to lie to members of the Tillman family and to withhold the information related to the actual circumstances of his death.
Four weeks later, the U.S. military finally admitted, in the face of investigations by both the Department of Defense and the U.S. Congress, that Tillman had been a victim of fratricide. The Tillman family was given no specific account of the episode and only found out about the admission when a reporter called to ask for comment.
Why did U.S. officials conspire and lie about the death of Tillman? Almost 20 years later, it is still not entirely clear. But a few additional details paint a disturbing, albeit incomplete, picture.
After his death, Tillman’s friends and confidants in the U.S. Army shared that Tillman had become disillusioned with the War on Terror and disenchanted with military service. He allegedly described the invasion and occupation of Iraq as “f—ing illegal,” and indicated his intentions to meet with anti-war figures such as Noam Chomsky upon returning to the United States. These apprehensions, as well as his correct speculation that the Pentagon’s dishonest reports of Jessica Lynch’s capture and eventual rescue amounted to a “[publicity] stunt,” were meticulously recorded in Tillman’s personal diary.
That a soldier with germinating anti-war convictions and growing doubts about the integrity of the U.S. military ended up dead at the hands of his compatriots is not, by itself, sufficient to cause suspicion or alarm. But in an ostensibly inexplicable act for which the U.S. military has given no reason, the soldiers responsible for killing Tillman burned his body armor, uniform, and journal — containing those aforementioned objections — afterwards. A part of his brain also went missing.
In 2007, an inquiry conducted by the Pentagon uncovered more ominous facts. The related report concluded that there was absolutely no evidence to suggest that Taliban operatives had fired on Tillman and his regiment, as U.S. officials had initially claimed. Moreover, the report revealed that U.S. Army medical examiners were “suspicious about the close proximity of the three bullet holes in… Tillman's forehead,” and unsuccessfully urged authorities to investigate whether Tillman had been murdered. One of the medical examiners insisted that the wounds were likely inflicted by an M16 rifle — the signature weapon of U.S. infantry — at a range of fewer than 10 yards. Eyewitnesses later recalled that Tillman was repeatedly shouting “cease fire… I am Pat [expletive] Tillman!” when he was hit.
The immediate destruction of evidence, the subsequent coverup, the total lack of support for the official version of events, the close range at which Tillman was shot: all of these raise serious and valid questions. Was the killing of Tillman deliberate? Is the U.S. military remotely competent or even vaguely aware of what is unfolding on the battlefield? Are dissenters safe within its ranks?
Even in the best-case scenario — one in which Tillman was accidentally slain in a legitimate case of friendly fire — his use as a prop in NFL reputational advertising and U.S. military recruitment is profoundly disgusting and deeply offensive to everyone: to the American public it endeavors to deceive and ensnare, to Tillman’s family who spent years fighting to discover the truth, and, of course, to the memory of Tillman himself.
And what is being sold here, really? Certainly not the true story: one in which you may be cut down by your companions, the manner of your death may be concealed from your loved ones, and your name may be used to promote a cause which you came to detest.
Is that supposed to convince Americans to lace up their boots and enlist?
We may never really know how Pat Tillman died. Either way, one thing is clear: to the NFL and the U.S. military, Pat Tillman is just as good dead as alive.