Communication Breakdown, Split Platoon Among the Factors Contributing to 'Friendly Fire'
By Steve Coll
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 5, 2004
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First in a two-part series
It ended on a stony ridge in fading light. Spec. Pat Tillman lay dying behind a boulder. A young fellow U.S. Army Ranger stretched prone beside him, praying quietly as tracer bullets poured in.
"Cease fire! Friendlies!" Tillman cried out.
Smoke drifted from a signal grenade Tillman had detonated minutes before in a desperate bid to show his platoon members they were shooting the wrong men. The firing had stopped. Tillman had stood up, chattering in relief. Then the machine gun bursts erupted again.
"I could hear the pain in his voice," recalled the young Ranger days later to Army investigators. Tillman kept calling out that he was a friendly, and he shouted, "I am Pat [expletive] Tillman, damn it!" His comrade recalled: "He said this over and over again until he stopped."
Myths shaped Pat Tillman's reputation, and mystery shrouded his death. A long-haired, fierce-hitting defensive back with the Arizona Cardinals of the National Football League, he turned away a $3.6 million contract after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to volunteer for the war on terrorism, ultimately giving his life in combat in Taliban-infested southeastern Afghanistan.
Millions of stunned Americans mourned his death last April 22 and embraced his sacrifice as a rare example of courage and national service. But the full story of how Tillman ended up on that Afghan ridge and why he died at the hands of his own comrades has never been told.
Dozens of witness statements, e-mails, investigation findings, logbooks, maps and photographs obtained by The Washington Post show that Tillman died unnecessarily after botched communications, a mistaken decision to split his platoon over the objections of its leader, and negligent shooting by pumped-up young Rangers -- some in their first firefight -- who failed to identify their targets as they blasted their way out of a frightening ambush.
The records show Tillman fought bravely and honorably until his last breath. They also show that his superiors exaggerated his actions and invented details as they burnished his legend in public, at the same time suppressing details that might tarnish Tillman's commanders.
Army commanders hurriedly awarded Tillman a posthumous Silver Star for valor and released a nine-paragraph account of his heroism that made no mention of fratricide. A month later the head of the Army's Special Operations Command, Lt. Gen. Philip R. Kensinger Jr., called a news conference to disclose in a brief statement that Tillman "probably" died by "friendly fire." Kensinger refused to answer questions.
Friends and family describe Pat Tillman as an American original, a maverick who burned with intensity. He was wild, exuberant, loyal, compassionate and driven, they say. He bucked convention, devoured books and debated conspiracy theories. He demanded straight talk about uncomfortable truths.
After his death, the Army that Tillman served did not do the same.
"I play football. It just seems so unimportant compared to everything that has taken place."
Pat Tillman's decision to trade the celebrity and luxury of pro football for a grunt's life at the bottom of the Ranger chain of command shocked many people, but not those who felt they knew him best.
"There was so much more to him than anyone will ever know," reflected Denver Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer, a teammate at Arizona State University and on the Cardinals, speaking at a memorial service last May. Tillman was "fearless on the field, reckless, tough," yet he was also "thought-provoking. He liked to have deep conversations with a Guinness," and he would walk away from those sessions saying, "I've got to become more of a thinker."
In high school and college, a mane of flaxen hair poured from beneath his football helmet. His muscles rippled in a perfect taper from the neck down. "Dude" was his favorite pronoun; for fun he did handstands on the roof of the family house. He pedaled shirtless on a bicycle to his first pro training camp.
"I play football. It just seems so unimportant compared to everything that has taken place," he told NFL Films after the Sept. 11 attacks. His grandfather had been at Pearl Harbor. "A lot of my family has gone and fought wars, and I really haven't done a damn thing."
He was very close to his younger brother Kevin, then playing minor league baseball for the Cleveland Indians organization. They finished each other's sentences, friends recounted. They enlisted in the U.S. Army Rangers together in the spring of 2002. Less than a year later, they shipped out to Iraq.
In Pat Tillman's first firefight during the initial months of the Iraq war, he watched his lead gunner die within minutes, stepped into his place and battled steadfastly, said Steve White, a U.S. Navy SEAL on the same mission. "He was thirsty to be the best," White said.
Yet Tillman accepted his ordinary status in the military and rarely talked about himself. One night he confided to White that he had just turned down an NFL team's attempt to sign him to a huge contract and free him from his Army service early.
"I'm going to finish what I started," Tillman said, as White recalled at the May memorial. The next morning Tillman returned to duty and was ordered to cut "about an acre of grass by some 19-year-old kid."
The Tillman brothers served together in the "Black Sheep," otherwise known as 2nd Platoon, A Company, 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment. They were elite -- special operators transferred from Iraq in the spring to conduct sweep and search missions against the Taliban and al Qaeda remnants in eastern Afghanistan. The Rangers worked with CIA paramilitaries, Afghan allies and other special forces on grid-by-grid patrols designed to flush out and entrap enemy guerrillas. They moved in small, mobile, lethal units.
On April 13, 2004, the Tillman brothers rolled out with their fellow Black Sheep from a clandestine base near the Pakistan border to begin anti-Taliban patrols with two other Ranger platoons. A week later the other platoons returned to base. So did the two senior commanding officers of A Company, records show. They left behind the 2nd Platoon to carry on operations near Khost, in Paktia province, a region of broken roads and barren rock canyons frequented by Osama bin Laden and his allies for many years before the Sept. 11 attacks.
Left in command of the 2nd Platoon was then-Lt. David A. Uthlaut, a recent graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where he had been named the prestigious first captain of his class. Now serving as a captain in Iraq, Uthlaut declined to be interviewed for these articles, but his statements and field communications are among the documents obtained by The Post.
Uthlaut's mission, as Army investigators later put it, was to kill or capture any "anti-coalition members" that he and his men could find.
"This vehicle problem better not delay us any more."
The trouble began with a Humvee's broken fuel pump.
A helicopter flew into Paktia with a spare on the night of April 21. But the next morning, the Black Sheep's mechanic had no luck with his repair.
Uthlaut ordered his platoon to pull out. He commanded 34 men in nine vehicles, including the busted Humvee. They towed the broken vehicle with straps because they lacked a proper tow bar. After several hours on rough dirt-rock roads, the Humvee's front end buckled. It could move no farther. Uthlaut pulled his men into a tiny village called Margarah to assess options.
It was just after noon. They were in the heart of Taliban country, and they were stuck.
Uthlaut messaged his regiment's Tactical Operations Center far away at Bagram, near Kabul. He asked for a helicopter to hoist the Humvee back to base. No dice, came the reply: There would be no transport chopper available for at least two or three days.
While Uthlaut tried to develop other ideas, his commanders at the base squabbled about the delay. According to investigative records, a senior officer in the Rangers' operations center, whose name is redacted from documents obtained by The Post, complained pointedly to A Company's commander, Uthlaut's immediate superior.
"This vehicle problem better not delay us any more," the senior officer said, as he later recalled in a sworn statement. The 2nd Platoon was already 24 hours behind schedule, he said. It was supposed to be conducting clearing operations in a southeastern Afghan village called Manah.
"So the only reason you want me to split up is so I can get boots on the ground in sector before it gets dark?"
By 4 p.m. Uthlaut had a solution, he believed. He could hire a local "jinga truck" driver to tow the Humvee out to a nearby road where the Army could move down and pick it up. In this scenario, Uthlaut told his commanders, he had a choice. He could keep his platoon together until the Humvee had been disposed of, then move to Manah. Or, he could divide his platoon in half, with one "serial" handling the vehicle while the other serial moved immediately to the objective.
The A Company commander, under pressure from his superior to get moving, ordered Uthlaut to split his platoon.
Uthlaut objected. "I would recommend sending our whole platoon up to the highway and then having us go together to the villages," he wrote in an e-mail to the operations center at 5:03 p.m. With sunset approaching, he wrote, even if he split the platoon, the serial that went to Manah would not be able to carry out search operations before dark. And under procedures at the time, he was not supposed to conduct such operations at night.
Uthlaut's commander overruled him. Get half your platoon to Manah right away, he ordered.
But why? Uthlaut asked, as he recalled in a sworn statement. Do you want us to change procedures and conduct sweep operations at night?
No, said the A Company commander.
"So the only reason you want me to split up is so I can get boots on the ground in sector before it gets dark?" an incredulous Uthlaut asked, as he recalled.
Yes, said his commander.
Uthlaut tried "one last-ditch effort," pointing out that he had only one heavy .50-caliber machine gun for the entire platoon. Did that change anything? The commander said it did not.
"At that point I figured I had pushed the envelope far enough and accepted the mission," Uthlaut recalled in the statement.
He pulled his men together hastily and briefed them. Twenty-four hours after its detection, the broken Humvee part had brought them to a difficult spot: They had to divide into two groups quickly and get moving across a darkening, hostile landscape.
Serial 1, led by Uthlaut and including Pat Tillman, would move immediately to Manah.
Serial 2, with the local tow truck hauling the Humvee, would follow, but would soon branch off toward a highway to drop off the vehicle.
Sgt. Greg Baker, a young and slightly built Ranger nearing the end of his enlistment, commanded the heaviest-armed vehicle in Serial 2, just behind the jinga tow truck. Baker's men wielded the .50-caliber machine gun, plus an M-240B machine gun, an M-249 squad automatic weapon and three M-4 carbines. Baker's truck would do the heaviest shooting if there were any attack. Two of his gunners had never seen combat before.
Baker left the Rangers last spring; he declined to comment for these articles. A second gunner in his vehicle, Trevor Alders, also declined to discuss the incident.
Kevin Tillman was also assigned to Serial 2. He manned an MK19 gun in the trailing vehicle, well behind Baker.
They left Margarah village a little after 6 p.m. They had been in the same place for more than five hours, presenting an inviting target for Taliban guerrillas.
Pat Tillman's serial, with Uthlaut in command, soon turned into a steep and narrow canyon, passed through safely and approached Manah as planned.
Behind them, Serial 2 briefly started down a different road, then stopped. The Afghan tow truck driver said he could not navigate the pitted road. He suggested they turn around and follow the same route that Serial 1 had taken. After Serial 2 passed Manah, the group could circle around to the designated highway. Serial 2's leader, the platoon sergeant, agreed.
There was no radio communication between the two serials about this change in plans.
At 6:34 p.m. Serial 2, with about 17 Rangers in six vehicles, entered the narrow canyon that Serial 1 had just left.
"I noticed rocks falling . . . then I saw the second and third mortar round hit."
When he heard the first explosion, the platoon sergeant thought one of his vehicles had struck a land mine or a roadside bomb.
They had been in the canyon only a minute. In his machine gun-laden truck, Greg Baker also thought somebody had hit a mine. He and his men jumped out of their vehicle. Baker looked up at the sheer canyon walls. The canyon was five to 10 yards across at its narrowest. "I noticed rocks falling," he recalled in a statement, and "then I saw the second and third mortar rounds hit." He could hear, too, the rattle of enemy small-arms fire.
It was not a bomb -- it was an ambush. Baker and his comrades thought they could see their attackers moving high above them. They began to return fire.
They were trapped in the worst possible place: the kill zone of an ambush. The best way to beat a canyon ambush is to flee the kill zone as fast as possible. But Baker and his men had dismounted their vehicles. Worse, when they scrambled back and tried to move, they discovered that the lumbering Afghan tow truck in their serial was stalled, blocking their exit.
Baker "ran up and grabbed" the truck driver and his Afghan interpreter and "threw them in the truck and started to move," as he recalled. He fired up the canyon walls until he ran out of ammunition. Then he jumped from the tow truck, ran back to his vehicle and reloaded. When the tow truck stopped again, Baker shouted at his own driver to move around it.
Finally freed, Baker's heavily armed Humvee raced out of the ambush canyon, its machine guns pounding fire, its inexperienced shooters coursing with adrenaline.
"I remember not liking his position."
Ahead of them, parked outside a small village near Manah, David Uthlaut heard an explosion. From his position he "could not see the enemy or make an adequate assessment of the situation," so he ordered his men to move toward the firing.
Uthlaut designated Pat Tillman as one of three fire team leaders and ordered him to join other Rangers "to press the fight," as Uthlaut put it, against an uncertain adversary.
Uthlaut tried to raise Serial 2 on his radio. He wanted to find out where the Rangers were and to tell them where his serial had set up. But he could not get through -- the high canyon walls blocked radio signals.
Tillman and other Rangers moved up a rocky north-south ridge that faced the ambush canyon on a roughly perpendicular angle.
The light was dimming. "It was like twilight," one Ranger in the fight recalled. "You couldn't see colors, but you could see silhouettes." Another soldier felt the light was "still pretty good."
A sergeant with Tillman on the ridge recalled he "could actually see the enemy from the high northern ridge line. I could see their muzzle flashes." The presumed Taliban guerrillas were about half a mile away, he estimated.
Tillman approached the sergeant and said "that he saw the enemy on the southern ridge line," as the sergeant recalled. Tillman asked whether he could drop his heavy body armor. "No," the sergeant ordered.
"I didn't think about it at the time, but I think he wanted to assault the southern ridgeline," the sergeant recalled.
Instead, on the sergeant's instructions, Tillman moved down the slope with other Rangers and "into a position where he could engage the enemy," the sergeant recalled. With Tillman were a young Ranger and a bearded Afghan militia fighter who was part of the 2nd Platoon's traveling party.
A Ranger nearby watched Tillman take cover. "I remember not liking his position," he recalled. "I had just seen a red tracer come up over us . . . which immediately struck me as being a M240 tracer. . . . At that time the issue of friendly fire began turning over in my mind."
Tillman and his team fired toward the canyon to suppress the ambush. His brother Kevin was in the canyon.
Several of Serial 2's Rangers said later that as they shot their way out of the canyon, they had no idea where their comrades in Serial 1 might be.
"We have friendlies on top! . . . No one heard me."
"Contact right!" one gunner in Greg Baker's truck remembered hearing as they rolled from the ambush canyon.
As he fired, Baker "noticed muzzle flashes" coming from a ridge to the right of the village they were now approaching. Everyone in his vehicle poured fire at the flashes in a deafening roar.
"I saw a figure holding an AK-47, his muzzle was flashing, he wasn't wearing a helmet, and he was prone," Baker recalled in a statement. "I focused only on him. I got tunnel vision."
Baker was aiming at the bearded Afghan militia soldier in Pat Tillman's fire team. He died in a fusillade from Baker's Humvee.
A gunner in Baker's light truck later guessed they were "only about 100 meters" from their new targets on the ridge, but they were "driving pretty fast towards them."
Rangers are trained to shoot only after they have clearly identified specific targets as enemy forces. Gunners working together are supposed to follow orders from their vehicle's commander -- in this case, Baker. If there is no chance for orderly talk, the gunners are supposed to watch their commander's aim and shoot in the same direction.
As they pulled alongside the ridge, the gunners poured an undisciplined barrage of hundreds of rounds into the area where Tillman and other members of Serial 1 had taken up positions, Army investigators later concluded. The gunner of the M-2 .50-caliber machine gun in Baker's truck fired every round he had.
The shooters saw only "shapes," a Ranger-appointed investigator wrote, and all of them directed bursts of machine gun fire "without positively identifying the shapes."
Yet not everyone in Baker's convoy was confused. The driver of Baker's vehicle or the one behind him -- the records are not clear -- pulled free of the ambush canyon and quickly recognized the parked U.S. Army vehicles of Serial 1 ahead of him.
He looked to his right and saw a bearded Afghan firing an AK-47, "which confused me for a split second," but he then quickly saw the rest of Serial 1 on top of the ridge.
The driver shouted twice: "We have friendlies on top!" Then he screamed "No!" Then he yelled several more times to cease fire, he recalled. "No one heard me."
"We thought the battle was over, so we were relieved."
Up on the ridge, Tillman and Rangers around him began to wave their arms and shout. But they only attracted more fire from Baker's vehicle.
"I saw three to four arms pop up," one of the gunners with Baker recalled. "They did not look like the cease-fire hand-and-arm signal because they were waving side to side." When he and the other gunners spotted the waving arms, their "rate of fire increased."
The young Ranger nearest Tillman on the ridge, whose full name could not be confirmed, saw a Humvee coming down the road. "They made eye contact with us," then began firing, he remembered. Baker's heavily armed vehicle "rolled into our sight and started to unload on top of us. They would work in bursts."
Tillman and nearly a dozen other Rangers on the ridge tried everything they could: They shouted, they waved their arms, and they screamed some more.
"Ranger! Ranger! Cease fire!" one soldier on the ridge remembered shouting.
"But they couldn't hear us," recalled the soldier nearest Tillman. Then Tillman "came up with the idea to let a smoke grenade go." As its thick smoke unfurled, "This stopped the friendly contact for a few moments," the Ranger recalled.
"We thought the battle was over, so we were relieved, getting up and stretching out, and talking with one another."
Suddenly he saw the attacking Humvee move into "a better position to fire on us." He heard a new machine gun burst and hit the ground, praying, as Pat Tillman fell.
"I started screaming. . . . I was scared to death and didn't know what to do."
A sergeant farther up the ridge from Tillman fired a flare -- an even clearer signal than Tillman's smoke grenade that these were friendly forces.
By now Baker's truck had pulled past the ridge and had come into plain sight of Serial 1's U.S. vehicles. Baker said later that he looked down the road, then back up to the ridge. He saw the flare and identified Rangers even as he continued to shoot at the Afghan he believed to be a Taliban fighter. Finally he began to call for a cease-fire.
In the village behind Tillman's ridge, Uthlaut and his radio operator had been pinned down by the streams of fire pouring from Baker's vehicle. Both were eventually hit by what they assumed was machine gun fire.
The last of Serial 2's vehicles pulled up in the village. All the firing had stopped.
The platoon sergeant jumped out and began searching for Uthlaut, angry that nobody seemed to know what was happening. He found the lieutenant sitting near a wall of the village, dropped down beside him and demanded to know what he was doing. "At that point I spotted the blood around his mouth" and realized there were casualties -- and that Uthlaut was one of them, wounded but still conscious.
On the ridge the young Ranger nearest Pat Tillman screamed, "Oh my [expletive] God!" again and again, as one of his comrades recalled. The Ranger beside Tillman had been lying flat as Tillman initially called out for a cease-fire, yelling out his name. Then Tillman went silent as the firing continued. Now the young Ranger saw a "river of blood" coming from Tillman's position. He got up, looked at Tillman, and saw that "his head was gone."
"I started screaming. . . . I was scared to death and didn't know what to do."
A sergeant on the ridge took charge. He called for a medic, ordered Rangers to stake out a perimeter picket in case Taliban guerrillas attacked again, and opened a radio channel to the 75th Ranger Regiment's operations center at Bagram.
Seventeen minutes after Serial 2 had entered the canyon, 2nd Platoon reported that its forces "were no longer in contact," as a Ranger-appointed investigator later put it. It was not clear then or later who the Afghan attackers spotted by half a dozen Rangers in both serials had been, how many guerrillas there were, or whether any were killed.
Nine minutes later, a regiment log shows, the platoon requested a medevac helicopter and reported two soldiers killed in action. One was the Afghan militia soldier. The other was Pat Tillman, age 27.
His brother Kevin arrived on the scene in Serial 2's trailing vehicle.
Kevin Tillman declined to be interviewed for these articles and was not asked by Ranger investigators to provide sworn statements. But according to other statements and sources familiar with the investigation, Kevin was initially asked to take up guard duty on the outskirts of the shooting scene.
He learned that his brother was dead only when a platoon mate mentioned it to him casually, according to these sources.
It would take almost five more weeks -- after a flag-draped coffin ceremony, a Silver Star award and a news release, and a public memorial attended by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Jake Plummer and newswoman Maria Shriver -- for the Rangers or the Army to acknowledge to Kevin Tillman, his family or the public that Pat Tillman had been killed by his own men.
Staff writer Josh White contributed to this report.
Tomorrow: The Army investigates
-- and protects its own.
Army Spun Tale Around Ill-Fated Mission
By Steve Coll
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 6, 2004
Second in a two-part series.
Just days after Pat Tillman died from friendly fire on a desolate ridge in southeastern Afghanistan, the U.S. Army Special Operations Command released a brief account of his last moments.
The April 30, 2004, statement awarded Tillman a posthumous Silver Star for combat valor and described how a section of his Ranger platoon came under attack.
"He ordered his team to dismount and then maneuvered the Rangers up a hill near the enemy's location," the release said. "As they crested the hill, Tillman directed his team into firing positions and personally provided suppressive fire. . . . Tillman's voice was heard issuing commands to take the fight to the enemy forces."
It was a stirring tale and fitting eulogy for the Army's most famous volunteer in the war on terrorism, a charismatic former pro football star whose reticence, courage and handsome beret-draped face captured for many Americans the best aspects of the country's post-Sept. 11 character.
It was also a distorted and incomplete narrative, according to dozens of internal Army documents obtained by The Washington Post that describe Tillman's death by fratricide after a chain of botched communications, a misguided order to divide his platoon over the objection of its leader and undisciplined firing by fellow Rangers.
The Army's public release made no mention of friendly fire, even though at the time it was issued, investigators in Afghanistan had already taken at least 14 sworn statements from Tillman's platoon members that made clear the true causes of his death. The statements included a searing account from the Ranger nearest Tillman during the firefight, who quoted him as shouting "Cease fire! Friendlies!" with his last breaths.
Army records show Tillman fought bravely during his final battle. He followed orders, never wavered and at one stage proposed discarding his heavy body armor, apparently because he wanted to charge a distant ridge occupied by the enemy, an idea his immediate superior rejected, witness statements show.
But the Army's published account not only withheld all evidence of fratricide, but also exaggerated Tillman's role and stripped his actions of their context. Tillman was not one of the senior commanders on the scene -- he directed only himself, one other Ranger and an Afghan militiaman, under supervision from others. And witness statements in the Army's files at the time of the news release describe Tillman's voice ringing out on the battlefield mainly in a desperate effort, joined by other Rangers on his ridge, to warn comrades to stop shooting at their own men.
The Army's April 30 news release was just one episode in a broader Army effort to manage the uncomfortable facts of Pat Tillman's death, according to internal records and interviews.
During several weeks of memorials and commemorations that followed Tillman's death, commanders at his 75th Ranger Regiment and their superiors hid the truth about friendly fire from Tillman's brother Kevin, who had fought with Pat in the same platoon, but was not involved in the firing incident and did not know the cause of his brother's death. Commanders also withheld the facts from Tillman's widow, his parents, national politicians and the public, according to records and interviews with sources involved in the case.
On May 3, Ranger and Army officers joined hundreds of mourners at a public ceremony in San Jose, where Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Denver Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer and Maria Shriver took the podium to remember Tillman. The visiting officers gave no hint of the evidence investigators had collected in Afghanistan.
In a telephone interview, McCain said: "I think it would have been helpful to have at least their suspicions known" before he spoke publicly about Tillman's death. Even more, he said, "the family deserved some kind of heads-up that there would be questions."
McCain said yesterday that questions raised by Mary Tillman, Pat's mother, about how the Army handled the case led him to meet twice earlier this fall with Army officers and former acting Army secretary Les Brownlee to seek answers. About a month ago, McCain said, Brownlee told him that the Pentagon would reopen its investigation. McCain said that he was not certain about the scope of the new investigation but that he believed it is continuing. A Pentagon official confirmed that an investigation is underway, but Army spokesmen declined to comment further.
When she first learned that friendly fire had taken her son's life, "I was upset about it, but I thought, 'Well, accidents happen,' " Mary Tillman said in a telephone interview yesterday. "Then when I found out that it was because of huge negligence at places along the way -- you have time to process that and you really get annoyed."
Army Cites Probable Friendly Fire
As memorials and news releases shaped public perceptions in May, Army commanders privately pursued military justice investigations of several low-ranking Rangers who had fired on Tillman's position and officers who issued the ill-fated mission's orders, records show.
Army records show that Col. James C. Nixon, the 75th Ranger Regiment's commander, accepted his chief investigator's findings on the same day, May 8, that he was officially appointed to run the case. A spokesman for U.S. Central Command, or CENTCOM, which is legally responsible for the investigation, declined to respond to a question about the short time frame between the appointment and the findings.
The Army acknowledged only that friendly fire "probably" killed Tillman when Lt. Gen. Philip R. Kensinger Jr. made a terse announcement on May 29 at Fort Bragg, N.C. Kensinger declined to answer further questions and offered no details about the investigation, its conclusions or who might be held accountable.
Army spokesmen said last week that they followed standard policy in delaying and limiting disclosure of fratricide evidence. "All the services do not prematurely disclose any investigation findings until the investigation is complete," said Lt. Col. Hans Bush, chief of public affairs for the Army Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg. The Silver Star narrative released on April 30 came from information provided by Ranger commanders in the field, Bush said.
Kensinger's May 29 announcement that fratricide was probable came from an executive summary supplied by Central Command only the night before, he said. Because Kensinger was unfamiliar with the underlying evidence, he felt he could not answer questions, Bush said.
For its part, Central Command, headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, handled the disclosures "in accordance with [Department of Defense] policies," Lt. Cmdr. Nick Balice, a command spokesman, said in an e-mail on Saturday responding to questions. Asked specifically why Central Command withheld any suggestion of fratricide when Army investigators by April 26 had collected at least 14 witness statements describing the incident, Balice wrote in an e-mail: "The specific details of this incident were not known until the completion of the investigation."
Few Guidelines for Cases
The U.S. military has confronted a series of prominent friendly-fire cases in recent years, in part because hair-trigger technology and increasingly lethal remote-fire weapons can quickly turn relatively small mistakes into deadly tragedies. Yet the military's justice system has few consistent guidelines for such cases, according to specialists in Army law. Decision-making about how to mete out justice rests with individual unit commanders who often work in secret, acting as both investigators and judges. Their judgments can vary widely from case to case.
"You can have tremendously divergent outcomes at a very low level of visibility," said Eugene R. Fidell, president of the National Institute of Military Justice and a visiting lecturer at Harvard Law School. "That does not necessarily contribute to public confidence in the administration of justice in the military. Other countries have been moving away" from systems that put field commanders in charge of their own fratricide investigations, he said.
In the Tillman case, those factors were compounded by the victim's extraordinary public profile. Also, Tillman's April 22 death was announced just days before the shocking disclosure of photographs of abuse by U.S. soldiers working as guards in Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison. The photos ignited an international furor and generated widespread questions about discipline and accountability in the Army.
Commemorations of Tillman's courage and sacrifice offered contrasting images of honorable service, undisturbed by questions about possible command or battlefield mistakes.
Whatever the cause, McCain said, "you may have at least a subconscious desire here to portray the situation in the best light, which may not have been totally justified."
A Disaster Unfolds
Working in private last spring, the 75th Ranger Regiment moved quickly to investigate and wrap up the case, Army records show.
Immediately after the incident, platoon members generated after-action statements, and investigators working in Afghanistan gathered logs, documents and e-mails. The investigators interviewed platoon members and senior officers to reconstruct the chain of events. By early May, the evidence made clear in precise detail how the disaster unfolded.
On patrol in Taliban-infested sectors of Afghanistan's Paktia province, Tillman's "Black Sheep" platoon, formally known as 2nd Platoon, A Company, 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, became bogged down because of a broken Humvee. Lt. David Uthlaut, the platoon leader, recommended that his unit stay together, deliver the truck to a nearby road, then complete his mission. He was overruled by a superior officer monitoring his operations from distant Bagram, near Kabul, who ordered Uthlaut to split his platoon, with one section taking care of the Humvee and the other proceeding to a village, where the platoon was to search for enemy guerrillas.
Steep terrain and high canyon walls prevented the two platoon sections from communicating with each other at crucial moments. When one section unexpectedly changed its route and ran into an apparent Taliban ambush while trapped in a deep canyon, the other section from a nearby ridge began firing in support at the ambushers. As the ambushed group broke free from the canyon, machine guns blazing, one heavily armed vehicle mistook an allied Afghan militiaman for the enemy and poured hundreds of rounds at positions occupied by fellow Rangers, killing Pat Tillman and the Afghan.
Investigators had to decide whether low-ranking Rangers who did the shooting had followed their training or had fired so recklessly that they should face military discipline or criminal charges. The investigators also had to decide whether more senior officers whose decisions contributed to the chain of confusion around the incident were liable.
Reporting formally to Col. Nixon in Bagram on May 8, the case's chief investigator offered nine specific conclusions, which Nixon endorsed, according to the records.
• The decision by a Ranger commander to divide Tillman's 2nd Platoon into two groups, despite the objections of the platoon's leader, "created serious command and control issues" and "contributed to the eventual breakdown in internal Platoon communications." The Post could not confirm the name of the officer who issued this command.
• The A Company commander's order to the platoon leader to get "boots on the ground" at his mission objective created a "false sense of urgency" in the platoon, which, "whether intentional or not," led to "a hasty plan." That officer's name also could not be confirmed by The Post.
• Sgt. Greg Baker, the lead gunner in the Humvee that poured the heaviest fire on Ranger positions, "failed to maintain his situational awareness" at key moments of the battle and "failed" to direct the firing of the other gunners in his vehicle.
• The other gunners "failed to positively identify their respective targets and exercise good fire discipline. . . . Their collective failure to exercise fire discipline, by confirming the identity of their targets, resulted in the shootings of Corporal Tillman."
The chief investigator appeared to reserve his harshest judgments for the lower-ranking Rangers who did the shooting rather than the higher-ranking officers who oversaw the mission. While his judgments about the senior officers focused on process and communication problems, the chief investigator wrote about the failures in Baker's truck:
"While a great deal of discretion should be granted to a leader who is making difficult judgments in the heat of combat, the Command also has a responsibility to hold its leaders accountable when that judgment is so wanton or poor that it places the lives of other men at risk."
Gen. John P. Abizaid, CENTCOM's commander in chief, formally approved the investigation's conclusions on May 28 under an aide's signature and forwarded the report to Special Operations commanders "for evaluation and any action you deem appropriate to incorporate relevant lessons learned."
Deciding Accident or Crime
The field investigation's findings raised another question for Army commanders: Were the failures that resulted in Pat Tillman's death serious enough to warrant administrative or criminal charges?
In the military justice system, field officers such as Nixon, commander of the 75th Ranger Regiment, can generally decide such matters on their own.
In the end, one member of Tillman's platoon received formal administrative charges, four others -- including one officer -- were discharged from the Rangers but not from the Army, and two additional officers were reprimanded, Lt. Col. Bush said. He declined to release their names, citing Privacy Act restrictions.
Baker left the Rangers on an honorable discharge when his enlistment ended last spring, while others who were in his truck remain in the Army, said sources involved in the case.
Military commanders have occasionally leveled charges of involuntary manslaughter in high-profile friendly-fire cases, such as one in 2002 when Maj. Harry Schmidt, an Illinois National Guard pilot, mistakenly bombed Canadian troops in Afghanistan. But in that case and others like it, military prosecutors have found it difficult to make murder charges stick against soldiers making rapid decisions in combat.
And because there is no uniform, openly published military case law about when friendly-fire cases cross the line from accident to crime, commanders are free to interpret that line for themselves.
The list of cases in recent years where manslaughter charges have been brought is "almost arbitrary and capricious," said Charles Gittins, a former Marine who is Schmidt's defense lawyer. Gittins said that senior military officers tend to focus on low-ranking personnel rather than commanders. In Schmidt's case, he said, "every single general and colonel with the exception of Harry's immediate commander has been promoted since the accident." Schmidt, on the other hand, was ultimately fined and banned from flying Air Force jets.
Short of manslaughter, the most common charge leveled in fratricide is dereliction of duty, or what the military code calls "culpable inefficiency" in the performance of duty, according to military law specialists. This violation is defined in the Pentagon's official Manual for Courts-Martial as "inefficiency for which there is no reasonable or just excuse."
In judging whether this standard applies to a case such as Tillman's death, prosecutors are supposed to decide whether the accused person exercised "that degree of care which a reasonably prudent person would have exercised under the same or similar circumstances."
Even if a soldier or officer is found guilty under this code, the punishments are limited to demotions, fines and minor discipline such as extra duty.
Records in the Tillman case do not make clear if Army commanders considered more serious punishments than this against any Rangers or officers, or, if so, why they were apparently rejected.
Staff writer Josh White contributed to this report.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company