In 2002, Pat Tillman left a successful football career with the Arizona Cardinals to join the U.S. Army. He was killed in Afghanistan in 2004. The official story was that he was shot by enemy forces during an ambush, but it was later revealed that he may have been killed by friendly fire, and that Army commanders and members of the Bush administration covered up the truth of what had happened.
Professional football player and soldier Patrick Daniel Tillman was born to Mary and Patrick Tillman on November 6, 1976, in San Jose, California, the oldest of three sons. Tillman excelled at football while attending Leland High School, having led his team to the Central Coast Division I Football Championship. Tillman's considerable talent landed him a scholarship to Arizona State University (ASU), which he attended after graduating high school.
At ASU, Tillman thrived on the field and in the classroom. The linebacker helped his team to achieve an undefeated season and to make to the 1997 Rose Bowl game. He won the Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year and was selected as the ASU Most Valuable Player of the Year in 1997. Tillman also earned awards for his performance as a student, winning the Clyde B. Smith Academic Award in 1996 and 1997; the Sporting News Honda Scholar-Athlete of the Year in 1997; and the 1998 Sun Angel Student Athlete of Year.
Drafted to the NFL
Tillman was selected by the Arizona Cardinals in the 1998 National Football League (NFL) draft. Over time, he earned his place as a starting player and set a new team record for the number of tackles in 2000. Loyal to his team, Tillman turned down a lucrative contract with the St. Louis Rams to stay with the Cardinals in 2001.
Joining the Army
When the United States' invaded Afghanistan, Tillman decided to put his professional career on hold in order to join the U.S. military. "Sports embodied many of the qualities I deem meaningful," he said in 2002. "However, these last few years, and especially after recent events, I've come to appreciate just how shallow and insignificant my role is . . . It's no longer important."
After finishing the 2001 season, he planned on enlisting in the U.S. Army with his younger brother, Kevin. His decision to leave the sport to join the military garnered a lot of media attention; some had a hard time believing that Tillman would give up all of the perks of being a professional athlete in order to fight for his country. Yet Tillman turned down a three-year, $3.6 million contract with the Cardinals to enlist. Before starting his military service, Tillman married his high school girlfriend Marie.
Tillman and his brother went through training to become Army Rangers and were assigned to the second battalion of 75th Ranger Regiment in Fort Lewis, Washington. Tillman served in several tours of duty, including time in Iraq as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom as well as a stay in Afghanistan to serve in Operation Enduring Freedom.
On April 22, 2004, Tillman was killed in action while in a canyon in eastern Afghanistan. The first reports indicated that he was shot during a clash with enemy forces during an ambush. Many questions remained unanswered about Tillman's death at the time, but a week later this account of his death became recognized as the official story, and General Stanley McChrystal approved for the soldier's Silver Star nomination. Pat Tillman was honored in a nationally televised memorial service on May 3, 2004, in which Senator John McCain delivered the eulogy.
Yet there were still many unanswered questions and conflicting accounts concerning the circumstances surrounding his death. As more details emerged, Tillman's family began demanding answers from the military. By the end of May, media outlets reported that Tillman was actually killed in an incident of fratricide—otherwise known as "friendly fire." Official documents would later reveal that the U.S. Army was aware of the possibility of fratricide in regards to Tillman's death even before his memorial service, but withheld that knowledge from the public and from Tillman's family until well after the memorial.
The Pentagon reopened the investigation into Tillman's death in 2005, but the more than 2,000 pages of testimony only revealed more contradictions and inaccuracies. What did become known was that Tillman's platoon was forced to split up when one of their vehicles broke down during a routine search of an Afghan village. Half the platoon members were ordered to tow the vehicle, but were attacked by Taliban insurgents. When Tillman and his half of the platoon came to the rescue, they were mistaken for enemy soldiers. Tillman was shot three times in the head while protecting a young soldier, and two other Americans were wounded.
Investigation and Scandal
Documents that surfaced years later also proved that those involved in the incident were aware that Tillman had died from friendly fire within 24 hours of his death—including General Stanley McChrystal, who had approved the Silver Star honor. After Tillman's death, the investigation proved that Army commanders and members of the Bush administration concealed the truth behind the soldier's shooting by destroying items of his clothing, his notebooks and even hiding parts of Tillman's body to cover up evidence.
Even years after his death, the Tillman family has remained unsure as to whether the real story of what happened to Pat will ever be fully unearthed. Yet the Tillmans remain persistent in their quest to find out the truth behind Pat's final moments. "This isn't about Pat, this is about what they did to Pat and what they did to a nation," said Pat's mother, Mary Tillman. "By making up these false stories you're diminishing their true heroism. [The truth] may not be pretty but that's not what war is all about. It's ugly, it's bloody, it's painful. And to write these glorious tales is really a disservice to the nation."
In addition to his Purple Heart and Silver Star medals from the military, Tillman's numbers for the ASU Sun Devils and the Arizona Cardinals were retired in his honor. In May 2010, he was chosen to be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. During June of the same year, the NFL and the Pat Tillman Foundation joined forces to create the NFL-Tillman Scholarship to honor an individual who "exemplifies Pat Tillman's enduring legacy of service." A documentary about Pat's life, called The Tillman Story, was released on August 20, 2010.
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