The National Football League portrayed former NFL player and Cpl. Pat Tillman as a hero who died while serving in Afghanistan, but many people took to social media afterwards to point out what they believed was a glaring omission around the cause of Tillman’s death.
This year, the NFL selected four Pat Tillman Foundation Scholars to serve as honorary coin toss captains. When a scholar flipped the coin, announcers described Tillman as having died “in the line of duty.” Critics say the announcers failed to acknowledge the circumstances of Tillman’s death.
Tillman, who was drafted to the Arizona Cardinals in 1998, enlisted in the Army in May 2002, following the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Centers. Tillman served in Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom and was deployed to Afghanistan when he was killed in action in April 2004.
The Pentagon initially said that Tillman was killed by enemy forces. Weeks later, it was reported he was gunned down by fellow Rangers, according to the Associated Press.
The Associated Press reported in 2007 that Army medical examiners were suspicious about the close proximity of the three bullet holes in Tillman’s forehead — and urged authorities to investigate whether Tillman’s death was a crime. The medical examiners were unsuccessful in their attempts.
According to a report on the circumstances surrounding Tillman’s death released by the Pentagon Inspector General in March 2007, Tillman’s platoon split in two groups for the mission in April 2004. Tillman’s half of the platoon had passed through a canyon road. The other half of the platoon was ambushed by enemy fighters and ended up traveling the same path Tillman’s group had. As a vehicle from the second group made it out of the canyon, they fired their weapons, and continued shooting when they saw muzzle flashes from an area where Tillman and his team, including a soldier with Afghan Military Forces were. Both Tillman and the Afghan soldier were mortally wounded and later succumbed to their injuries, according to the report.
According to a report by The Intercept in 2017, Tillman told his brother and their friend that he thought the invasion of Iraq and subsequent occupation were “fucking illegal.”
The brothers’ mother, along with a number of anti-war activists, maintains that Tillman was purposefully killed by his fellow soldiers. In congressional testimony, Tillman’s brother, Kevin Tillman, said that the actions of the soldiers who shot Tillman while he waved his hands in the air amounted to illegal acts of war.
“Such an act is not an accident,” Kevin Tillman told members of Congress. “It’s a clear violation of the rules of engagement.”
The Pat Tillman Foundation, started by Tillman’s family and friends to honor his legacy of principles and service, awards scholarships to military service members, veterans and spouses.
Zamone “Z” Perez is a rapid response reporter and podcast producer at Defense News and Military Times. He previously worked at Foreign Policy and Ufahamu Africa. He is a graduate of Northwestern University, where he researched international ethics and atrocity prevention in his thesis. He can be found on Twitter @zamoneperez.