American Heroes: Pat Tillman, Ranger

He wasn’t larger than life; he dwarfed it. He was a 26-years-young man with the loyalty typically only seen in those much older. A square-jawed, handsome, all-American hero, an up-and-coming NFL star, he made the conscious decision to leave behind a lucrative sports career to fight for his country after the September 11 terrorist attacks. One decade has passed since U.S. Army Ranger Pat Tillman was killed in Afghanistan on what was more wadi than road outside the village of Sperah.

“Few men have virtue to withstand the highest bidder.” (George Washington)

Pat Tillman FootballThe hard-charging Ranger’s football career started almost before he could walk, but he gained ground playing at Leland High School, leading his team to the Central Coast Division I Football Championsip. Tillman first made his mark in NFL history in 1994, playing college ball for ASU. He was a linebacker for the Sun Devils despite being considered on the small side at only 5’11”, and coaches and teammates would often say he got by through sheer grit and determination. That will helped carry his college team to an undefeated season in 1997 and on to the Rose Bowl. That same year, Tillman was voted Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year and ASU’s MVP of the Year. But he wasn’t all braun; the stocky football player earned his marketing degree in just 3 ½ years, graduating summa cum laude with a 3.84 GPA.

After graduating in 1998, Tillman became the Arizona Cardinals 226th pick in the seventh round, quickly working his way up to safety. His NFL career was marked by a never-ending series of highlights: in 2000, he broke a franchise record with 224 tackles; in 2001 he turned down a 5-year, $9 million contract with the St. Louis Rams, opting instead to stay with the Cardinals. Loyalty, you see, was Pat Tillman’s thing.

“Sports embodied many of the qualities I deem meaningful. However, these last few years, and especially after recent events, I’ve come to appreciate just how shallow and insignificant my role is…it is no longer important.” Pat Tillman to the NY Times, 2002

At the end of the 2001 season, following the September 11th attacks, he refused a $3.6 million contract with the Cardinals. His loyalty, he felt, should be to his country. Tillman sat down with his coach, Dave McGinnis, and told him simply “We need to talk.” He and his brother were enlisting with the ultimate goal of becoming Rangers and in Tillman’s mind, there was no discussion. He was done. According to his coaches, he felt he was young, blessed and duty and honor-bound to fight. Pat Tillman didn’t see his growing fame as even the slightest factor in his decision to become a Ranger.

Rangers Lead the Way

Rangers have been around for centuries but have only been officially recognized since 1950, and the 75th Ranger Regiment – Tillman’s – deploys with far greater frequency, but for shorter stretches, than most units. Early on, Rangers were expected to take part in raids and ambushes, but by the time Tillman joined, a higher level of sophistication was being drilled into them. Whereas certain operations were once the sole purview of Tier One SpecOps units such as SEAL Team Six and Delta Force, the Army Rangers are now expected to handle their own part while still maintaining their basic training.

“Well, goddammit, if you’re Rangers, lead the way!” Brigadier General Norman Cota, June 6, 1944

Pat and his brother Kevin.
Pat and his brother Kevin.

Tillman and his younger brother Kevin enlisted together on May 31, 2002, and began basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia, where they faced the reality that not even 35% of candidates actually get their black-and-gold Ranger tab. But tenacity is a trait the brothers shared, and both received their Ranger tabs in late 2002. From there they were assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, at Fort Lewis in Washington state, back when Lewis stood on its own prior to becoming a joint base with McChord in 2010. Their battalion was a part of Operation Mountain Storm in Afghanistan, and they would fight against terrorists who were a part of al-Qaeda. The brothers had their coveted tabs, and they were going to war.

“My great-grandfather was at Pearl Harbor and a lot of my family has…gone and fought in wars, and I really haven’t done a damn thing as far as laying myself on the line like that. “ (Pat Tillman, media statement, 2002)

The pistol. The shotgun. Trench warfare. Football uses warfare terminology as a regular part of its repertoire, but war is not football. Pat Tillman was known for his bone-jarring hits during his time with the NFL, and as a Ranger he was hard-charging and tough – everything a Ranger should be, in spades. Tillman’s friends said he used the “f” word liberally, but knew when to rein it in. He was at home in his DCU’s but could turn around and don a suit and tie. His chameleon-like ability to blend in was an excellent trait for a bad-to-the-bone Army Ranger, and the same mental toughness that helped him excel on the football field undoubtedly gave him strength in combat.

Pat Tillman had one tour of duty before returning to Washington to spend time with his wife. He married Marie immediately prior to enlisting in the Army, and when he was away, she lived in University Place in Seattle. It was where the young couple made their first, and last, home. Before leaving for his second tour, Pat made sure Marie had a sealed envelope marked “just in case.” Just three weeks later, “just in case” arrived.

“I’m Pat F—–g Tillman!”

On April 22, 2004, Pat Tillman, who was part of A-Company – nicknamed the Alpha-bots for their iron wills – was assigned to the 2nd Platoon, the Black Sheep. His brother had the same assignment, and on that day the men were on a zone reconnaissance in Paktia. The roads out there are more wadi than passable road, and one of Black Sheep’s Hummer’s broke down in the village of Magarah. Despite numerous attempts to fix it, they were unable to properly revive the Hummer. Sources say three guerillas heard there were American troops in the village, and the trio, laden down with an RPG and other weapons, sat on a ridge and waited.

This is neither the time nor place to second-guess the decisions made that day. There are a number of conspiracy theory and judgment-passing sites on the internet that cater to such fare; to take part in such pastimes, go there.

TillmanAlthough Platoon Leader First Lieutenant David Uthlaut strongly disagreed, Major David Hodne decided from a distant place to order the platoon to split up. One group was directed to drag the broken Hummer back to a road using an old truck hired from an Afghan while the other was to continue on to Manah. Manah was the location on Hodne’s mission checklist where he wanted to have boots on the ground by dusk (some sources later said the appointed time was not dusk but dawn). This action didn’t just split the platoon in two but also separated the brothers – Kevin staying with the broken Hummer, Pat heading for Manah.

Under orders from Major Hodne to split the platoon into sections called “Serials,” Uthlaut was given no choice and did his best to divide the men and weapons as carefully as possible given time constraints. This left team leaders in charge of men they did not normally work with. Considering the ad hoc nature of the op, Uthlaut did as well as he possibly could. And up on the ridge, the guerillas watched as the Americans broke off into Serials.

There was a split in the wadi, at which point the Manah-bound serial, including Pat Tillman, was to head left and into a canyon. The serial with the broken Hummer would veer right, up a steep hillside, and hopefully arrive at a road where they would meet up with better transport. The Manah serial was several minutes ahead of the Broken Hummer serial, and when the men with the worthless vehicle discovered that their route was entirely impassable, they had no choice but to turn around and follow the same route the Manah serial had. It was at this point that Platoon Sergeant Eric Godec, in charge of the Broken Hummer serial, discovered they’d lost radio contact with the Manah serial.

And so the Broken Hummer serial was forced to head into the canyon several minutes after the Manah serial already had done so themselves. The men were being thrown around by the rough, boulder-strewn and deeply rutted path, and everything that could go wrong that day, had. This was when one of the guerillas, who had an RPG, shouldered his weapon and fired on the split-off section of the Black Sheep platoon.

His initial volley missed, but, unsure what had happened, the men halted as is proper procedure when facing an IED. In a matter of moments, the Rangers began to unload everything they had. The effect within the canyon led to what must have been an apocalyptic-appearing show of auditory explosions with the bright flashes of tracer rounds. For the Manah serial ahead, the canyon acted as a giant megaphone, amplifying everything but telling them nothing. They had to decide what to do. They had no radio contact with the Broken Hummer serial, which definitely seemed to be involved in some kind of firefight, and they couldn’t simply traipse back into the mouth of the canyon.

In the end, the majority of the Manah serial stayed where they were, while a small group led by Staff Sergeant Matthew Weeks went back to help what they believed were their pinned-down brothers. There was a finger of rock over the mouth of the canyon that was Weeks’ goal, and the men headed out. From that point on higher ground, Weeks sent 3 men – PFC Bryan O’Neal, an allied Afghan militiaman, and Tillman – to take a closer look.

From here it is best to stick to the bare facts presented by the coroner’s report. There are too many conflicting reports to relay the fatal moments that followed. A vehicle at the front of the Broken Hummer serial, under the operational control of Sergeant Greg Baker, emerged from the canyon and opened fire on Pat’s position, including the village behind him.

Pat Tillman was struck in the forehead by three rounds. Army medical examiners opened up the question about whether or not the shooting was criminal based in part on the location and trajectory of those bullet holes. The Army ME’s said the bullet holes suggested Tillman was taken down by an M-16 fired from 10 yards away. However, a pair of men considered some of the best gunshot wound pathologists in the United States had a different opinion after pouring over the autopsy findings and photographs at the request of Dannie Tillman, Pat’s mother. Both experts said the trajectories of the bullets along with the exit wounds and proximity of the rounds was consistent with a burst fired from an M249 Squad Automatic Weapon (SAW). A SAW was indeed being fired from approximately 40 meters away that day.

The vehicle opening fire on Pat’s position included a SAW, an M240B machine gun, an M2 .50 cal machine gun, and two M4’s. When the shots were fired that took Tillman’s life, his brother Kevin, still in the canyon, could hear the report of the rounds. Those bursts must echo in Kevin Tillman’s nightmares to this day.

“Loyalty to the country always. Loyalty to the government when it deserves it.” (Mark Twain)

Perhaps what happened next was a collective panic when, in 2004, the military and government were in the midst of the Abu Ghraib photograph frenzy and the exposure of Rumsfeld’s “Grab whom you must. Do what you want.” program. Within two months of Pat’s death, three more “friendly-fire” incidents were falsely reported – those of Kenneth Ballard, Patrick McCaffrey, and Jesse Buryj. Maybe the government really believed they could hide the truth – or maybe they didn’t care.

Pat TillmanIt would be easy to become entrenched in the many inconsistencies and conspiracies surrounding Pat Tillman’s death. Those who would denigrate his patriotism by saying he was privately antiwar should be ashamed of themselves. What people need to remember is not how he died, but how he lived. Duty and honor may have been the cornerstones of his actions, but loyalty was his heart and soul. If there was one thing to be taken from the way he died, it would be that: loyalty. Pat Tillman went back to save his men, including his blood brother, and he died for it. Pat Tillman was, above all else, loyal, and an American Hero the likes of which we may never see again.

“Whenever there is a grain of loyalty, there is a glimpse of freedom.” (Algernon Charles Swinburne)

Author’s Note: Pat Tillman was promoted posthumously to Corporal. He was also awarded the Silver Star, Purple Heart, and Meritorious Service Award posthumously. His other medals include: Army Achievement Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, Army Service Ribbon, Presidential Unit Citation, Joint Meritorious Unit Award, Army Superior Unit Award. He also had his Parachutist Badge, Combat Infantryman Badge, and, of course, his Ranger Tab.

Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.

Katherine Ainsworth

Katherine is a military and political journalist with a reputation for hard-hitting, no-holds-barred articles. Her career as a writer has immersed her in the military lifestyle and given her unique insights into the various branches of service. She is a firearms aficionado and has years of experience as a K9 SAR handler, and has volunteered with multiple support-our-troops charities for more than a decade. Katherine is passionate about military issues and feels supporting service members should be the top priority for all Americans. Her areas of expertise include the military, politics, history, firearms and canine issues.
Katherine Ainsworth
3 Shares

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *