[Conspiracy, obstruction of justice, evidence tampering are just three crimes uncovered in this installment as we look at what is probably the most thorough and complete public picture of how Pat Tillman died that will ever be published. It is not for the squeamish.
This is why Stan Goff’s twenty-plus years of experience in Rangers and Special Forces is so valuable. As for the crimes we’ll disclose in the rest of the series; Stan is just getting warmed up. After finishing our investigation and complete review of more than 2,000 pages of records, FTW will now accelerate its publication of the remaining sections to one a week. – MCR]
The Tillman Files - Part 4
FTW Military/Veterans Affairs Editor
© Copyright 2006, From The Wilderness Publications, www.fromthewilderness.com. All Rights Reserved. This story may NOT be posted on any Internet web site without express written permission. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org. May be circulated, distributed or transmitted for non-profit purposes only.
“It's not known, to the best of my understanding.”
-Lawrence DiRita, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs (2004)
June 23rd 2006, 11:39am [PST] – Pat Tillman was killed by friendly fire on April 22, 2004, outside Manah, Afghanistan.
By the first week of May, 2004, there were public calls for the resignation of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld from every cardinal direction, including Congress. The Abu Ghraib scandal was in full flower. April had been a nightmare month in Iraq.
The intrepid Seymour Hersh, having already broken some of the biggest political and military scandals in history, had ignited another crisis with the Abu Ghraib story, and on May 16th, he issued a follow-on story that Rumsfeld had outlined his plan for the torture center with the directive, “Grab whom you must, do what you want.” Had the story been untrue, there is little doubt the administration would have either put Hersh before a judge or rolled him like they did Dan Rather.
Instead, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs (ASD-PA) Lawrence DiRita issued an outraged statement: “This is the most hysterical piece of journalist malpractice I have ever observed.”
For those who are familiar with the classic political flick, “All the President’s Men,” about the Watergate scandal, DiRita’s rant qualifies as a “non-denial denial.”
The reason I bring this up in the context of Pat Tillman’s death, just weeks before the Abu Ghraib scandal reached its fever pitch, is that DiRita was near the very top of the bureaucratic obelisk-of-obedience in the damage control effort mounted in response to Tillman’s death. There were no little crises those days, only really big ones. The ASD-PA’s office was in a Category 3 storm, and there was no way that office could permit a story of fatal incompetence and ambition that took the life of a famous athlete turned Ranger to happen then.
People have asked me, as I point out how many little loopholes there are in the official accounts of what happened to Pat Tillman, “Didn’t they know? Didn’t they realize that they could not sit on this forever?”
The answer is, they didn’t have the time and space to acknowledge such a thing then. The future emergency could not compete for their attention like the current one, and allowing the true story of Pat Tillman out then would have been the weight that tipped the lifeboat. They really had no choice.
Pat Tillman had been killed at dusk on April 22nd. By April 23rd, the word had been passed all the way to Washington DC. Redactions of offices and names leave a few open questions in the documents that demonstrate this as a fact, but the number of levels of command represented in the account of passing the “strong impression” that Tillman’s death was fratricide makes it clear that the word went from A Company, to the Cross Command and 75th Ranger Regiment, through the US Army Central Command and Special Operations Command, at least to the Department of the Army. While I infer from this – disingenuous boss syndrome notwithstanding – that Secretary Rumsfeld would be livid if an event of this import were kept from him, and therefore that he knew, the other person who was surely “in the loop” was Lawrence DiRita. His job was spin control. And no killing of any enlisted person in the military was likely to require more spin control than this.
This series will return to all the ways that the spinners did their jobs; but now we want to do the best we can with what we know to explain what actually happened on the afternoon of April 22nd.
There can be no separation of operations and so-called “public affairs” (spin). This is true of the conduct of the war; and it is also true in the death of Pat Tillman. As we begin to reconstruct the events – as closely as we can given the mosaic of statements and the disappearance of Captain Richard Scott’s original Article 15-6 investigation, we have to foreground one fact: There was no urgent tactical reason for 2nd Platoon (“Black Sheep”), Company A, 2nd Ranger Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment to arrive at Manah on April 22nd instead of April 23rd. The pressure to arrive as quickly as possible was based on the general directive – official or intuited by good bureaucrats – to show “progress.”
This kind of pressure snowballs. It gets heavier as it rolls down the hill. The demand to complete a mission checklist at the Tactical Operations Center (TOC) in Khoust on April 22, 2004 was driven not by any tactical necessity. In fact, as was true when I participated in the occupation of Haiti in 1994, there was no coherent strategy being pursued at all… except to stay. Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Kauzlarich, the Cross Commander in this heterodox set-up, was radiating that sense of urgency to complete a mission checklist to his subordinates, beginning with his operations officer (S-3), going through Captain Saunders, the A Company Commander, and from him to A Company Executive Officer, Captain Dennis.
Captain Dennis was the principle person in communication with Blacksheep Platoon Leader First Lieutenant David Uthlaut that fateful day.
As we progress through this narrative, it is important to point out in advance that the main points have been corroborated in sworn statements. There are contradictions between key aspects of some of those statements and those made during interviews with the initial investigator, Captain Scott. But the initial investigation was declared “preliminary,” then “absorbed” into the second investigation. This was a clear and criminal violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. The investigation was convened as an Article 15-6 investigation. The declaration that it was preliminary is a feint to throw outsiders off the fact that a formal investigation conducted under the UCMJ was shredded (literally or figuratively). That declaration after the investigation was completed cannot change this. The Pentagon has taken an entire investigation that resulted in recommendations for criminal charges and concealed it. This is obstruction of justice, evidence tampering, and conspiracy. Anyone with half a brain knows, too, that the probability is very high that culpability rises to the top.
An Article 15-6 investigation would not have been ordered at all had there not already been a very high index of suspicion that Pat Tillman’s death was by fratricide.
According to remarks made by Captain Richard Scott, the original Article 15-6 investigating officer, to the third investigating officer, General Gary Jones, there was serious negligence and several violations of the Rules Of Engagement. Witness statements had been changed, said Scott. In discussing these violations Scott specifically referenced the vehicle that fired on Pat Tillman and the other friendlies.
It is reasonable then to assume (after reviewing all available documents) that Scott’s now disappeared investigation would have:
(1) threatened to level charges of negligent homicide and Geneva violations at members of Staff Sergeant Greg Baker’s vehicle (the vehicle that killed an allied Afghan militiaman and Specialist Patrick Tillman);
(2) concluded that the mission itself was driven by a “false sense of urgency” to arrive in Manah on an arbitrary deadline with no tactical advantage – an urgency that fatally abbreviated the field planning procedures for the platoon (called Troop Leading Procedures, or TLP);
(3) flown in the face of the administration’s desperate need to block any more bad news from Central Command reaching the American public;
(4) negated the damage control effort taken within all these diverse agendas that resulted in the award of a fraudulently deceptive award of the Silver Star;
The Scott report was doomed.
So FTW’s report has to read between a few lines.
We have to infer from a list of evocative statements that escaped the weary redactor’s pen how exactly the changes were made between the investigation conducted by Captain Scott and Lieutenant Colonel Kauzlarich (in which he, by then, was essentially investigating himself).
Key among those contradictions are:
(1) the order to split the units in order to get “boots on the ground” in Manah;
(2) the character and intensity of the so-called ambush;
(3) the light conditions when Tillman and his Afghan colleague (we have been un able to learn his name – another example of how this society regards the lives of non-Americans), and;
(4) the distance from SSG Baker’s vehicle and Pat Tillman’s position, when he and his colleague were killed.
SEARCH AND DESTROY
When Vietnam ground down into a directionless “body-count” war, the name of missions where soldiers simply roved from place to place looking for enemies to kill or civilians to detain was “search and destroy.” When this appellation acquired a bad reputation, the term was changed to “reconnaissance in force,” and so the name-changing game goes in the military. In 2004, this mindless mapping exercise was referred to as “Clearance in Zone” (CZ). The tendency to further abstract the names of these operations assists the public in its dissociation of warfare from any form of human pain.
The Black Sheep were conducting CZ ops in Paktia Province, southwest of Khoust and around eight kilometers from the Pakistani border, on April 20, 2004, when the wear and tear of the operational tempo and the brutally rugged terrain deadlined one of their Hummers (the up-armored versions now called M-1114s). This was the beginning of a delay.
At the Tactical Operations Center (TOC) in Khoust, this was part of a moving picture. There were multiple units in the field, and the TOC was both directing and tracking all of them. Any commander who is facing pressure from on high to “show progress,” as LTC Kauzlarich was as Cross Commander, is alerted when the term delay is used. He (combat arms is still an exclusively male domain in the military) begins to focus his attention on it. Everyone all along the chain of command was feeling this pressure.
Conjectural muttering somewhere in Alexandria, VA:
We can’t work with this pressure. I wish I could take those dip shits who took the pictures in that prison and put my thumbs on their throats. Can’t someone get some control over the media on this? Start pushing a victory message. Fallujah and Najaf are decisive battles in the struggle for Iraqi democracy or something like that… What’s going on in Afghanistan? Hit our think tanks up. Tell them to push on the theme that Afghanistan is showing us the way for Iraq… and tell Abazaid to tell those commanders we better see something that looks like progress… I don’t give a fuck what… I want lists of successes… I want something we can list out as bullet-points on briefings… and you tell him the bullet points on someone’s evaluation will be on the line…
By April 15th, the leading stories on the GWOT were: “About 880 Iraqis and 87 U.S. soldiers have been killed this month. Among the Iraqi dead are more than 600 people — mostly civilians – in Fallujah, according to the city hospital's director” (AP), “An Italian hostage has been killed by Iraqi insurgents who are threatening to kill three others, the Italian Government has confirmed” (ITV), “The insurrection in Shia areas of Iraq was not a sudden explosion, nor was it primarily inspired by the events in Falluja. It was, instead, the result of a long series of actions and reactions between the Coalition's armed forces and increasingly organized and anti-American Shia militias. The most important single event was the immensely important, but barely reported, announcement by Coalition Provisional Authority head L. Paul Bremer, that the United States had ‘found a legal basis for American troops to continue their military control over the security situation in Iraq’ even if the Iraqis ask the U.S. to leave after June 30” (Michael Schwartz), “The United States this year will have to approve a ‘massive’ new spending bill of an estimated $70 billion to meet its obligations in Iraq, a prominent U.S. military analyst said on Wednesday” (Reuters), “Four U.S. Marines were killed in the past 48 hours in Iraq, the military said, as President George W. Bush weighed sending more troops to quell an uprising that has prompted some nations to pull out civilians working there” (Bloomberg), “A United States helicopter went down yesterday west of Baghdad for the second time in three days, while heavy tank fire punctured a fragile ceasefire maintained by US marines and insurgents in the city of Fallujah” (SAPA-AFP), and “US forces tightened their grip around one of Iraq's holiest cities on Wednesday and Shia cleric Moqtada al Sadr they have vowed to kill or capture, offered unconditional talks to spare Najaf a bloodbath. Al Sadr had dropped previous conditions for talks with US authorities, his spokesman said. US troops said they had not seen any sign of Sadr's forces backing down” (Daily Times, Pakistan).
By the time the Black Sheep’s Hummer broke down on April 20th, the top war stories were: “Although the U.S. military says there are no serious shortages, the perilous state of Iraq's roads adds to a sense of chaos created by three weeks of Iraqi resistance that has left at least 99 U.S. service members dead, dozens of foreign civilian workers taken hostage and two allies, Spain and Honduras, announcing they will pull their troops out of the country” (LA Times), “Mr. Negroponte [about to be appointed Ambassador to Iraq], 64, has a reputation as a hardened diplomat who attracted considerable controversy as the US ambassador to Honduras in the early Eighties when he was instrumental in assisting the Contras overthrow a leftist regime in Nicaragua. He has always denied allegations that he turned a blind eye to human rights violations, including death squads, in the region in that period” (Independent).
The political pressure to find and publish good news about the GWOT was as intense as the Southwest Asian sun. Kauzlarich had that intensity blazing onto the back of his neck when the report came that the Black Sheep had a broken vehicle. He surely looked at the map, noting that in straight-line distance 2nd Platoon was only a few kilometers from their next objective on his mission checklist… his progress checklist: Manah, a small town in a bowl-like valley. Second Platoon now became a unit to watch, so he probably mentioned it to his S-3, the Operations Officer. Watch them. Make sure they hit their mission times. The S-3 then calls the A Company Commander, Captain Saunders. The old man wants to be reassured that that platoon doesn’t miss its time-on-target. The Company Commander then talks with his Executive Officer (XO) – the make it happen guy. You make sure whatever happens there are boots on the ground in Manah before the sun rises on the 22nd. Yes sir.
First Lieutenant David Uthlaut gets a radio call with a gentle reminder. Don’t miss any TOTs. Uthlaut tells the XO, the mechanic looked at this vehicle and says we need a fuel pump. (This is conjectural.)
At 3 AM (Local), April 22, 2004, a resupply helicopter, with Captains Saunders (the A CO Commander) and Dennis (the A CO XO) on board, dropped off a new fuel pump. They are there to tell Uthlaut personally, the old man (Kauzlarich) is adamant – no more goddamn delays. When the dawn breaks (4:12 AM, Local), the mechanic begins installing the new fuel pump. Based on his belief that the vehicle will be fixed, 1LT Uthlaut began tweaking his planning and preparation for the mission to Manah.
The platoon-plus was 35 Rangers, four allied Afghan Militia Forces, and an interpreter. They had eleven vehicles: four gun-mounted Hummers, two cargo Hummers, one command Hummer, and four Afghan Militia vehicles. (There is a contradiction in the reports on the vehicle numbers. This number was taken from the investigation diagram given in a Powerpoint presentation at 75th Ranger Regimental Headquarters. Section IV of the second investigation (overseen by LTC Kauzlarich) states that there were only nine vehicles.)
The mechanic approached Uthlaut with bad news. The fuel pump had not repaired the vehicle, which now appeared to have very serious suspension problems. It was only 6 AM and there still was plenty of time to do something with this vehicle and make to Manah (Zone 26A, on the Objective checklist) today.
The deadlined Hummer was attached to another Hummer with canvas tow straps, and the platoon moved out. At this point, the platoon was generally organized according to its “organic” squads. There were attachments from the Weapons Platoon – two snipers, an AT-4 anti-armor crew, an 81 mm mortar crew, and a 60mm mortar crew.
At 8:44 AM, Local, 1LT Uthlaut called the TOC to request a wrecker for the deadlined Hummer. The tow strap method was failing because one side of the downed vehicle had the wheel wells rubbing the tires. The steering box was broken, too. The vehicle had a .50 caliber machine gun with a shielded swivel mount bolted into the frame of the vehicle, so abandoning the vehicle was not an option they then considered. No one wanted to leave anything that they might end up seeing the wrong side of later.
The wrecker request was refused. The platoon limped to a nearby town named Magara with their albatross Hummer.
From around 10:15 AM until 11:30 AM, while the sun got higher and the platoon simmered in static perimeter security positions on the dusty streets, Uthlaut and his Platoon Sergeant, Sergeant First Class Godek, discussed various courses of action while they waited for word from the TOC on their wrecker. Battalion Command Sergeant Major Birch, who had come along to observe the mission, probably participated in those conversations, too.
The troops were, by then, tired, bored, and getting testy. Sitting in one place too long gives troops a chance to think; but the thinking that happens is a muddle of homesickness they can’t display, fantasizing about some kind of action to break up the boredom, and growing hostility toward a chain of command that has quit telling them what the hell is going on. This frame of mind among young Rangers is a very dangerous thing. A desire to strike out at something grows like the yolk in a materializing egg at the center of their frustration.
By then, LTC Kauzlarich had probably become increasingly and uncomfortably aware that he might be forced to report a late time-on-target to his equally urgent bosses at HQ, Task Force Red (Bagram), and HQ, Task Force Omaha (Special Operations Command Central, or SOCCENT), Colonel Jesse Johnson.
At around 11:30 (11:27 Local according to the record), 1LT Uthlaut requested a CH-47 cargo helicopter extraction for the disabled vehicle. The platoon continued to sit idle – on pro forma security – in Magara for almost four more hours, before Central Joint Task Force-180 (CJTF-180) called back to deny the request for a helicopter to sling-load the broken Hummer. No CH-47s would be available for at least three days.
CSM Birch went quietly up to the Platoon Leader and suggested that they had been in this town a very long time… it might be time to figure out how to leave. The Afghan mountain grapevine would surely be carrying the news to unfriendly forces that there was a light American infantry unit stalled around a broken vehicle in Magara.
Now the TOC in Khoust, in particular Cross Commander Kauzlarich, became temperamental about the likelihood that the Black Sheep would miss their OBJ time. When Uthlaut answered his next radio call, it was irate:
“… we had better not have any more delays due to this vehicle.”
This ominous message was delivered (as best we can tell from inferring between redactions) from Captain Saunders, and other documents explicitly state that this “concern” trickled down from Kauzlarich, through his S-3, and to the A Company Commander.
This is a pivotal moment in a dark fate that day, and a pivotal point in our analysis of how Pat Tillman died. For those reasons, I want to reiterate for emphasis: While there was nothing tactically critical about arriving in Manah on any deadline – after all, this was a mission with only broad objectives – the urgency to “show progress” from the top had created an urgency to send in completed Objective checklists from Tactical Operations Centers, and that “false sense of urgency” (the words of the third investigator, Brigadier General Gary Jones) was passed from the TOC to 1LT Uthlaut, who was now being compelled to arrive outside Manah that very day. This rush, and the directed course of action from the TOC, under the command of LTC Kauzlarich, led in a direct and demonstrable way to the loss of command and control (for which Uthlaut would be reprimanded) that resulted in the death of two men.
The directive to Uthlaut was (this was the actual message):
“1) let me know when you SP [take off] with the Jinga and broken vehicle; 2) send one section along with both mortars vehicles back to the link-up point. Both mortar vehicles, the 81 tubes, the mortar personnel along with the Snipers need to come back to Khoust, so send them with the broken vehicle. Keep the 60 mortar section with you; 3) send one section into your next objective area to start clearing. The escort section will meet you in the zone after they drop off the broken vehicle.”
Uthlaut protested vehemently.
SPLITTING UP – THE FATAL MISTAKE
Splitting his unit would compromise his ability to maintain command, communications, and control (exactly what would happen). His XO, Captain Dennis, had this argument with Uthlaut on the radio. Uthlaut, as the junior officer, lost this argument even after citing that this violated their Standing Operating Procedures – to clear villages in the daylight and to travel at night. The directive was the opposite. They would travel in daylight and arrive in Manah by nightfall – or else – and they would conduct the CZ in hours of darkness.
It was already 4:15 PM by then. To comply with his directive, he would have to initiate movement as soon as possible, and they still had the broken vehicle. They had hired a local jinga truck driver to tow the broken vehicle with his old, converted Penske truck.
Uthlaut gave an extremely abbreviated order.
From the summary of the third investigation:
1LT Uthlaut, understanding but not agreeing with his orders, commenced hasty TLPs [troop leading procedures] in preparation for the movement. In essence, the Platoon would move in two Serials – Serial 1 would consist of 16 Rangers and four AMF Soldiers moving in six vehicles (one GMV, one M-1114 armored-up vehicle, and four NSVTs) and Serial 2 would consist of 19 Rangers and two local nationals moving in five vehicles (two GMVs, two M1097A2 cargo vehicles, and the jinga truck towing the NMC GMV). The two Serials would conduct movement on two separate routes – Serial 1 on a northwestern route (Margarah to Manah) [spellings vary] and Serial 2 on a northern route (Margarah to Tit to Afzal Kheyl to Ragay).
Uthlaut now had multiple intermediate missions to organize within minutes. He had to get the Albatross Hummer to the road for pick-up by a recovery vehicle. He had to get a number of personnel to the same pick-up point so they could be returned to Khoust. He had to figure out when and where his second “Serial” would link up with his first. He had to ensure that each Serial had the right mix of weapons systems to most effectively defend itself in the event of attack. He had to establish a vehicle drop-off point (VDO) which would double as an objective rally point (ORP – the last covered position prior to entering an objective). And he had to conduct the CZ at Manah.
This forced him to “task organize.”
What this means is the “organic” structure of the platoon, its normal organization into squads, and squads into teams, would be broken up in order to meet the exigencies of a special circumstance. This is not unusual. For example, if a platoon were given an ambush mission, it would likely task organize into security, support, assault, and command elements that would mix and match weapons and lines of command and communication. But when task organization is conducted for an ambush, or a raid, or a reconnaissance, it is usually followed by a planning sequence wherein two-thirds of the time allocated for preparation is set aside for detailed orders and-or extensive “brief-backs” and rehearsals. This gives everyone in the unit an opportunity to work out the kinks and misunderstandings that inevitably occur when people are assigned to different bosses arranged in different structures.
David Uthlaut was directed to do this in mere minutes. So there was an unfamiliar and unrehearsed task organization; there was an operation directed outside a standing operating procedure (SOP) – movement during daylight; and there was the splitting of elements. All these operational anomalies were the direct result of a “false sense of urgency” created by pressure to arrive in Manah by an artificial and tactically non-critical deadline and politically-motivated pressure from the National Command Authority to “show progress” in order to ameliorate the bad publicity associated with the war in Iraq… a war Past Tillman himself had ironically declared to his associates was “so fucking illegal.”
The hasty plan was for Serial 2 to take the first major bifurcation in the road to Manah to the right, instead of the left, in order to catch the main road for the recovery vehicle. Serial 1 would go left, directly through a canyon. None of them had been in this zone before, and their references were 1/50,000 UTM (Universal Transverse Mercator) topographical maps with some very old road data. The region was so mountainous that the 20-meter contour intervals on those maps were often so close together they looked like broad brown stripes drifting through a hallucinogenic Mandlbrot design of brown lines representing the elevation and relief of the terrain of Paktia Province. Even experienced map readers have to pay close attention to these maps. They are very accurate in some respects, but they communicate in three dimensions and require study and the application of an active spatial-conversion intuition.
To actually navigate with these maps requires frequent map checks that associate the graphics with actual terrain, then the translation of this information into some linear set of actions, e.g., head down this road until you see three high peaks to the left-front and a plateau on the right. Then look for the road on the left 300 meters along. This is often a kind of halting, trial-and-error, recalibrating process.
That is what happened when Serial 1 missed their left turn coming out of the canyon to Manah. No doubt, edgy from the directive to travel in broad daylight after having spent hours in a nearby town here in a Taliban stronghold, they breathed a sigh of relief at exiting the canyon and gave the vehicles a little more gas. Then a map check alerted David Uthlaut that they may have missed their turn, and that they were practically on top of their most likely VDO/ORP. He slowed the convoy down while he consulted his map.
There were five adobe-like residences near the missed junction. A handful of older men and children were outside. There were presumably women there, inside the adobe huts.
Uthlaut was growing concerned by then. He was not able to establish communication with Serial 1 via the normal FM channels. The mountainous terrain was interrupting the signal.
Meanwhile, Serial 2 had departed Magara minutes after Serial 1. It is important to note that the distance from Magara to Manah is – as the crow flies – around 2 miles. Our spatial understanding of two miles in the industrialized metropoles of the world is not the same as the reality of 2 miles in a place like the Spera District of Paktia Province in Afghanistan. Relatively short map distances in terrain this rough, especially when people are obliged to baby motor vehicles over the axle-smashing stones and potholes of the primitive un-maintained roads, are not measured in distance, but in time.
It is quite likely that the two Serials themselves were never more than 800 meters apart. Some members of Serial 2, prior to reversing course at the behest of the jinga driver, could see the tail end of Serial 1 disappear into the canyon.
A simple Physical Combat Proficiency Test in the Army involves a two-mile run. When I was 43 years old, I covered that distance in less than13 minutes. In 13 minutes, a motorized convoy on the back roads of Spera, with a jinga towing a broken Hummer, might cover 500 meters… probably less.
By the time Serial 2 was forced to turn about on the road to Khatin Khel, Serial 1 was almost exiting the fated canyon. As the convoy began up the steep right fork toward Afdzalkhel, the jinga truck driver became agitated and told the Ranger in his truck trough the interpreter (also on board) to have the convoy stop. The Ranger called ahead and stopped the convoy, and after a few minutes, using an interpreter, CSM Birch and SFG Godek learned that the road was too rough for the old Penske truck to use as it dragged the Albatross behind it. They consulted with the driver, and he said the only way he could go was through the same canyon taken by Serial 1.
Godek was concerned that there was no FM communications with Uthlaut as well. Communications between elements is one of the things platoon leaders and platoon sergeants get paid to worry about.
Since the jinga truck with the Albatross in tow was the slowest of the vehicles, it was placed at the front of the queue.
The platoon had been in Magara for hours, and the word of the Americans’ presence as well as their destination – Manah – had traveled over the mountain grapevine. A handful of local guerrillas – my estimate is around three – with a Kalashnikov rifles and a Soviet-made rocket-propelled grenade launcher (RPG) with a few rounds decided to conduct a hasty harassment ambush of the convoy.
One of the Rangers would later report in his statements that a resident of Magara seemed to try to warn them about something while they languished there for almost six hours, but that the planning pressure and glitches had left Godek impatient – remarking that they couldn’t respond to every approach by a strange “indij” or they’d never get anywhere.
This is a very typical operation for guerrillas encountering a target of opportunity. Catch the enemy in a place where they have little freedom to maneuver and you have superior mobility; let off a few rounds at them from well-covered positions; then leave before they’ve had the opportunity to call in air strikes or reinforcements.
This small team of Afghan guerrillas waited in the vicinity of the Khatin Khel junction to see which way the Americans would go. They realized that the element was split when one group left Magara without the other; and they decided to attack the convoy that was debilitated by the towed vehicle. They probably realized when the second convoy stopped at the junction that the jinga with the Albatross would be obliged to travel through the canyon.
This last minute change was not briefed to every member of the convoy, again out of time pressure, even though a cardinal rule in the Rangers is to inform every member of every element of every change. One reason for this rule is that troops who don’t know what they are doing cannot carry on a mission if their leaders are incapacitated and – just as importantly – it is very bad for morale. No doubt, this change was met with a grumbling chorus through the ranks of “What the fuck now?”
On foot, atop the ridges along either side of the canyon, two guerrillas on the northern ridgeline and one on the southern (with the RPG), moving effortlessly along familiar footpaths, they paralleled the movement of Serial 2. Within minutes, the convoy encountered the tightest chokepoint in the canyon – one later described by a member of Serial 2: “About 300 meters into the draw, the terrain became… severely restricted with only inches on either side of the vehicle.”
The guerrilla on the southern ridgeline pointed his RPG into the canyon and fired one of the high-explosive rounds. (I infer this because the first explosive impact was against the wall of the northern ridgeline.) And RPG is a short-range anti-vehicle weapon with a maximum effective range of around 200 meters and a flight range (on flat ground) of around 700 meters. This means that one can fire it as far as 700 meters, but the consistency and accuracy of the round after 200 meters is rapidly degraded.
The guerrillas were over the crest of the ridges, more than 500 meters away, so they could pop away at the American convoy with little danger to themselves. A couple of steps back and they could put an entire mountain between themselves and the direct fire of the Americans. By the same token, they were not themselves within range to conduct anything more respectable as an ambush than plain harassment.
The RPG round – which is a shape-charge designed to penetrate light armor on vehicles and send a lethal over-pressured fireball into the interior of the target – crashed into the side of the canyon above the jinga truck, and sent a small avalanche of rocks raining down around the front of the convoy.
The story that this was a mortar is part of the construction of a “well-armed guerrilla contingent” that didn’t exist. Mortars are indirect fire weapons. They fire into the air and arc into a target from above. They cannot be fired from high ground into a canyon where they smack into the side of the canyon wall.
There is a popping sound from an RPG when it launches, and other than that there is no real “signature” until the round impacts and explodes – which it does with jolting force. The diesel engines were growling away inside the amplifying canyon and no one heard the launch that was 500 meters away and well above them. The first impression was that the jinga has encountered an improvised explosive device (IED), the term now used to describe a mechanical ambush.
So the Serial did what they were trained to do in the event of an IED. They dismounted and established “360” security… as best they could given that the canyon effectively placed them inside a tube.
Serial 1 – where Pat Tillman was – heard the explosion, too. They stopped and tried again to establish communications. Pat had to have thought about his brother, Kevin, who was with Serial 2. Pat probably became more than a little agitated to figure out what was happening and to do something, anything, about it.
Serial 2 members had to shout out a warning at the jinga driver and one of their own vehicles. Rocks were falling near them. SFC Godek was moving up toward the front to see what had happened, when one of the guerrillas on the northern ridge pushed his selector switch on his Kalashnikov to auto and sprayed a burst into the canyon. This was from double the maximum effective range of the Russian assault rifle; so these rounds hit nothing but rock and dirt, but made snapping sounds and ricochet whines inside the canyon, alerting Serial 2 that they were actually inside an ambush.
Two more RPG rounds were fired, again causing a rain of rocks but no damage or casualties.
An ambush is defined as “a surprise attack from a concealed position on a moving or temporarily halted target.” While this met the definition of an ambush, it is important to reiterate that there are huge differences between the efficacies of ambushes, and along that continuum, this was near the ineffective end – unless the fratricide as a result is counted as part of it. Not a single person or vehicle – in was ever hit or damaged from the fires off the ridgelines.
This report will note more than once how subsequent accounts of the firefight on April 22nd will overstate the intensity of this so-called battle. This was necessary, first, to create the pretext for the award of a Silver Star to Pat Tillman (again, this is not to say that Pat’s actions were anything but courageous) as part of a larger Pentagon docudrama script to stand in for the reality of the incident, and second, to portray the conditions of the firefight as sufficiently confusing to excuse violations of the ROE, violations of Geneva, and the initial recommendation to prosecute for negligent homicide.
When Serial 2 realized they were being fired upon, and someone claimed they saw muzzle flashes from the northern ridgeline, these frustrated, irritable Rangers, in the Ranger culture that teaches young men to crave combat almost as a rite of passage, found a real live target for both their ambitions and their frustration. They released an ungodly volume of fire at the top of the northern ridge that passed harmlessly over the heads of the guerrillas who had merely to step back a few feet to be entirely masked. The volume of fire launched skyward by the Rangers was so intense that people ran out of their basic loads and had to fetch more ammunition from their vehicles. The din of this gunfire from inside the canyon actually rendered several members (temporarily) almost deaf.
During this so-called firefight, the sound of which had put Serial 1 into motion toward the small village and the canyon to render assistance – suspecting rightly that Serial 2 was in contact – there was actually an argument. The jinga driver had dismounted when they thought it was an IED, and now the jinga blocked the whole convoy that wasn’t particularly keen to stay in the canyon while insurgents plinked at them over the lip of the mountain. When the jinga driver didn’t get the truck moving fast enough, one frustrated Ranger smashed his windshield. The jinga truck driver protested and a shouting match began in two languages that an NCO had to break up.
Does this wound like a withering ambush?
General Gary Jones questioning SSG Jackson (Pat’s organic squad leader, who was with Serial 2):
Q; How did the ambush commence?
A: The ambush commenced with mortar rounds [sic] and small arms fire.
Q: What types of fires were you receiving?
A: The fires were ineffective. They weren’t very accurate.
From the time of the first RPG exploding until Pat Tillman was killed and the shooting stopped was 14 minutes. As a thought experiment, I’ll ask readers to look at their watches now and sit still quietly for 14 minutes. Imagine now that you are in a firefight for that entire time and not a single person or vehicle, canalized inside a canyon, is even hit. If there was a fog of war in Spera District that day, it was not the fog of intense conflict but the fog of frustrated aggression on the part of the Rangers, at the end of a long day, and looking forward to an equally long night.
One Ranger, in his sworn statement, when asked why he fired with such intensity at the position where Pat Tillman was, said, “I wanted to be in a firefight.” The merit badge of the infantry.
The jinga pulled forward enough to push over to the right side of the road and permit one of the Serial 2 vehicles to get past. SSG Baker, the supervisor aboard this vehicle, told his driver SGT Sayer “to punch it.” Baker dismounted behind the jinga, ran forward and ordered the jinga driver and the interpreter aboard, then rode their truck while they moved forward. The Rangers were still blasting away at the ridgeline. Then the enemy RPG gunner from the southern ridgeline engaged with a couple of bursts into the canyon, provoking an even more intense response from the Rangers. SSG Baker notes that he ran out of ammunition here and dismounted the jinga to return to his vehicle that trailed directly behind it.
Baker was now wound up. Being in the front, he felt it was his responsibility to get the Serial “broken out” of the canyon. The Rangers were feeding off one another’s fires, plugging into the rush of all that noise, that luminous element of danger. Their aggression now had an outlet. Baker had his M-203 grenadier start firing 40mm grenades over the ridges, and he even ordered one shot (which made absolutely no tactical sense) from the formidable AT-4 shoulder-fired anti-tank rocket launcher… which certainly launched straight over the heads of the guerrillas to land at random in the far valley, or splash harmlessly against the visible wall of the ridge.
The Rangers’ 60mm mortar fired two rounds, one landing near a Serial 1 position.
The jinga driver found a wider spot and pulled to the right to stop. Baker whipped around him with his Hummer. Aboard Baker’s vehicle were Steven Ashpool, wielding the cumbersome M-2 .50 caliber machinegun; Steven Elliot, with the portable M-240 machinegun; Trevor Alders, with the squad automatic weapon (SAW – another machinegun ,firing the same caliber round as an M-4 or M-16); and the driver SGT Sayer.
Baker’s Hummer was approaching the mouth of the canyon.
Steven Elliot, being questioned by General Gary Jones:
Q: What were the light conditions like?
A: The light was not ideal. I could clearly see once we left the canyon area. In the canyon, the light conditions were poor. The whole time I could only make out shapes and shadows. (emphasis added)
Q: Was this your first firefight?
Q: Why did you fire at shapes on the western ridgeline?
A: I was excited… [not afraid… excited -SG]
Q: At this point in time, were you taking enemy fires?
A: Our GMV [vehicle] never took any rounds. We weren’t taking immediate fires. (emphasis added)
The aggression that was finding its catharsis with Serial 2 was mirrored by real anxiety on the part of Serial 1. 1LT Uthlaut did not know what was going on; he could only hear the terrible volume of fire, not knowing that 99% of it was from Rangers. He could see trackers streaking up out of the canyon. SSG Weeks could probably not have restrained Pat if he’d wanted to. Pat’s brother was in there. Uthlaut ordered Jade Lane, his radio-telephone operator (RTO) to try satellite communications to overcome the commo void created by the mountains for FM. He told Weeks to move out and provide cover to extract Serial 1 if that’s who was in there.
Weeks took Pat, one Afghan militiaman, Brian O’Neal (a new Ranger), and two other Rangers (we do not have their names) with him, and began mounting a small spur west of the road. This spur led up the side of the ridgeline along the right side of Serial 2.
By this was when the jinga truck had advanced far enough to allow room for SSG Baker’s vehicle to pass it. Baker did not know that around the next bend was the mouth of the canyon, nor did he realize – because no communications had been possible over the tactical FM radio sets, exactly as 1LT Uthlaut had feared – that Serial 1 had passed their turn and were just ahead of them.
The two enemy militiamen on the north slope and the one with the RPG and Kalashnikov on the southern slope had been advancing to within view of the lead end of the channelized convoy, firing into the canyon, then retreating behind the crest of the ridge and advancing parallel to Serial 2. Baker had his vehicle’s weapons spraying both ridgelines to suppress enemy fires.
The Afghan enemy combatant on the south side of the ridge flashed into view of the AMF with Pat Tillman and Weeks’ element, just as the two enemy combatants chasing the north ride came within sight of Weeks. The entire element hit the dirt as the north-ridge combatants snapped a few rounds at them then fled. The AMF pointed to the far ridge where he had caught a glimpse of the south-ridge RPG gunner. Pat asked Weeks if he could advance across the road with O’Neal and the AMF to close with whatever enemy element was on the south-ridge. Pat wanted to drop his heavy body armor in order to move with greater speed and agility. Weeks denied the request to drop armor, but granted the request to cross the road.
There was an explosion up the spur from their position, which would later be called an enemy mortar. In fact, in all likelihood, it was a 60mm Ranger mortar, one of the 40mm grenades, or the AT-4 round. The bends in the road at one point caused Serial 2’s suppressive fires to arc directly over Serial 1.
Pat Tillman, Brian O’Neal, and the AMF scrambled down the spur to a cluster of boulders, when the AMF took cover and began firing at the point along the southern ridge where he had caught his glimpse of the RPG gunner. Pat oriented on the direction of his fires and began firing himself.
The enemy combatants, three to four of them, recognized that they were losing their terrain advantage and running headlong into a superior force with space to maneuver, and they broke contact.
The firefight was over, but none of the Rangers could know that.
Baker’s vehicle, which had been firing up at the lateral ridgelines, saw the canyon open up, and a small village came into view. They were pumped up from firing, and the .50 cal gunner swung forward and began hosing down the village, which was where Uthlaut and his element were. The whole vehicle opened up as the Hummer advanced.
Uthlaut and Lane were both wounded, and it took them a few moments to realize that they were looking at a Serial 2 vehicle that was firing at them.
In the same instant that Baker’s vehicle opened up on the village, they came within a few meters of a six-foot rock retaining wall on their right, and over the top of the wall Baker spotted muzzle flashes. They were those of the AMF and Pat Tillman, and they were very, very near… around 60 meters away. (The changed statements for the second investigation would vary from claiming 100-200 meters.)
“Contact at three o’clock!” Baker screamed, and the entire vehicle swung its blazing automatic weapons, with the wavering heat mirage drifting off the overheated barrels, to the right. The vehicle rolled to a stop for an instant.
Weeks’ element and Pat’s element dropped in deep behind the cover of the rocks as this immense volume of fire chewed up the ground around them, with its lethal stacatto of supersonic cracks and the sparks of shattering rock and the burning balls of grounded tracer ammunition.
Pat, Weeks, and O’Neal were screaming, “Cease fire! Friendlies!” at the top of their lungs. The AMF lay in a pool of blood, cut down in the hail of fire. Pat took a white-smoke grenade off of his load-carrying equipment and pulled the pin, tossing it in front of their position in the hope that it would signal to Baker’s vehicle that they were making a terrible mistake.
The firing into Pat’s position had been going on for mere seconds by then.
There is a space of time between the instant one commits to action and time required to assess the results of an action… especially in dynamic situations. In an action such as firing a weapon in combat, even one that was – until Serial 2’s vehicle opened upon its own troops – comparatively minor, that exercise of intent becomes a process in motion, and the period of time between observing a change in the situation and realizing the significance of what one observes is not unlike the lag in time between looking up from ones dashboard to the road ahead and realizing that a deer is crossing your path… and the actual application of one’s brakes.
In combat situations, especially those where one is dominating, there is what might be termed an intention-action cycle, a kind of skip in the record, where one does the same thing over and over with a minimal cue. It is comparable to a boxer whose opponent is on the ropes, and the dominant pugilist then rains blows on his weakened opponent… no longer in what is called the OODA decision-cycle: observe, orient, decide, act… observe, orient, etc. In earlier stages, he threw a combination, then observed the result, re-oriented, decided on a next move, then took action. With the opponent weakened and on the ropes, the dominant fighter drops into an intention-action cycle of punch, punch, punch, punch, punch… with nothing except a series of targets on the opponent’s body as the cue.
This was the psychology of Baker’s vehicle when they exited the canyon at dusk on April 22, 2004. They were simply firing at multiple points that stood out on the terrain. This is sometimes called “tunnel-vision,” and it is very common. It is a state of ultra-aggression, hat if given free reign, over-rides one’s critical faculties. Leaders who allow their troops to “go there,” are setting up a situation where processes that depend on judgment – like observation of the rules of the Geneva Conventions that prohibit firing into villages from where there is no observable threat, like rules of engagement (ROE) that require positive identification (PID) of a person as friend or foe before firing at them – are mooted.
This is why a standing operating procedure (SOP) that states subordinates are supposed to orient their fires on those of the leader is potentially at odds with ROE and Geneva. The Rangers in Baker’s vehicle were following the SOP at odds with the ROE and Geneva. They were in a psycho-physiological intention-action cycle, at the end of a long, frustrating day.
When Baker’s view of the rocks where they were firing was obscured by white smoke, he had his vehicle pull forward to regain view of the rocks. This move took almost four seconds by the best accounts.
Someone was yelling “friendlies” from within the vehicle, but the sound was amid a cacophony of yelling which did nor indicate where the friendlies were, and sounded far away as if in a distant hollow room, because the whole crew was partially deafened by the resonating gunfire that had assaulted their tympanic membranes inside the canyon. This sound was something that was still outside the intention-action cycle of shoot, shoot, shoot, shoot.
In that space of that four second lull in fire, Pat Tillman and O’Neal, deeply relieved that the smoke had alerted Baker’s vehicle to their presence, had stood and waved their arms over their heads to confirm their position.
Later statements would make contradictory claims about who saw what, when… about what was and was not recognizable… about light conditions and distances. Those statements were not the original statements, which were lost with Captain Richard Scott’s report, and altered, by Scott’s own account in a subsequent interview with General Gary Jones. The statements that survived, the altered statements that were signed on May 12th, replaced those taken during the last week of April when Scott had collected his more vivid and accurate accounts – accounts that people did not then know would implicate members of the Forward Operating Base (FOB) chain of command in the “false sense of urgency,” and accounts that people did not then know would lead to recommendations for action commensurate with criminally negligent homicide. The surviving statements, wherein LTC Kauzlarich, FOB Cross Commander, illegally cancelled and disappeared the results of an Article 15-6 investigation and replaced it with one under his own direct supervision – even though he was himself directly implicated in “creating the false sense of urgency that led to the death of two men… these surviving statements altered the distances and changed the lighting conditions and made contradictory claims about who saw what, when, in very specific ways that would exonerate very specific people from charges of everything from poor leadership to negligent homicide.
The personnel aboard Baker’s Hummer saw Pat Tillman and Brian O’Neal at less than 40 meters away with their distinctive US battle-rattle silhouettes, with very adequate light at a few minutes after sunset, waving like they were doing jumping jacks. But their brains were not engaged for a critical evaluation. They were outside the ROE, outside Geneva, and outside the mind-set of positive identification (PID).
PUNCH, PUNCH, PUNCH
When the vehicle made that stop, four seconds ahead of their last stop, they were still programmed to punch, punch, punch, punch, punch. They were so into it that O’Neal would later testify that two of them actually dismounted the vehicle, further contributing to Tillman and O’Neal’s impression that they may have been recognized. But at the end of this move, as this two or three members of Baker’s vehicle actually dismounted and advanced a short distance toward Pat’s position, they leveled their weapons at the human forms and began punching rounds into them as fast as they could hit the trigger and realign the sights
There was a moment of disbelief on the part of Pat Tillman and Brian O’Neal. Then Pat saved Brian’s life. He pushed O’Neal back behind the rocks. But before he could himself take cover, he had been hit. The order of impact will never be known. In the hail of fire that was punctuated by tracers chattering through the lethal cone of high-velocity projectiles, stones were thrown at high enough speed to wound Pat in the wrist and leg. It is also know that SAW ammunition hit the body armor that covered his chest and abdomen. He managed, in his last moments, to shout, “I’m Pat fucking Tillman, damnit!” Then the impact of the rounds drove him down, where he said something to Brian O’Neal. O’Neal would say that by now there was pain in his voice. Then, with the passive motion of the body of this gifted athlete being shifted by the impact of high-powered ammunition, his head moved while three rounds of either M240 or SAW ammunition, or both, hit him in the head. His lifeless form dropped alongside O’Neal and the body of the AMF.
Time goes in one direction only. There are no take-backs.
NEXT: The Emergencies – The Pat Tillman story is far from over.
This function has been disabled.