Pat Tillman Memorial
The Pat Tillman Memorial. Photo credit: CEBIMagery / Flickr

The attempt to hide how Pat Tillman died began right after he was killed by friendly fire 20 years ago today.

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Twenty years ago today, Pat Tillman died in Afghanistan. Also 20 years ago today, the US military started lying about how he was killed.

Tillman wasn’t the only American who never returned from Afghanistan. In fact, according to Brown University’s Watson Institute for International & Public Affairs, 2,298 members of the United States’ armed forces died, along with 3,814 military contractors and six civilians working for the Department of Defense (DOD). And that doesn’t factor in the soldiers who did return home but then killed themselves.

But Tillman was not like any of them.

First of all, he was probably the most famous American soldier since World War II… back when it was commonplace for sports stars to pick up a weapon and fight in Europe or the Pacific.

Sure, people have heard names like Norman Schwarzkopf or Colin Powell, but they were generals and not regular soldiers.

And Tillman was no regular soldier. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he walked away from a lucrative career in the National Football League to sign up to become an Army Ranger. While he might have been somewhat famous as someone who played for the Arizona Cardinals, his decision made him a household name… and a symbol for the patriotism that swept the country following the attacks.

That is why it was big news when Tillman was killed in Afghanistan on April 22, 2004. What nobody knew back then, and what the Pentagon tried to keep quiet, is that this true-blue American hero was killed by friendly fire.

Accidents happen on the front lines of a war. And that’s where Tillman spent his time. He participated in the initial invasion of Iraq and was then deployed to Afghanistan, all of which was arguably treacherous territory for US soldiers. In other words, he put his life on the line constantly.

Therefore, he is not the only American who was killed by friendly fire. It is a common enough occurrence that there is a name for it: fratricide.

In Iraq and Afghanistan a few dozen US soldiers died this way. Of course, in light of the DOD’s efforts to hide information about Tillman’s death, the true figure is likely unknown.

Even after finding out that he was killed by friendly fire, the Pentagon went to great lengths to keep that information from going public… or reaching his family.

In 2007, Army Spc. Bryan O’Neal testified before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform that he “was ordered not to tell them.”

Maintaining this secrecy was especially difficult in the case of Tillman’s brother Kevin, who served in Pat’s unit and was present that day. The two of them were split up into two groups that ended up firing at each other.

Knowing that they were dealing with a potential public relations nightmare, military officials initially claimed that Pat Tillman was killed by enemy forces. For a moment, they might even have believed that this was true.

However, it quickly became clear that his death was the result of a tragic accident and that there were no enemy forces present that day.

So did the Pentagon correct its mistake and notify the family?


For weeks after the incident — and Tillman’s memorial service — the DOD kept his family and the American public in the dark about what really happened.

In fact, they maintained the lies even in his Silver Star citation.

“Caught between the crossfire of an enemy near ambush, Corporal Tillman put himself in the line of devastating enemy fire as he maneuvered his fire team to a covered position from which they could effectively employ their weapons on known enemy positions,” the citation said. “His audacious leadership and courageous example under fire inspired his men to fight at great risk to their own personal safety, resulting in the enemy’s withdrawal, his platoon’s safe passage from the ambush kill zone, and his mortal wound.”

Tillman’s mother said she never received an apology for being deceived about her son’s death.

“They’ve never apologized to us,” Mary “Dannie” Tillman told ESPN in a recent interview. “They’ve never apologized to the soldiers that they gaslighted basically into thinking that this was all their fault. It’s just lies upon lies upon lies. And they did it so tactically, so strategically.”


  • Klaus Marre

    Klaus Marre is a writer, editor, former congressional reporter, and director of the WhoWhatWhy Mentor Apprentice Program. Follow him on Twitter @KlausMarre.

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