When Sunday rolls around and the duty shifts start on the sprawling Fort Benning base in Columbus, Ga., Spc. Bryan O'Neal, who thought he was a ghost three years ago, will be a no-show. He won't be helping out with the annual U.S. Army Best Ranger Competition, a three-day athletic event to crown the top two-man team, as he'd originally been assigned to do. And that's OK with the Army. Since O'Neal piped up, he's been granted an excused absence. Otherwise, it would have made for an especially ironic agony.
It's the third anniversary of the death of the Army Ranger who O'Neal believes is responsible for his own continued existence on the planet. Three years ago Sunday, under fire on a barren, rocky ridgeline in southeastern Afghanistan, little more than a wingspan away from O'Neal and a friendly Afghan soldier already dead nearby, Pat Tillman yelled at O'Neal to get down. Under friendly fire, Tillman stepped out from behind the partial cover of a small rock and told the 19-year-old soldier frozen with the fright of his first gun battle, "Hey, don't worry. I've got something that can help us." He then threw a smoke grenade in an effort to make the shooting stop.
It didn't. Seconds later, three bullets blasted into Tillman's head, all from the gun of one of his fellow Rangers.
O'Neal is still in the Army but not in the Rangers. So, help with this weekend's competition? Thanks, but no.
April 22. O'Neal might never escape the date. Two years ago, his first April 22 without Tillman, O'Neal, loaded with guilt and beer and anger that he somehow was still alive, holed himself up in a sterile barracks room at Fort Lewis in Washington, alone but for too many empty cans, and tried to drink the memories away. As he did in the days leading up to this year's anniversary, he'd told a superior he wouldn't be worth a damn if he had to show up for duty.
"I was like, 'Hey, if you make me work tomorrow, I'm going to be so intoxicated that you're probably going to have to arrest me,' " O'Neal said. "He said, 'OK, just don't come in.'
"It was probably one of the worst days that I have ever had. I couldn't really figure out how to solve my feelings without being drunk, which never helps ... For a long time, I'd get drunk as often as possible and try to stay drunk as long as possible. I drank probably every night. I went through $1,000 worth of alcohol in a little over a month one time. I used to try to stay perpetually drunk."
The drinking won't happen this Sunday. He's past that. How he'll survive the hours this time around, he isn't sure; but the crutch that gets him through the day won't be booze. Perhaps he'll spend it quietly with his young wife, Jennifer. Maybe they'll settle into a local nondenominational church service. It won't matter. The wounds will be opened anew, he says, the ugly reminders dredged up again.
Until now, O'Neal, the man who was closest to Tillman in the firefight, who saw exactly what Tillman saw in the moments before he died, hasn't shared his story publicly. His interview with ESPN.com is the first time he has spoken to the media in the years since Tillman died. Even now, he is under orders from the Army to "no comment" any questions about the specifics of the friendly fire that killed Tillman. But he gave a sworn statement during one of the Army's early investigations into the April 22, 2004, firefight, one of the many accounts of the incident that were among the documents obtained by ESPN.com in its investigation of Tillman's death.
When asked during ESPN.com's interview about the comments attributed to him in the document, O'Neal said, "I completely, 100 percent, support my statements."
From the moment Tillman died, O'Neal has credited the former NFL safety with saving his life. He did so again to ESPN.com.
"I felt that I was going to die," O'Neal said. "In fact, I knew it. I was positive while it was happening. I felt what he did, the actions he took and then sacrificing himself the way he did, are really the main factors why I walked off of the area alive."
In the days just after the firefight, O'Neal gave an account of Tillman's actions to Army officials preparing a document that recommended Tillman for the Silver Star, the Army's third-highest distinction for combat valor. Since that document remains classified, O'Neal is unable to comment on it. However, he confirmed to ESPN.com the findings of a later investigator that his account in that case was altered so that it indicated Tillman had been killed by enemy fire, a version of the story the Army let stand for a month after the gun battle.
That's part of the reason O'Neal still struggles, three years later, to make sense of Tillman's death, but only a small part of the reason. The bigger part of it is that O'Neal, Tillman's sidekick, a nice kid who worshipped the older football player, survived the onslaught of fire from the Army's best soldiers and Tillman didn't.
Quite likely, it doesn't help that O'Neal's own actions in the firefight that early evening will never measure up to the courage apparently shown by Tillman. The latest Army investigation left open the question of whether O'Neal had cover during the gun battle. As in his ESPN.com interview, O'Neal told investigators that he was positioned a few feet from two rock slabs embedded in the sloping hillside. A witness, however, told investigators that he saw O'Neal behind one of the rocks, which at best would have provided only partial cover. Army criminal investigators visited the scene last April and measured the slab of rock at only a foot high, by 6 feet deep and 7 feet long.
One account of the events detailed in a document obtained by ESPN.com - a sworn statement from an unidentified officer who arrived at the scene shortly after Tillman died - includes a version of an interview with O'Neal about what had happened.
Kevin Tillman, a one-time Arizona State and minor league baseball player, completed his commitment and was discharged from the Army in 2005. His appearance Tuesday would be his first public statements about the circumstances surrounding the death of his brother.
Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, called the hearings - titled "Misleading Information from the Battlefield" - in response to the Tillman family's continued frustration with a series of investigations into the friendly fire incident and the subsequent handling of events by the Army. The family and some lawmakers have said the previous probes failed to sufficiently address whether then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld played a role in concealing the circumstances of Tillman's death from relatives for five weeks.
Also scheduled to appear before the committee are: Tillman's mother, Mary; former Pvt. Jessica Lynch, the subject of a trumpeted rescue in Iraq; Dr. Gene Bolles, a physician who treated Lynch at a hospital in Germany; and Department of Defense Acting Inspector Gen. Thomas F. Gimble, whose office conducted the most recent Tillman investigation.
- Mike Fish
"They were getting shot at," the unidentified officer told an Army investigator later. "Bullets were coming off the rock. He [O'Neal] said Tillman started yelling 'cease fire.' He said, 'I was just scared. I didn't know what to do.' ... He said Tillman said, '[O'Neal], get down.' [O'Neal] was curled up behind a rock and he kind of - he kind of gets embarrassed. He feels bad that he didn't do anything. He just hid behind a rock."
Mark Lomeland, a father figure, teacher, and O'Neal's track and cross country coach at Page High School in Arizona, heard this account from O'Neal: "He said he was lying on the ground praying. He said Tillman is telling him, 'It ain't gonna help, buddy. It ain't gonna help.'"
This is the way O'Neal described it to ESPN.com: "I don't want to say I was scared or terrified. I was probably more complacent with what was going to happen to me - just the fact that I couldn't do anything. I was confused. I didn't know why that was happening. At one point, I realized that I'm not going to walk out of this. I don't want to say it was easy to deal with, because I had no choice. There was no choice for me."
It doesn't help, too, that O'Neal is wrestling with his perception that he's been pushed away by the Rangers, shunted aside and steered into a series of dead-end desk jobs in the three years since Tillman died, maybe because in the days after the firefight, he told an investigator a slightly different version of the events around Tillman's death than the shooters did. Among the differences, O'Neal said the Humvee carrying the shooters moved down the narrow canyon road in a far less frantic fashion than the one described by the vehicle's occupants. In fact, in his sworn statement, O'Neal said the Humvee slowed to a halt to take better aim at his position low on the ridgeline. In the shooters' versions of the story, the Humvee never stopped.
"[They] pulled up, stopped, looked at our position directly, like - it wasn't like, stop, instant fire. It was like, stop, acquire, 'OK, there's our targets, now we can start firing,'" reads O'Neal's statement to Brig. Gen. Gary Jones, who now finds himself the subject of an inquiry for his handling of one of the Army's investigations.
Jones: "So these vehicles did not - were not just firing and rolled by, they actually came up and stopped?"
O'Neal: "Roger that, sir."
Jones: "But they were stopped when they were firing?"
O'Neal: "Roger that, sir."
To ESPN.com, O'Neal said, "It is tough being the only one who has told the truth, and stayed consistent with telling the truth. It is almost like they are disrespecting Pat by lying."
Perhaps it isn't surprising, then, that O'Neal believes the Rangers, the men with whom he served and fought, stopped embracing him as one of their own shortly after the firefight. In O'Neal's words, he's been "treated like a stray dog."
The Rangers, he said, didn't afford him psychological counseling early on, when he could've used it the most. For a time after the firefight, he was put under the charge of the driver of the vehicle whose occupants had shot at him and Tillman and the Afghan soldier. Platoon mates, once his friends, took to ignoring him. Army leadership warned him to keep his distance from the Tillman family, suggesting, he said, that Tillman's parents and widow and brothers "probably hated me" and were "only going to use me for their own purpose or reasons."
O'Neal has maintained contact with Kevin Tillman, one of Pat's younger brothers who was a part of the same Ranger unit in Afghanistan.
"Kevin just seems to wonder how I am doing," O'Neal says, "just making sure the Army isn't screwing me over."
As a teenager growing up in Page, Ariz., O'Neal was gung-ho on casting his lot with the Rangers. The Army was going to be a long-term gig for him, and his career in it was neatly mapped out all the way to retirement.
"He could have gone to school, no problem," said Lomeland, the Page teacher and coach who mentored him. "He is a bright kid who is absolutely amazing when it comes to history. But that is all he ever wanted to do - be an Army Ranger. He was going to do that his whole life."
Last fall, though, O'Neal gave up on the Rangers; and the Army, it appears, was willing to give up on O'Neal. He was offered a way out of the military in October, an offer he and Jennifer decided they couldn't take for financial reasons. He left the Rangers but accepted a rank in the regular Army. Now, his MySpace page includes a red countdown clock ticking down the seconds until his current six-year military commitment ends. Or as the graphic reads, "Until I get out of the Army" at midnight on June 12, 2009.
"Just a little over two years," O'Neal said. "But I like to lie to myself and say two years."
Among other things, his MySpace page also lists Pat Tillman as O'Neal's "all-time hero" and includes a picture of a whining newborn baby as the symbol of the Democratic Party. He is, he said, a "big George Bush fan" who supports the joint war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. So where did his relationship with the Rangers go wrong? If Tillman was worthy of a Silver Star in death, how could the Ranger next to him on the ridgeline fall so far out of favor with the Army's elite unit?
"When I had to leave my platoon, I basically was alienated from all my friends," he said. "The way things kind of work is whenever a dude is leaving [a Ranger] battalion, he gets looked down on. So when I left the platoon, 90 percent of the dudes that I used to hang out with and call my friends didn't want to hang out with me or call themselves my friend anymore. Basically, I got treated kind of like a stray dog.
"I didn't really understand why I was being alienated away from all my friends, put in dead-end jobs where I basically wouldn't be promoted. I think it is just the way they do things there. If you are a hard charger, who believes all of their propaganda, basically, then you [get ahead]. ... And I got uneasy around certain people. And I wasn't able to trust people as much. So I got treated like I was a quitter. And a coward, too."
It isn't a stretch to imagine that it might be difficult for a solder to maintain trust in his mates once they've fired on him. This past fall, before O'Neal left Fort Lewis and the Rangers, a superior directed him to a regimental psychologist who, he said, finally helped him make some further sense of the shabby treatment he believes he has received.
"He was able to put it in a perspective that I just couldn't put together - the fact that [a] Ranger battalion is supposed to be perfect. It does not make mistakes," O'Neal said. "Well, I am living proof that they make mistakes. The only proof because everyone else that was proof, they got rid of. Since they couldn't move me, they just treated me bad. And it got worse and worse and worse. It was a steady progression. Things went downhill. I mean, they weren't going to get rid of me because I think that would make them look bad. So they would treat me a specific way until I chose to leave."
Everyone in the Humvee who'd shot at their fellow soldiers had been dismissed from the Rangers and reassigned in the regular Army shortly after the incident. So, too, had Lt. David Uthlaut, one of two other Rangers injured by the friendly fire. O'Neal, then, essentially was the only Ranger still in the platoon who was involved in the firefight.
He stuck it out for as long as he could bear, he said, because "basically, when you're in [a] Ranger battalion, we think the rest of the regular Army is just one big pile of crap. If you go down there, you're probably going to get killed because everyone is stupid. So it is a scary thing. So I stayed in battalion simply so I could continue to say 'I am part of the 75th Ranger Regiment, one of the most prestigious units in the Army.'"
So far, only one of the Rangers in the vehicle carrying the shooters who fired at Tillman, O'Neal and the Afghan soldier has expressed anything like remorse, at least to O'Neal's satisfaction. Spc. Stephen Ashpole told O'Neal that he felt "truly sorry, truly guilty" in a 30-minute conversation more than a year after the firefight.
"He told me that what happened destroyed his views of the Army, or his desire," O'Neal said. "He was sorry. He didn't really mean to do what he did.
"Ashpole was the guy when we would go out and party, he would basically be the party animal. But it wasn't like that no more. He was very quiet, constantly sad."
Ashpole, now out of the Army, has declined interview requests.
Said O'Neal: "Everyone else was, 'Mistakes were made. We're better than you are, so don't question me.'"
Pressed for a further explanation, he said, "Yeah, they all outrank me, so they're better than me."
As to the administrative, nonjudicial discipline meted out to the shooters for their roles in the friendly fire, O'Neal insisted to ESPN.com that the "punishment far under-weighed the crime ... I mean, they will obviously be suffering in ways that I couldn't imagine suffering, if they even cared. But justice has not been met in my opinion."
He isn't alone. Kevin Tillman, Pat's brother who was also a member of the platoon, said in a sworn statement to the Army late in 2004, "They killed their own guy. I'm not saying, you know, take an ax to their head or anything stupid. I just think, looking at the information, it looks ..., the facts look like they were out of control and should be looked at as such."
And last year, Jade Lane, a radio telephone operator who was with Uthlaut in a position some 100 yards away from Tillman and O'Neal and who, like Uthlaut, was hit by the friendly fire and survived, told ESPN.com that he is still troubled that the Army didn't come down harder on the shooters.
"If there is anything you deserve to get fired for, that has got to be it," Lane said.
Ashpole and two other shooters in the vehicle - Spc. Trevor Alders and Spc. Steve Elliott - were given extra duty and expelled from the Rangers, but not the Army, for "failure to exercise sound judgment and fire discipline in combat operations." Squad leader Sgt. Greg Baker, cited for failure to command and control the unit's fire and movement, also was reduced a paygrade, docked $2,200 in pay over two months and given extra duty for 45 days.
"At first, I felt sorry for them because I wouldn't want to have the blood of two innocent people on my hands," O'Neal said. "Then, it didn't take long for me to start to hate them. And now I won't say I feel sorry for them again. But if they honestly don't realize what they did was wrong, then I guess I'd say I pity them."
Growing up in Page, a tiny northern Arizona border town, O'Neal couldn't help but know about Pat Tillman. He knew about Tillman's NFL career with the Cardinals. He knew that Tillman had played collegiately at Arizona State. So when he learned in a platoon sergeant's office at Fort Lewis that his new team leader was to be Pat Tillman, it was heady stuff for a kid fresh out of Page High School, Class of 2003. O'Neal was a sports nut himself, and a modest schoolboy jock - a decent soccer player and a sub-4:50 miler for the Sand Devils. Now, here he was, able to rub shoulders with Pat Tillman, 27, who'd suited up on Sundays and covered the likes of Terrell Owens and Marvin Harrison.
O'Neal called Lomeland back home to tell him the news.
"I mean, the kid was walking on air when he found out Pat was going to be his leader," Lomeland said. "He worshipped the ground the guy walked on."
Today, the converted bedroom that serves as an office in O'Neal's basement apartment in Columbus, Ga., is part tribute to Tillman. Photos and reminders of their Ranger days together are mixed in with a set of golf clubs, a Bible, history books and O'Neal's three guitars. (His musical tastes run from Metallica and Jimi Hendrix to opera and country.) Tillman's framed No. 42 Arizona State jersey is on one wall. Another is dominated by a large framed photo of Tillman perched in a tree, taken in Afghanistan just days before his death.
"We pretty much hit it off really fast when we started working together," O'Neal said. "He always sought to help me become a better person. He was always teaching me things, not only to do with the military but to do when I get out.
"Like, he was telling me about investing money. We talked about politics a lot. We talked about religion a lot."
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.
O'Neal was raised a Mormon by his mother, who also had served in the Army. In the Rangers, O'Neal said, Tillman was reading the Book of Mormon, so during downtime, he'd engage the younger soldier in conversations about his faith.
Often, the talk turned to current events and politics, during which Tillman mounted vigorous and unsuccessful attempts to steer O'Neal's vote to the Democratic Party. According to O'Neal, Tillman made no effort to conceal his contempt for the war in Iraq, labeling it "illegal" and arguing that the United States had entered it under false pretenses. But if that stance ever unnerved or irritated his fellow soldiers, O'Neal didn't witness it. Tillman, he said, was one of the best-liked Rangers in the platoon.
"A lot of things were really different with Pat,'' said O'Neal. "I mean, obviously some people messed with him a little bit more, just because I guess they wanted to show that they were so much cooler than everyone else. But for the most part, no one really messed with him or argued anything about that because he was smarter than everyone there. He was one of the oldest guys in the platoon, so it is really hard for someone who outranks him but is only 21 or 22 to really stand on the same level with him, especially since he came from the NFL. He had been other places, done things with his life, while most of us were coming out of high school."
The Ranger culture, though, doesn't afford celebrity status, even to NFL players. Occasionally, O'Neal said, somebody pulled rank on Tillman, or otherwise tried to get under his skin.
"There are 19-year-old punks who have their Ranger tag and have been to Ranger School, telling Pat, who at that time didn't have his tag, to get down and do push-ups or mow the lawn or clean the bathroom," O'Neal said. "You know, 'Clean up after me, because I can.' Why? Because that is all they do. They enjoy degrading people.
"He went along with it. He hated it, [but] how bad can they honestly degrade him? He played professional football. What are you going to do to him? On top of the fact that if they upset him so much, he can probably just break them in half without too much effort."
It isn't difficult to see how in the days, weeks, months and years after Tillman's death, O'Neal was tormented by the loss of his hero. On April 22, 2004, O'Neal staggered off that rocky Afghanistan ridgeline in a state of shock and covered in Tillman's blood. Much of the three years since then have been a different sort of hell. The memories, the guilt, the alcohol. The notion of suicide.
"I thought about it a lot,'' he said. "One of the big reasons why I ended up not doing it is my friend at that time killed himself because his wife had just left him, and it caused me a lot of pain. It made me kind of realize that is not the kind of thing I want to do to others."
By now, some of the guilt seems to have passed; some of the anger has softened. The drinking has stopped.
Some of the new balance in his life has grown from his relationship with Jennifer, whom he married Dec. 20, 2005, just days before a brief deployment to Iraq. Friends say she has loosened him up, brought him out of his stupor. She is bubbly and emotional, a counter to his reticence.
"She has really helped him come back," Lomeland said. "He'll never get over this, but he's coping with it better. And she gives him a sounding board. Instead of going to an empty apartment or barracks with no one to communicate with, he has someone to go home to when he is having a hard time."
Unlike O'Neal, Jennifer, 21, who grew up in the Pacific Northwest around Fort Lewis, didn't know anything about Pat Tillman until she met her future husband. She didn't hear the full-blown version of Tillman's death that early evening in Afghanistan until four months into her marriage. Then, one night, it all came pouring out. It was a year ago - April 22, 2006, the second anniversary.
"I came home from work, and he just looked like he had gotten hit by a train or something," Jennifer said. "I was like, 'What is wrong with you?' He's like, 'I don't want to talk about it.' He freaked out. Finally, that night, we started talking and that is when he actually told me everything. It was like, 'Wow.'"
As O'Neal talked with ESPN.com, Jennifer perched alongside, gently caressing his neck. She stroked his right arm as he watched an Army investigation video taken in Afghanistan last April at the site of the firefight, shots of the rough terrain, the position low on a ridgeline where O'Neal and Tillman and the Afghan looked for cover from the guns on their own platoon's vehicles easing through the canyon. The video was taken on the same day O'Neal finally told his wife the story of how Pat Tillman died.
By rights, maybe Jennifer's husband should be a ghost.
"I knew I was going to die, because Rangers don't miss," O'Neal said softly, still watching. "I mean, they don't."
Only, in his case, they did.
Mike Fish is an investigative reporter for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.