Ranger says account of Tillman's death was 'doctored'

Updated: March 27, 2007, 3:00 AM ET
By Mike Fish | ESPN.com

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Almost three years ago, Bryan O'Neal says, Pat Tillman saved his life in the mountains of Afghanistan, and O'Neal gave the account of his survival to the Army as Tillman was being recommended for a Silver Star in the days that followed the incident.

On Monday, though, O'Neal told ESPN.com that someone later "doctored" the words he used to describe Tillman's actions on the April, 2004, evening in which Tillman died by friendly fire.

A mother reacts
Pat Tillman's mother Mary released a statement reacting to the government's report regarding how the military handled the death of her son.

"The briefing we just received was shamefully unacceptable," she says in the statement.

Read the complete Statement.

• Read the Inspector General of the Department of Defense's report on matters related to the death of Pat Tillman. PDF

O'Neal, then an 18-year-old Army Ranger, was with Tillman and a friendly Afghan soldier when they came under fire from the trailing section of their split platoon. O'Neal credits Tillman for helping him seek cover behind a rock, while the former NFL player left his own cover to toss a smoke canister in an attempt to alert his platoon mates that they were shooting at friendlies. Under fire, Tillman and the Afghan, known only as "Thani," were killed instantly.

"Pat deserves the Silver Star," O'Neal said. "I do feel I wouldn't be alive if it wasn't for Pat Tillman."

O'Neal said his account of Tillman's heroics is one of the valorous statements included as part of the Silver Star recommendation. But during the recently concluded review by the Department of Defense Inspector General's Office, O'Neal learned that changes had been made to his statement.

"All I know is words were changed," O'Neal said. "The way the award statement was written was a bit off. Some things I wrote were changed. Things were doctored to be different. It is upsetting. A lot of things were written that I didn't write."

Asked for an example, O'Neal said, "Like being under enemy fire."

O'Neal said he hasn't been told who made the changes.

As part of his briefing on Monday about the results of the latest inquiry into Tillman's death, acting Department of Defense Inspector General Thomas Gimble said his investigators learned that the words in two valorous statements in the Silver Star recommendation had been changed, although Gimble didn't identify the specific platoon members or their statements. Gimble said he didn't know who made the changes, and said it is now the charge of the Army to find that out.

Statements related to the Silver Star by Army officials initially were inputted into a computer, investigators said, but weren't signed. Apparently, they were then re-crafted for the Silver Star submission by someone higher up in the chain of command.

"We took them back and asked [the individuals], 'Did you write this statement?'" Gimble said late Monday afternoon. "The answer was 'No, we didn't.'"

Acting Secretary of the Army Pete Geren said on Monday that Tillman's Silver Star has been reconfirmed, but that the wording on the citation has been revised to more truly reflect his actions and the circumstances of the day.

As news was reported of the findings of the latest investigations, a number of platoon members who served with Tillman voiced relief that another probe has found the deaths of Tillman and the Afghan soldier to be an accident. Some were pleased to see top Army officers named for allegedly concealing that Tillman's death was caused by friendly fire.

"There were so many officers involved, but it took so long to bring out friendly fire," said Pedro Arreola, a gunner on one of the vehicles in the second half of the split platoon. "That was bull, hiding it like that from the family. I couldn't imagine what Kevin [Tillman's brother] is going through. The Army definitely were dirtbags about it, trying to keep their own hands clean."

Jason Parsons, a former sergeant in Tillman's platoon, said: "The good that could come from this is that it makes everyone accountable for their actions. The bad is that this only came to light because he [Pat Tillman] was a superstar. If he hadn't been a superstar, would it [the mishandling of information on the friendly fire] have happened in the first place? My opinion is no. It would've been a statistic, not a media sensation.''

Parsons said of the investigation: "It shows there's integrity among the Ranger Regiment, but a lack of integrity among the officers who handled the case.''

The Inspector General's review, according to officials, cost more than $2 million, not including the bills run up by the Army's Criminal Investigation Command. In the course of its investigation, the criminal unit team of seven agents and two crime lab specialists spent two weeks last year at the site of the firefight in Afghanistan.

But several unanswered questions remain.

One of the questions still being asked by Tillman's family concerns the whereabouts of the initial investigation conducted by Capt. Richard Scott, former commander of Headquarters Company, 2nd Ranger Battalion. Though his report remains classified and the Tillman family hasn't seen it, Army documents reveal that Scott told a subsequent investigator he'd concluded that those who fired upon Tillman "could be charged for criminal intent" and that at least three had demonstrated "gross negligence."

Asked how Scott's findings fit with the latest report, Brig. Gen. Rodney Johnson, who oversaw the criminal investigation, said, "In hindsight, now we got lots more evidence. He [Scott] never visited the site, which is pretty darn important. He never talked to all the people. His evaluation is his evaluation. We put lot of man hours in this, a lot of interviews, a lot of physical evidence. We did not find any probable cause to support aggravated assault."

Mike Fish is an investigative reporter for ESPN.com. He can be reached at michaeljfish@gmail.com. ESPN television producer William Weinbaum also contributed to this report.

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