The endless Global War on Terror has claimed the lives of about 7,000 American soldiers, mainly in Iraq and Afghanistan, and over 500,000 have died in the War since the 9/11 attacks. Arguably one of the most well-known American soldiers to die was Pat Tillman, who gave up a million-dollar NFL career to enlist in the Army. He joined the 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, and fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was killed there on April 22, 2004.

At the time of his death, he was seen as an American hero who sacrificed all for his country while giving up a very lucrative career that was just hitting its peak. Later, his name resurfaced during the controversy over the Colin Kaepernick Nike ads and the practice of many NFL players to kneel during the national anthem. Many tried to point out that Tillman would be against this practice and be a better spokesman for Nike than Kaepernick’s “Be Willing to Risk Everything” campaign. But his widow quickly extinguished those thoughts.

Early Life and College

Pat Tillman was born in Fremont, California in November 1976. He was the oldest of three sons of a very close-knit family. Tillman would remark later in his journals from Afghanistan that he drew great strength from his family and close friends. He was a standout football player in Leland High School’s State Championship team and parlayed that into the last scholarship offer of the year (1994), from Arizona State University.

Tillman at just 5’11, 202 pounds was a standout, if undersized, linebacker at ASU. But he helped the university team go undefeated and play in the Rose Bowl after the 1996 season. In 1997, he was Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year. But as much as he excelled on the football field, he was equally successful in the classroom. A marketing major, he graduated in just 3.5 years with a 3.65 GPA.

He earned three consecutive selections to the Pac-10 All-Academic Football Team, a 1st team Academic All-American honor, as well as the NCAA’s Post-Graduate Scholarship for academic and athletic excellence. He also earned a B.S. in Marketing, graduating Summa Cum Laude from ASU’s prestigious W.P. Carey School of Business

NFL Career
Pat Tillman at Sun Devil Stadium. (Photo by Rick Scuteri/USA TODAY Sports)

In 1998, Tillman was selected by the Arizona Cardinals with the 226th pick in the 7th round of the NFL Draft. Arizona moved him to safety; not many people thought he’d make an impact or last in the NFL. But he not only made the team but became a starter.

In 2000, he set a Cardinals record for tackles in a season with 224. The then St. Louis Rams offered him a contract for five years and nine million dollars but he declined out of loyalty to the Cardinals.

The attacks of 9/11 affected him deeply. The next day he told a reporter, “At times like this you stop and think about just how good we have it, what kind of system we live in, and the freedoms we are allowed. A lot of my family has gone and fought in wars and I really haven’t done a damn thing.”

After the season was over, the Cardinals offered him a three-year, $3.6 million contract to remain. But he had made other plans. In the spring of 2002, Tillman married his long-time girlfriend Marie and after their honeymoon, he told the Cardinals that he was putting his NFL career aside for the next three years to enlist in the Army.

His brother Kevin had been signed to a baseball contract with the Cleveland Indians but he too put that on hold and together the two brothers signed up in May 2002.

Pat Tillman’s Military Career and Death

The brothers enlisted and completed basic training together at Ft. Benning, GA in September of 2002. They then successfully completed the difficult Ranger Indoctrination Program (RIP) and were assigned to the 2nd Ranger Bn. at Ft. Lewis, WA.

The brothers deployed together on a tour to Iraq in 2003 with the Rangers as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. While in Iraq, Tillman had strong feelings about why the U.S. was there, and although he performed admirably, disagreed with the invasion and thought it was illegal.

After returning from Iraq, the Tillman brothers both attended Ranger School in September of 2003 and graduated on November 28, 2003. After returning to the 2nd Ranger Bn. (Alpha Company, 2nd Plt) they deployed to Afghanistan and were based at FOB Salerno.

Pat Tillman was becoming increasingly anxious to put the military behind him, his journals recall, and he questioned the U.S. motives behind our actions in the region. He began to consider leaving as soon as his enlistment was up. The NFL had moved on, but he knew he could return to Arizona.

In the last conversation Tillman had with his agent, he said, “you won’t believe the letter I got from Bill Belichick.” In the letter, Belichick, the coach of the New England Patriots, praised him for his courage, his leadership, his willingness to set an example for people in this materialistic society. Belichick said it was an honor to be in the same league Tillman had been in. Belichick closed the letter by telling Tillman that if he ever needed a job when he was released by the Army to give him a call. That was never to be.

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On April 22, 2004, the Rangers were conducting an operation 40 km southwest of Khost along the Pakistani border. Then, just after sunset, one of the units came under fire. In the falling darkness, Tillman, and one element with an Afghan soldier, tried to come to the aid of fellow Rangers who were coming under attack. As Tillman moved along the ridgeline to support the troops under fire, fellow Rangers, seeing “shadowy figures” on the ridge, incorrectly identified them as enemy combatants and opened fire.

Pat Tillman and the Afghan soldier were killed. His platoon commander and his RTO were wounded. It was initially thought to be the enemy fire that hit them and it wasn’t until after Tillman’s burial that the truth emerged.

The Army Investigates Tillman’s Death

Army CID conducted an investigation. It ruled in 2007 what the Rangers had known soon after the horrible mistake was made. That Tillman had been killed by friendly fire. Their report states the facts here:

…during their movement through the canyon road, Serial 2 [Tillman’s platoon had to split up because of a broken Humvee; the parts were called Serial 1 and 2] was ambushed and became engaged in a running gun battle with enemy combatants. Serial 1 [Tillman’s portion of the platoon] had just passed through the same canyon without incident and were approximately one kilometer ahead of Serial 2. Upon hearing explosions, gunfire, and sporadic radio communication from Serial 2, Serial 1 dismounted their vehicles and moved on foot, to a more advantageous position to provide overwatch and fire support for Serial 2’s movement out of the ambush. Upon exiting the gorge, and despite attempts by Serial 1 to signal a “friendly position”, occupants of the lead vehicle of Serial 2 opened fire on Tillman’s position, where he was fatally shot.

Steven Elliot, the Ranger machine gunner who probably fired the shots that killed Tillman gave an interview a few years ago that detailed what happened.

“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.”

Several Rangers were kicked out of the battalion for their actions after the friendly fire incident. Tillman’s body armor and uniform, as well as his journal which contained several anti-war sentiments, were burned to conceal the cause of his death.

Tillman’s family was incensed (and rightfully so) for the portrayal of his death as a heroic public relations stunt and not identifying it for what it truly was.

His family and his wife carried on his legacy of service by creating the Pat Tillman Foundation in 2008. Its mission is to support active-duty servicemembers, veterans, and their spouses with academic scholarships, a national network, and professional development opportunities for their lives after military service. 

He was posthumously awarded a Silver Star, the Purple Heart, and promoted from Specialist 4 to Corporal.

His remains were cremated and his ashes scattered at sea.

Arizona State University dedicated a statue to Pat Tillman outside Sun Devil Stadium.

Editor’s Note: Today, on the 17th anniversary of Corporal Pat Tillman’s death SOFREP republishes this article of his life. It was originally published in April 2020. It has been edited for republication.