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Sixteen years ago today former Arizona Cardinals safety Pat Tillman was shot and killed in Afghanistan in a friendly fire accident. What happened on the day of his death and the days and weeks that followed generated controversy and raised more questions than answers. In the years since, it was discovered that medical experts who examined Tillman’s body viewed his death as suspicious. Was Pat Tillman murdered?

Pat Tillman’s success on the football field

When the Arizona Cardinals drafted Pat Tillman out of Arizona State in the 7th round of the 1998 NFL draft, most fans didn’t even notice. Despite that lack of attention, there was no denying the 5-foot-11-inch Tillman had an impressive college resume. 

Tillman led the Sun Devils defensively in 1997 recording a team-high 93 tackles, registered four sacks, and hauled in three interceptions. For his efforts, he was named the Pac-10 defensive player of the year. In the classroom, Tillman majored in marketing and graduated in three and a half years with a 3.85 GPA.

Once he arrived in the NFL, some might have questioned his size, but no one ever questioned the size of his heart. And that’s what set Tillman apart. Tillman started 10 games his rookie season with the Cardinals and finished fifth on the team in tackles at 73. 

For three more seasons, Pat Tillman roamed the Arizona defensive backfield, his best season coming in 2000 when he finished second on the team with 155 tackles. Tillman registered 94 tackles in 2001, but numbers and football weren’t on the top of his mind. Serving his country was.

In May 2002, eight months after the September 11 attacks, Tillman turned down a three-year, $3.6-million offer from the Cardinals to enlist in the U.S. Army with his brother Kevin.

Military training, deployments, and Pat Tillman’s death 

For three months Pat and Kevin Tillman made their way through basic training, and late in 2002, both completed the Ranger Indoctrination Program. Pat was deployed to Iraq for the initial invasion of Operation Iraqi Freedom and returned to the states a few months later, where the two entered Ranger School. 

After graduation in November 2003, both deployed to Afghanistan. On April 22, 2004, Pat Tillman tragically died, according to the military, by enemy fire during an ambush on a road not far from the Pakistan border. In addition to Tillman, an Afghan allied soldier was killed, and two others in Tillman’s platoon were wounded in the incident. 

Tillman’s death stunned the sports world and a nation. His former teammate at Arizona State and with the Arizona Cardinals, quarterback Jake Plummer, summed up his friend at Tillman’s memorial service.

“I believe that to really honor Pat; we should all challenge ourselves. No more ‘I’m going to do this’ or ‘I’m going to do that.’ Do it. As Pat would say, probably, ‘Get off your ass and do it.’ Why, you ask, should we honor him this way? Because that’s what Pat did his whole life.”

The government coverup

Within days of the incident, top military officials knew Tillman had died as a result of friendly fire. They withheld that information from the public and Tillman’s family because it didn’t fit the narrative of football player-turned-Army warrior dies an American hero fighting off the enemy. 

Lieutenant General Stanley McChrystal approved the Silver Star citation on April 28, 2004, less than a week after his death with a detailed account, including the phrase “in the line of devastating enemy fire.” It never happened. When the nationally televised memorial service took place 11 days after Pat’s death, the truth remained untold. 

Five weeks after Tillman’s death, the Army finally admitted what had happened. The coverup could continue no longer. There was too much pressure. In March 2007, after the Pentagon released its report on the events surrounding Tillman’s death and coverup, his brother Kevin testified before congress and had some pointed words for the military.

“The deception surrounding this [Tillman] case was an insult to the family: but more importantly, its primary purpose was to deceive a whole nation. We say these things with disappointment and sadness for our country. Once again, we have been used as props in a Pentagon public relations exercise.”

Medical experts suggest Pat Tillman was shot at close range

Pat Tillman

Later in 2007, the Defense Department released 2,300 pages of testimony to the Associated Press with disturbing accounts from the doctors who examined Tillman’s body after his death and said, “the medical evidence did not match up with the scenario as described.”

The doctors indicated that the proximity of the three bullet holes in Tillman’s forehead were so close together it appeared he was shot by an M-16 fired from 10 yards or so away, not from more than 50 yards as indicated in the initial report. 

Among the other information revealed:

• There was never any evidence of enemy fire found on the scene, and no members of Tillman’s group had been hit by enemy fire.

• In his final words before he was killed, Tillman told his comrade also under fire to shut up and stop “sniveling.”

• Army attorneys sent congratulatory e-mails to each other for keeping criminal investigators at bay while the Army conducted an internal friendly-fire investigation that resulted in administrative, or non-criminal, punishments.

• The three-star general who withheld the truth about Tillman’s death from the public and Tillman’s family told investigators approximately 70 times his bad memory prevented him from recalling the details of his actions. He was later demoted.

Sadly, the truth about Pat Tillman’s death will likely never be known. Even the accounts of soldiers coming forward later suggesting they might have been the ones responsible for the shots that killed Tillman have limited credibility because of the military’s initial coverup. 

There is, however, one truth. In a day where athletes are often celebrated as heroes, Pat Tillman personified true American hero, giving up millions of dollars playing sports to serve, and pay the ultimate sacrifice for his country.

Pat Tillman was 27.