The Truth Behind the Death of Pat Tillman?

Author Jon Krakauer and Army Rangers at scene of killing reveal hidden story.

September 10, 2009, 5:24 PM

Sept. 11, 2009 — -- On the football field, Pat Tillman was known for his fierce tackles and unbridled spirit.

"Pat, as a football player, loved the roar of the crowd," best-selling author Jon Krakauer told Bob Woodruff in an exclusive interview earlier this month with ABC News. "He was a gregarious guy."

Off the gridiron, the Arizona Cardinals safety was a different man -- an unflinching patriot who died for his country in Afghanistan.

"It was sort of like there was the public Pat and the private Pat," Krakauer said. "And the private Pat was not for public consumption."

Tillman later symbolized all those who have sacrificed their lives in the fight against terrorism.

Krakauer pieces together Tillman's story in his new book, "Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman," to be released Tuesday.

"Who does this?" Tillman wrote in a journal entry dated July 28, 2002. "Who takes a perfectly perfect life and ruins it? A perfectly happy wife and marriage and jeopardizes it? Ahhh! If I do not strangle someone while I'm here, I was touched by an angel."

Tillman's personal journals and letters to his wife, Marie, seen publicly for the first time, offer a glimpse into the life of the man that very few people knew.

"My life at this point is relatively easy," Pat Tillman wrote in a letter to his family dated April 8, 2002. "It is my belief that I could continue to play football for the next seven or eight years and create a very comfortable lifestyle. My job is challenging, enjoyable and strokes my vanity enough to fool me into thinking it's important. For more reasons that I care to list, my job is remarkable. However, it is not enough."

Tillman's personal journals and letters reveal an intelligent, sensitive and loyal man who loved his wife, family and country.

Like many other Americans, Krakauer admired Tillman's decision to give up his multi-million dollar football career to volunteer for military duty after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Once Krakauer started working on the book, he realized there was more to Tillman than football hero.

"Only then did I realize his depth and his complexity, and he was a really interesting guy," said Krakauer, who never met Tillman. "He was much more than a football player or a patriot or any of that. He was all those things. But he was a remarkable human being."

Pat Tillman: U.S. Army Ranger

Driven by the events of 9/11, Tillman enlisted in the army. In a letter to his family members, Tillman informed them of his decision.

"For much of my life I've tried to follow a path I believed important," he wrote. "Sports embodied many of the qualities I deem meaningful: courage, toughness, strength. These last few years, and especially after recent events, I've come to appreciate just how shallow and insignificant my role is. I'm no longer satisfied with the path I've been following ... it's no longer important."

Not everyone in his family agreed with his decision. Tillman's family organized an intervention.

"This intervention just sort of degenerated into this kind of yelling match and people crying and it was a kind of a disaster," said Krakauer, who wrote the acclaimed "Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster" 10 years ago.

Once her husband's mind was made up, Marie Tillman said, there was no talking him out of it. But Tillman's doubts about his decision surfaced during boot camp, according to Tillman's journal entries.

In his journal entry dated July 25, 2002, Tillman described his fellow soldiers: "They're resentful, ungrateful, lazy, weak and unvirtuous. ... One thing I find myself despising is the sight of all these guns in the hands of children. ... Of course, we all understand the necessity of defense but that does not excuse the fact that a young man I would not trust with my canteen is walking about armed."

Tillman joined the Army at age 25 and found himself utterly frustrated by his surroundings.

Former U.S. Army Ranger Kyle Jones, who served alongside Tillman, told ABC News, "There are 50 guys in one huge room and you live there together for 14 weeks. And probably 80 percent of the guys are from age 18 to 22, and it's just a lot of young testosterone in a confined area. I could definitely see it being a little annoying at times."

Tillman's journals also make clear that the hardest thing for him was being away from his wife.

"As always, Marie is on my mind," he wrote in a journal entry dated July 20, 2002. "I have been unable to speak with her ... since we've been here, and I miss the sound of her voice."

Krakauer, who called their relationship very special, said, "She was the love of his life, without a doubt."

In addition to his journal entries about his wife, Tillman sent letters to her regularly and worried about the toll his absence was taking on her.

On their first wedding anniversary, May 4, 2003, Tillman wrote from Afghanistan: "Happy anniversary my love!!! A year ago today Marie made me the luckiest man alive and what have I done in return? Schemed up the most absurd way to drastically s***-can our, until recently, perfect existence. Here I sit in a tent, at Baghdad International Airport, surrounded by kids, half the earth away from where I belong on our anniversary."

Pat Tillman: Misgivings About Iraq

But once Tillman joined the Rangers, a tight-knit group of elite infantrymen, he knew he made the right choice.

Former Ranger Jones said, "It's a place where you make lasting brotherhoods. It's like having a group of 15 to 20 brothers. It's different from the regular army. It's guys who want to be there. It's guys who want to do their jobs."

Tillman's personality caught many of his fellow Rangers by surprise.

"He is a very intimidating-looking guy but then once you start to talk to him you're like this guy's nothing what he should be like," Jones recalled. "It just throws you completely off because you look at him and you expect one thing and then you talk to him and you're just like this is one of the coolest guys I've met."

Former U.S. Army Ranger Will Aker, who also fought alongside Tillman, said Tillman did not fit the stereotype of the physical football player turned Army Ranger.

"I think what most people don't know is that there's a lot of intellectual people in the Ranger regiment and Pat was, you know, at the top class of that with his approach to everything," Aker said.

Of his first-time meeting with Tillman, former U.S. Army Ranger Josey Boatright said, "I was going up the stairs and he stopped me and he shook my hand. And he said, 'My name's Pat Tillman. Nice to meet you. Welcome to the 2nd Battalion.' He was the first nice guy I met."

When Tillman joined the Army, he expected his first mission would be in Afghanistan to hunt for the man behind the 9/11 attacks, Osama bin Laden. But the United States invaded Iraq shortly after Tillman completed Ranger school and, in 2003, he deployed there instead.

Tillman was upset about it and voiced his disapproval, Krakauer said. "He thought it was a mistake," he said. "He thought it was going to be a disaster. And, in the Army, you're not supposed to talk about that. You're not supposed to talk politics, and Pat didn't shut up. He told everyone this was illegal as hell."

Still, Tillman got along great with the other soldiers, Krakauer said. "They respected him because, even though he didn't like the Iraq War, he signed up," Krakauer said. "He was going to fulfill his obligation."

Tillman and his younger brother, Kevin, enlisted together. In Afghanistan, they fought side by side on the battlefield and were electric when they got together on the sports field.

"They were the closest set of brothers that I've ever seen," former Ranger Boatright said.

The Tillman brothers questioned the war in Iraq. But they never questioned how they would perform on the battlefield.

Tillman shared his feelings in a journal entry dated March 13, 2003. "If Kevin and I are part of a situation where we must fight, every bit of my soul knows we will fight as hard as anyone ever has," he wrote. "We will not question the reasons for our being here or allow any personal beliefs to interfere with our job. My hope is that decisions are being made with the same good faith that Kevin and I aim to display. ... I hope [this war is about] more than oil, money & power. ... I doubt that it is."

"The more time Pat spent in Iraq, the more and more he realized this whole thing was terrible," Krakauer said.

Government Interest in Tillman

Tillman caught the eye of many in Washington, D.C. He was the most famous soldier in Iraq or Afghanistan and the Pentagon knew it.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld sent Tillman a handwritten note commending him on his decision.

"According to Rumsfeld's senior military assistant at the time, Lt. Gen. Bantz Craddock, this was the only time he could remember Rumsfeld ever writing a personal note commending the enlistment of an individual soldier," Krakauer wrote in his book footnotes.

"He was watching Tillman's every move; when Pat Tillman coughed, they knew it," Krakauer said of Rumsfeld, claiming he was trying to turn Tillman into the military poster boy.

But Tillman shunned the limelight, refusing to do any interviews after he joined the army.

"He didn't want any special treatment," former Ranger Jones said. "He was content being just like everybody else. He didn't want to be glorified or put up on a pedestal. He just wanted to do what he believed in."

Krakauer said, "He was really smart about politics, and he knew that there was a really good chance that if he died, the administration would try to capitalize on it for their benefit and he didn't want that to happen."

In a strange twist of fate, Tillman's first mission in Iraq turned out to be a high-profile rescue. Tillman, along with brother Kevin, was part of the rescue for Jessica Lynch, the Army private who had been injured and captured by Iraqi forces. Tillman was initially skeptical of the operation.

"As the Army was sending, you know, 1,000 troops, they were organizing an incredible number of people to rescue, Pat looked around and said, wait a minute, something is fishy here," Krakauer said.

Tillman wrote about the incident in his journal on March 30, 2003 -- the day before Lynch's highly publicized rescue: "This mission will be a POW rescue, a woman named Jessica Lynch. I do believe this to be a big public relations stunt. Do not mistake me, I wish everyone in trouble to be rescued but sending this many folks in for a single low-ranking soldier screams of media blitz in any case, I'm glad to be able to do my part and I hope we bring her home safe."

Tillman questioned the motives behind the large operation and feared that if something similar happened to him, he, too, would be used as propaganda by the Bush administration. He shared his feelings with U.S. Army Ranger Jade Lane.

"One night Pat [told Lane], 'You know, if I get killed over here, don't let them parade me through the street, that's something I just -- I hate to think about. I'm afraid if I die, you know they're going to make me into this symbol and they're going to parade through the street, you know, don't let that happen," Krakauer told ABC News.

Tragedy and the Cover-Up

On April 22, 2004, Tillman's platoon was on a mission in the mountains of Afghanistan when they were crippled by a broken-down Humvee.

"It's this tragic cascade of decisions," Krakauer said. "They're in the middle of nowhere. They requested a helicopter to come lift it out. It's a routine thing."

A decision made by a senior commander at Bagram Air Base sealed Tillman's fate. "Because of the war in Iraq, there weren't nearly enough helicopters in Afghanistan," Krakauer said. "And, so, when they requested to lift this thing away, they were told, can't do it. We need 96 hours, you know, four days before we can tow this away."

Instead of waiting, the platoon leader was ordered to split his men into two groups, or series.

"One group went one way," Krakauer said. "The other half of the platoon was supposed to tow this Humvee over this mountain. They hired a local Afghan to tow it. When they got to the mountain, the driver said, 'We can't go over there. We should follow the other platoon."

Group two was 15 minutes behind group one when they were ambushed in a canyon.

Tillman was in group one, his brother Kevin was in the other.

When Tillman's group heard the explosion, they raced to get in position to help their platoon mates.

"I heard the gunfire, and then I saw the tracer rounds -- pouring out of the canyon," said Aker, who was with Pat Tillman in group one. "It was like -- It was almost like a fireworks show. And my adrenaline just immediately spiked. And then once I got out of the vehicle my squad leader, you know, he was like, 'All right. This is it. Calm down, you know this is what we trained for.' And then we charged up the hill."

Communications were down -- and group two was unaware that their fellow rangers were on the ridge ready to support them.

"The guys being ambushed came racing out, guns blazing," Krakauer said.

Tillman and an Afghan soldier were both killed by friendly fire. Several members of the platoon witnessed the tragedy.

"I saw him slump over and I saw a grabbing and pulling back and that's when I thought he was hit," Boatright said. "There was a mist of red."

The military informed Tillman's family that Tillman was killed by the Taliban. His platoon mates disagree with the military's actions.

"I think it's wrong," Jones said. "I mean, you don't tell someone a story that didn't happen to try and make them feel better. There's not a whole lot that's going to make them feel better. You might as well just tell them the truth."

Aker said, "It was just handled completely idiotic. The first time I was interviewed was four months after it happened ... and the same with a lot of other guys within our platoon that were finally given a chance to talk."

Army Pfc. Jessica Lynch also disagreed with how Tillman's death was handled. "The military instills that in us, you know the honor codes but yet they can't be honest with our families when we're over there protecting and defending our country," she said.

Five weeks later, the Tillmans learned the truth.

The Investigation

Six investigations and countless hearings have been carried out since Pat Tillman's death.

In 2006, the Army sent a team of investigators to the site where Tillman was killed. The team was accompanied by two rangers from Tillman's platoon.

After reviewing the footage of the Army investigation, Krakauer said he was shocked by what he called a lax probe.

"As they're doing it, no one is asking the right questions, they're not asking any questions," he said. "They drive through this canyon, you know, where the shooting started -- there's nothing said, and no one says where did the shooting start? You know the soldier didn't say, this is where we started shooting, he was here, he was there. There's nothing, they just drive through the canyon -- 'We're done now, cut,'" Krakauer said.

Looking at the footage, Krakauer is able to pinpoint where the firefight took place.

"The shooting started, basically, as soon as this Humvee turned the corner -- shooting continually. Hundreds of rounds found," Krakauer explained. "At this point, it's only 35 yards away, 120 feet -- the difference between second base and home plate. And they are just unloading on these guys. Tillman throws a smoke grenade to try and indicate they're friendlies -- no good, they're shot and killed. And that's what happened."

Krakauer's vast knowledge of Tillman's death is the result of 3½ years of nonstop research -- all his waking hours, as he described it.

The writer has read through thousands of pages of documents from the investigations into Tillman's death and spent more than five months in Afghanistan.

He has searched for Tillman's platoon mates and fellow soldiers -- and interviewed as many as he could find.

Reactions From the Military

Krakauer said he believes the military and President George W. Bush's former administration will argue with his findings. But he is confident in his book.

"I've been very conservative with my fact checking," he said. "The stuff in my book is true. Stuff that I believe to be true but I couldn't prove is not in the book."

He said he's prepared for the objections.

"I mean, it's not a flattering portrait of Rumsfeld, Cheney especially, and I think the Army will be upset because some very senior members of the officer corps, generals, we're talking four-star generals, did not do the right thing with Pat Tillman," Krakauer said. "They did the wrong thing."

The role of the current leading commander of the military operation in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, is discussed in the book.

"McChrystal is extremely quiet. He covers his tracks, he avoids publicity." Krakauer said.

McChrystal sent an e-mail to warn that the Tillman investigation might reveal he was killed by friendly fire.

McChrystal refused to answer Woodruff's questions about Tillman during an interview in Afghanistan in July.

Rumsfeld refused to be interviewed.

In writing the book, Krakauer denied having political motives or a dislike for the Bush administration.

"I was dismayed by the invasion of Iraq as Pat was," he said. "When I started out to write this book, you know I had no intention about writing about politics. I was fascinated with Pat Tillman. And I just became increasingly outraged when I learned from talking to his platoon mates and looking through the investigations, what the government -- the Army had done to him. So my anger comes from someplace very deep and very real."

Tillman had made it clear that he did not want the military to have any direct involvement with his funeral. He made his wishes known in a standard Army deployment form that he had to fill out before he left for Iraq.

"When Pat was alive, the Army tried to make him into their poster boy for the global war on terror," Krakauer said. "And he resisted. And after he died, when he wasn't around to object, they really turned him into this -- their poster boy. And they didn't want to come across as having shot their poster boy. So they had to suppress that. They didn't want to add bad news. Instead, they very cleverly turned Pat into diversion. They turned him into a hero and the country was diverted from the bad stuff in Iraq to Pat Tillman, hero. And it worked for a while."

Krakauer said Tillman would be furious to find out what his family has suffered at the hands of the Army and the government.

"He would want to come down and wring someone's neck for sure," he said.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events