OLYMPIA, Wash. -- In his first public statements about the death of Pat Tillman, the former NFL player turned Army Ranger, one of the fellow Rangers involved in the 2004 friendly-fire incident in Afghanistan told ESPN's "Outside the Lines" he has lived for 10 years with the thought that he might have fired the fatal shots.
"It is possible, in my mind, that I hit him," said Steven Elliott, who had been engaged in his first firefight as an Army Ranger when Tillman died on April 22, 2004, in the mountainous terrain of southeast Afghanistan.
The events leading up to one of the most infamous friendly-fire deaths in U.S. military history were rife for second-guessing from the start: After an Army Humvee broke down in the mountains, Tillman's platoon was ordered divided by superiors so that the Humvee could be removed; a local truck driver was hired as the hauler. But the two groups struggled to communicate with each other as they traversed the steep terrain. And the second group soon became caught in a deafening ambush, receiving fire as it maneuvered down a narrow, rocky canyon trail.
Tillman's group, which had traveled ahead, scaled a ridgeline to provide assistance to fellow Rangers under attack. But a squad leader, Sgt. Greg Baker, in Elliott's armored vehicle misidentified an allied Afghan soldier positioned next to Tillman as the enemy and opened fire, killing the Afghan and prompting Elliott and two other Rangers to fire upon what Elliott called shadowy images, later learned to have been Tillman and then-19-year-old Bryan O'Neal.
The Army either has never determined or has never released whose shots killed Tillman. Tillman had left the Arizona Cardinals after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to join the Army, a decision that immediately turned him into a national symbol of sacrifice.
Elliott, 33, who left the Army in 2007, has spoken at length with "Outside the Lines" in recent months. He said he has been treated for post-traumatic stress disorder and is speaking now because he believes that his story might provide hope for fellow veterans who suffer similar afflictions.
The other two shooters who have acknowledged firing at Tillman's position declined comment for this story, as they have in the past.
Investigations by the Army determined that Tillman died from three shots to his head. Elliott, whose weapon was an M240 Bravo machine gun, and platoon mate and Spc. Trevor Alders have been most widely suspected of having fired the fatal caliber of rounds, based on autopsies and Army investigations.
The locations of the fatal bullets, all in an approximately two-inch area of Tillman's head, could have been too neat and too precise to be the work of a machine gunner. But Elliott said he was trained to fire his automatic weapon with the precision of a rifle, not to spray fire in Rambo-like fashion.
"You aim at a point, and you fire a burst. You are holding your trigger for a fraction of a second, but that fraction of a second releases three to five rounds," he said. "If it looked like you had [three] rounds and very close to one another, well, that was very consistent to how I was firing my weapon at that point. ... It would be disingenuous for me to say there is no way my rounds didn't kill him, because my rounds very well could have."