APThe initial embellished story of Pat Tillman's death puzzled his youngest brother, Richard, from the beginning.
The stories didn't ring true to Richard Tillman. Sitting up front at the memorial service for his brother, he listened to politicians and other luminaries tell the heroic tale, gushing their heartfelt goodbyes. Pat Tillman, so many of them suggested, died valiantly though violently, then had slipped off peacefully to a better place.
To Richard Tillman, it sounded contrived. Too neatly packaged.
It didn't sound right. Not like Pat.
His brother, Richard knew, didn't worship at the altar of organized religion. And though he certainly was fearless, Richard knew Pat had enough sense not to get himself shot.
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"I remember not believing the story of him running up a mountain, screaming his head off," Richard told ESPN.com. "Because I was like, 'OK, well, that sounds like a very meat-headed thing to do, and not at all like Pat. I don't get the picture.' But at the same time, nothing made sense because you just are told that your brother is dead. At the time, you are not going to piece anything together. And I think that is what the military actually plans on because they have seen the way people are when they lose a loved one, and they can basically tell them anything and they are not going to pick up on it.
"But I remember talking to my mom about it. 'You know what? This is shady.' It didn't really go much further than that because you can't, really. So it is more a hindsight that you saw something weird. But we did verbalize it that is for sure."
When the time came for Richard to speak from the podium on that sunny California day, May 3, 2004, in the San Jose Municipal Rose Garden, he tried to set the record straight about his brother and the afterlife for anyone who might try to co-opt Pat Tillman's story.
"Pat isn't with God. He's f------ dead," he told the 2,000 or so people in attendance and the television audience watching on ESPN. "He wasn't religious. So thank you for your thoughts, but he's f------ dead."
The Pat Tillman Story ESPN.com has examined more than 2,000 pages of documents. The names of soldiers and officers involved in the battle and subsequent investigations have been redacted by the Army, but through extensive interviews and reporting, ESPN.com has been able to confirm the identities of many of the individuals referred to in the documents, including those who played the principal roles.
Below is a sampling of investigation transcripts. Names and details were redacted by the Army. The documents contain descriptions of graphic violence and explicit language.
• Ranger with Tillman on ridgeline
• Ranger in the firefight
• Sergeant firing at Afghan fighter
• Ranger firing toward Tillman
• Medic who attended to Tillman
• Officer at forward operating base
• Officer who announced the fratricide
• Critical events debriefer
• Officer involved in investigation More Map it out: See the soldiers' locations and hear their descriptions of April 22, 2004. Tillman Timeline: A synopsis of significant events. Jade Lane was less than 100 yards from Tillman when both were shot. Platoon leader David Uthlaut also was shot on April 22, 2004.
The people who were close to Pat Tillman, both as a civilian and as a soldier, paint a picture of a complicated man who questioned authority to understand it, who challenged his friends to defend their beliefs and who sought as many points of view as possible to make sense of an issue. They describe a person with no tolerance for dishonesty or incompetence, who would have countenanced neither the manner in which he was killed nor the way his death was handled.
More than two years after Pat Tillman died, Richard like the rest of the Tillman family and many of Pat's close friends is still trying to keep at bay the people and institutions who might want to use his brother's name for their own interests. The family is still suspicious of the media, still angry at the government, still convinced the Army tried to glorify Pat as a war hero when it knew he'd been gunned down by his fellow soldiers.
And, they're still looking for answers to the questions that have kept the story about Pat Tillman's uncertain death alive through three Army investigations and now an ongoing review by the Department of Defense Inspector General's Office:
• Why weren't the soldiers firing at Pat punished more harshly? • Why weren't the Army officers who ordered Pat's platoon to be split held accountable for the deadly decision? • Why didn't the Army identify the soldiers who wounded two other Rangers in the same firefight? • Why hasn't the Afghan Military Forces soldier who was killed alongside Pat been identified to the Tillmans? • Why was the Army so quick to burn key evidence such as Pat's uniform and protective vest? • Why has the Army continued to keep classified its first investigation into Pat's death, in which Capt. Richard Scott reported he suspected criminal negligence? • Why were some of the Rangers involved in the shooting allowed to change their statements about key facts, such as distances and lighting conditions, between investigations?
The Tillman family's list of questions goes on and on.
Tillman's father, Patrick K. Tillman, raised a number of those questions in a blistering April 21, 2005, letter to Brig. Gen. Gary Jones, who conducted the Army's most recent investigation of the incident. In a pair of briefings late in 2004 and on March 31, 2005, Jones delivered his findings to Tillman's father, who found them far from satisfactory.
"All evidence, with the exception of Pat's body, was destroyed," Tillman wrote in the letter to Jones, a copy of which he provided to ESPN.com. "All of it 'slipped through procedural cracks' that will be corrected 'now that we've identified them.' And the autopsy a joke provided minimal detail. Its purpose was to further cover up this incident. You simply wanted to say that you performed one." Getty ImagesPatrick K. Tillman, Pat's father and an attorney in San Jose, blasted Army officials, saying their investigations were so incomplete as to be offensive.
In the letter, Patrick Tillman, an attorney in San Jose, blamed not only the Rangers who fired at his son but also key Army leadership in charge of the mission in southeastern Afghanistan. Pat Tillman's father also blasted the investigators of the friendly-fire incident after the fact.
"Those 'on the ground' had a sworn duty, and they were trained, to positively identify whoever it was they were about to kill," he wrote. "People in other positions of authority, too, had a sworn duty Colonels, Generals, attorneys to do their job. We relied on all of you to exercise your duty/authority/responsibility properly, at least not maliciously or pursuant to some [bulls---] agenda. Telling us the truth about how Pat died was the least you could do. Every one of you have disregarded your duty, acting deliberately and shamelessly to kill my son and lie about it."
In another letter June 21, 2005, to counsel for the Senate Armed Services Committee Tillman's father unleashed his harshest criticism of Jones, writing: "I ASSURE YOU, no investigator worth a damn would have made the presentation I sat through unless they had an agenda different from the truth. The initial investigation was changed. Conflicting testimony was disregarded. Key evidence was destroyed and/or omitted. Witnesses, probably with supervision of superiors, changed their testimony. No one has been confronted with their conduct."
Army officials repeatedly have denied there was ever an effort to cover up the friendly fire or purposely conceal facts from the Tillman family or the American public. Paul Boyce, a spokesman for the Department of the Army, told ESPN.com the Army has twice apologized to the family for the delay in notification that friendly fire was suspected.
Boyce acknowledged the family's lingering suspicions and Patrick Tillman's letter in response to Jones' findings were a pivotal trigger for the current investigation, saying: "They ultimately accused [Jones] of being part of the conspiracy. So finally at that point, even our inspector general people said, 'Well, at this point, it would be best that rather than the Army looking into the allegations that Gen. Jones is part of a conspiracy, as well, that we have this transferred over to the Department of Defense IG. So we did that last August."
In neither life nor death is the Pat Tillman story simple. He certainly cannot be summed up solely as a macho war hero. But that's what the family suggests the Army tried to do in the five weeks between Pat Tillman's death and the belated announcement he had died in a friendly-fire incident.
He wasn't a Republican, and he wasn't a Democrat. He wasn't beholden to President Bush and, by all accounts, didn't vote for him; yet he wanted to fight the president's war on terror. He wasn't religious, yet he read both the Bible and the Koran. Pat and his middle brother Kevin signed up with the Rangers to hunt down Taliban and al-Qaida fighters in Afghanistan, not to serve in the invasion of Iraq. But when President Bush launched the Iraq assault soon after they enlisted, the two Tillman Rangers were part of the initial march to Baghdad.
By the time they left Iraq, Pat and Kevin apparently had become disenchanted with what they perceived to be the administration's ill-conceived plan to run the country it had just conquered and keep order.
Richard, the youngest of the three, recalls sitting around with his brothers when they returned from Iraq and before they were redeployed to Afghanistan. "'Illegal war' came up a couple hundred times. Yeah, they weren't too happy about it," he said. "Afghanistan is one thing. But Iraq is just that is one they definitely made mention that, 'This is bulls---.' "
During his time back in the States between deployments overseas, Pat spoke with Jared Schrieber, a friend from their days together at Arizona State, about the possibility of a meeting with distinguished MIT linguistics professor Noam Chomsky when Pat returned from Afghanistan. Chomsky, a counterculture political analyst with a following of almost pop star proportions, is a prominent critic of U.S. foreign policy who has written more than 30 political books.
"It just came up in a conversation once: 'Hey, that would be cool. That would be good.' " Schrieber said. "Pat was not afraid of seeking out viewpoints or arguments from people who had a 360-degree range of views. Some of them, he clearly respected. That doesn't mean he embraced them or followed. People have views or hold opinions for good reason. They may turn out to be foolish in the end, but you've got to understand what motivates them or what the drivers are that led them to those conclusions."
The meeting with Chomsky, of course, never happened.
Schrieber and his wife, Reka Cseresnyes, were close to Pat and his wife, Marie. As seniors in college, Cseresnyes, a four-time All-American tennis player, and Tillman were named Arizona State's top female and male athletes. After the couples married and settled in the Phoenix area, they occasionally debated the issues of the day over dinner including, Schrieber said, Pat's desire to join the Army. When Pat was overseas with the Rangers, Schrieber said, they kept in touch via e-mail.
On a Saturday morning this past April, most of the old gang gathered again in Tempe, Ariz., for "Pat's Run" -- a road race organized by the Pat Tillman Foundation, which was formed two years ago to keep his legacy alive. The Arizona sun shone in a crisp blue sky as more than 8,000 runners, some wearing Tillman football jerseys and a smattering in Army garb, traversed the 4.2-mile course -- a play off Tillman's No. 42 at Arizona State -- around his college campus. Mingling among the sweaty throng were family, old coaches and teammates, some of whom played with Pat on the Sun Devils' 1996 Rose Bowl team. They laughed and hugged, some seeing each other for the first time since the inaugural Pat's Run a year earlier. Arizona State UniversityThousands turned out in April to remember Tillman with Pat's Run, an event that raised $350,000 for a foundation in his honor.
The Pat Tillman Foundation has taken a parallel path to the family's quest to get answers from the Army; both have as a goal the survival of Tillman's legacy. The April race alone raised $350,000, and individual and corporate donations along with the sale of Tillman's Arizona Cardinals and ASU jerseys have brought "several million dollars" to the foundation, according to its director, Alex Garwood.
Pat Tillman's friends and family hope to honor him by helping others and seeking the truth.
Garwood, who is Pat Tillman's brother-in-law, intends to take the road races around the country and spread the foundation's "Leadership Through Action" initiative, which funds another enterprise called the Tillman Scholars. That program debuted at Arizona State's business school this past year with 12 students who work alongside mentors to develop programs aimed at bettering society. The foundation also provides the initial seed money for projects such as one in Sacramento that reconditions sports equipment for an inner-city high school.
Much of the passion and direction for those programs, according to Garwood, comes from Tillman's widow, who also serves on the foundation's five-member board with Kevin, Pat's brother.
"When we were sitting there talking about 'Leadership Through Action,' Marie hit her hands on the table and said, 'This feels like Pat,' " Garwood said. "It's stepping up and taking action, doing the right thing, thinking for yourself, making a positive impact. All those different pieces fit. Obviously, there are things out there that don't. As an example, people say, 'Hey, a great fund-raiser would be a golf tournament.' No, no. That doesn't make sense. That's just too 'me, too.' "
Marie Tillman, who is under contract with ESPN as a talent director, declined to be interviewed or cooperate with this story, as she has all other media requests.
As the stragglers crossed the Pat's Run finish line inside Sun Devil Stadium in April, Denver Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer and Richard Tillman walked together through the ASU locker room. Plummer and Pat Tillman were teammates, first at Arizona State and later with the Cardinals. They met in Tempe as teenagers on a recruiting visit.
Plummer cried the day his friend died, he said, and wore a No. 40 decal Tillman's number with the Cardinals on his helmet until the NFL fashion police threatened to fine him.
"Inside, there's a fire that burns, and sometimes you get really upset because we all know what happened," Plummer said. "You know going into war whether you believe in it or not. I don't think we should have done it, but I knew I was going to support Pat and the troops when they kind of made him into this big figure. And for them to cover things up is just unjust to his legacy, and to every solider that's out there.
"His parents and his family deserve for his legacy to be cleaned up and have some finality brought to it and come to a conclusion. And I don't want to call anybody out, because they're working on it. Just put yourself in the shoes of his parents and his family. You know whatever the news is, if it's hard, it's not going to be as hard as finding out the day he got killed. What's worse than that? So let's find out what really happened.
"Hopefully," Plummer said, "they'll come to an answer." Getty ImagesRichard Tillman hugs his sister-in-law Marie, as his mother Mary looks on, during a ceremony retiring Pat Tillman's Cardinals jersey in 2004.
When Richard Tillman was 18, he moved to Los Angeles to try stand-up comedy and an acting career that, so far, has consisted of a handful of bit movie parts the latest in a film called "Broken Bridges." Before he left northern California seven years ago, he said, his oldest brother put him through countless questions about his future, about why he would leave home for a risky life in show business.
Richard had an answer.
"I don't think [Pat] realized how much I got from making him and Kevin laugh," he told ESPN.com. "I don't think he realized it impacted me enough to make me to come down here [to L.A.]. I think it was maybe a little shocking to him, especially because he told me once, 'I didn't realize you had a personality until you were about 15.' It's one of those things that he was fine with it. He supported and believed in what I was doing. He was never anyone to deter you from doing what you wanted to do. It was more that he wanted to have a better understanding of why you do it."
The news in April 2004 that Pat Tillman had died in Afghanistan was, of course, difficult for Richard. The news five weeks later, long after the May 3 memorial service in San Jose, that he had died from friendly fire hit him, he said, "like a ton of bricks."
It felt, he said, like losing him all over again.
"I am Pat's youngest brother," Richard said. "So as far as I'm concerned, Superman died."
Mike Fish is an investigative reporter for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.