Seventh-round NFL draft pick Pat Tillman wasted no time in setting records for tackles on the football field for the Arizona Cardinals. But in the Spring of 2002, after marrying his childhood sweetheart, Tillman walked away from his multi-million-dollar NFL salary and joined the Army with his brother.
Tillman’s departure from the NFL was widely publicized, as was his death on the battlefield of Afghanistan in 2004. The Pentagon, President George W. Bush, and what seemed like all of America, celebrated Tillman’s heroic death. However, Tillman’s death was not heroic by any means. He was shot and killed by his fellow U.S. soldiers. But once the deception about his story was propagandized, little could be done to undo how the military and the White House had capitalized on his death.
In 2006, The Guardian published a story, titled, “The footballer who became a war hero who became a scandal,” in which author Lawrence Donegan revealed the dastardly actions the government took to rewrite Tillman’s history. Donegan described how all was going well for the Bush Administration’s “War on Terror” when Tillman decided to enlist. He wrote:
“For the Bush administration, recently embarked on its ‘war on terror,’ Tillman’s story was an enormous PR boost. Professional athlete eschews fortune for patriotic duty—not even a White House well versed in spinning self-serving propaganda could have dreamed up such a perfect recruitment story. Tillman finished his basic training in time to be sent to Iraq as part of the US invasion force, before he was sent to Afghanistan in early 2004.”
But all that changed in 2004 when it was learned that the Pentagon’s poster boy had been shot and killed. Instead of telling the truth about Tillman’s death, the decision was made to spin a web of lies and deceit. The heartbreaking reality that he had been killed by his fellow platoon members was, evidently, too dangerous for national security—so much so that an invention of a superhero was birthed. The substitution of stories created a mythical hero out of Tillman on the level of G.I. Joe and was immediately used to further the recruiting efforts of what has now become America’s longest war. Donegan writes:
“The Pentagon immediately announced Tillman had died a heroic death while fighting the Taliban. George W Bush, whose own patriotism never stretched to completing his Texas National Guard duty, spoke of Tillman’s ‘ultimate sacrifice for the war on terror’ and offered to record a tribute to be broadcast during a live NFL game. The soldier was awarded a posthumous Silver Star. On April 30 an Army press release described how Tillman was killed while storming enemy positions.”
Nothing could be further from the truth. It would take a full 10 years before a guilt-ridden ex-soldier broke his silence about what he says happened the night Tillman was killed. Steven Elliott told NPR that he and his squad leader, Sgt. Greg Baker, were the ones who opened fire on Tillman’s position.
The platoon had divided into two groups that went in separate directions. After the first group was ambushed by Afghan fighters, the confusion on the battlefield led Elliott and Baker to open up machine gun fire on Tillman’s location and the former NFL football player was killed.
“I remember thinking for just a second or two, but what felt like longer—your perception of time in the midst of a firefight can be distorted—that if he’d fired, and without any other information to indicate a friendly position, that I should also fire,” Elliott said, noting that his squad leader fired first, and then he joined in.
He said he was instructed by his superiors not to discuss the friendly fire incident outside of his unit. The military knew it had a PR problem on its hands but Elliott said he was too naive to believe they would spin it into a web of deception.