Chapter 115: Worm Dirt

Previous: Pure Fiction

Lt. Col. Ralph Kauzlarich
Five weeks after the death of Pat Tillman, and three weeks after the memorial service, just as the surviving members of his battalion were coming home, his parents were notified that the Army now believed he had "probably been a victim of fratricide," killed accidentally by members of his own platoon.

The unit, trying to move a disabled Humvee through the mountains, had been split into two groups, which had become separated and had lost communication. Pat's group had been ambushed, and had engaged in a firefight with the enemy. The other group had come to their assistance. In the confusion that ensued, the leader of the other group had mistakenly fired at Pat, and the others had followed his lead. Tillman, still heroically leading the fight against the enemy ambush, was hit by this "friendly fire," and died as a result. Or at least that's the story the Army was now telling.

As the Washington Post reported on May 30, 2004:
New details released yesterday about Tillman's death indicate that he was gunned down by members of his elite Army Ranger platoon who mistakenly shot in his direction when the unit was ambushed. According to a summary of the Army investigation, a Ranger squad leader mistook an allied Afghan Militia Force soldier standing near Tillman as the enemy, and he and other U.S. soldiers opened fire, killing both men.

That Tillman, 27, wasn't killed by enemy fire in a heroic rescue attempt was a major revelation by the U.S. military more than a month after the April 22 incident, which the Pentagon and members of Congress had hailed as an example of combat bravery.
The Post report, written by Josh White, also says:
Military officials could not explain the discrepancy between earlier reports and the releases yesterday, saying that a month-long investigation into the attack helped clarify the events. The investigation reports that Tillman was killed after he got out of his vehicle and fought about a dozen insurgents in restricted terrain and in poor light conditions.
White quotes Lt. Gen. Philip R. Kensinger Jr. as saying:
"While there was no one specific finding of fault, the investigation results indicate that Corporal Tillman probably died as a result of friendly fire while his unit was engaged in combat with enemy forces."
"The results of this investigation in no way diminish the bravery and sacrifice displayed by Corporal Tillman. Corporal Tillman was shot and killed while responding to enemy fire without regard for his own safety."
The story was false and the Tillmans didn't buy it. In addition to the obvious questions, such as "When did the Army brass find out it was fratricide?" and "Why did it take them so long to tell the family?" they raised more questions, such as "What really happened to Pat?" and "Why is the Army lying about it?"

Thanks, no doubt, to Pat's celebrity, the family attracted considerable political support. Some of it came from Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona (where Pat had played both college and professional football). He was joined by Democratic Congressman Mike Honda of San Jose, California, who pushed for a Congressional investigation into Pat Tillman's death and the obvious duplicity in which it was shrouded.

This duplicity may not have come as much of a surprise to Pat Tillman, had he lived to see it. By the time of his death, he was just beginning to penetrate the web of deception spun by the Bush administration in the wake of 9/11. He knew that the war in Iraq was "justified" by lies, and he wasn't shy about saying so. "This war is so [bleep] illegal!" he had told his fellow Rangers while in Iraq, and he had urged them to vote for Senator John Kerry, who "opposed" George W. Bush in the 2004 presidential election.

But when Pat had said, "This war," the emphasis had been on the word "this." Pat was anxious to get out of Iraq so that he could go back to Afghanistan and participate in the "hunt" for Osama bin Laden. Clearly, he had penetrated some of the lies, but not all of them. Likewise, his support for John Kerry showed that he failed to understand what the Democratic presidential candidate was all about.

Senator Kerry, who had been a vocal opponent of the war in Vietnam, and who was being portrayed as a leftist, anti-war candidate, was in fact trying to out-flank Bush on the right. "We need more allies in Iraq," Kerry was saying. "We need more troops."

Pat Tillman's political analysis may seem shallow in hindsight, especially if one disregards the milieu in which it was formed and articulated. But for a young man who jumped from the heavily militaristic NFL, to the Army, and then to the Rangers, his analysis was quite sophisticated.

His willingness to express his opinions freely, at a time when any opposition to the president, or his wars, was being portrayed as tantamount to treason, showed the honesty and courage for which he was respected by his peers -- so much so that his former teammates had called him "Braveheart."

Pat Tillman wasn't shy about his religious beliefs, either, according to
a chaplain who debriefed the entire unit days after Tillman was killed.

The chaplain said that [Spc. Bryan] O'Neal told him he was hugging the ground at Tillman's side, "crying out to God, help us." And Tillman says to him, "Would you shut your (expletive) mouth? God's not going to help you; you need to do something for yourself, you sniveling ..."
If nothing else, the Tillman family's religious beliefs provided a weapon which the Army didn't hesitate to use against them. As ABC News reported in 2006,
Lt. Col. Ralph Kauzlarich [...] said investigators would not still be examining the killing if it were not for Tillman's NFL celebrity -- he walked away from a multimillion-dollar contract with the Arizona Cardinals when he enlisted -- and the pressure brought to bear by Tillman's family or a number of Washington politicos.

"His parents continue to ask for it to be looked at," Kauzlarich said. "And that is really their prerogative. And if they have the right backing, the right powerful people in our government to continue to let it happen, then that is the case."

"But there [have] been numerous unfortunate cases of fratricide, and the parents have basically said, 'OK, it was an unfortunate accident.' And they let it go. So this is -- I don't know, these people have a hard time letting it go. It may be because of their religious beliefs."
What did Kauzlarich know about the family's religious beliefs?
In a transcript of his interview with Brig. Gen. Gary Jones during a November 2004 investigation, Kauzlarich said he'd learned Kevin Tillman, Pat's brother and fellow Army Ranger who was a part of the battle the night Pat Tillman died, objected to the presence of a chaplain and the saying of prayers during a repatriation ceremony in Germany before his brother's body was returned to the United States.

Kauzlarich, now a battalion commanding officer at Fort Riley in Kansas, further suggested the Tillman family's unhappiness with the findings of past investigations might be because of the absence of a Christian faith in their lives.

In an interview with, Kauzlarich said: "When you die, I mean, there is supposedly a better life, right? Well, if you are an atheist and you don't believe in anything, if you die, what is there to go to? Nothing. You are worm dirt. So for their son to die for nothing, and now he is no more -- that is pretty hard to get your head around that. So I don't know how an atheist thinks. I can only imagine that that would be pretty tough."
The same ABC piece pointed out that
Kauzlarich, now 40, was the Ranger regiment executive officer in Afghanistan, making him ultimately responsible for the conduct of the fateful operation in which Pat Tillman died. Kauzlarich later played a role in writing the recommendation for the posthumous Silver Star. And finally, with his fingerprints already all over many of the hot-button issues, including the question of who ordered the platoon to be split as it dragged a disabled Humvee through the mountains, Kauzlarich conducted the first official Army investigation into Tillman's death.
Mary Tillman, Pat's mother, described the family as
spiritual, though she said it does not believe in many of the fundamental aspects of organized religion.
And she didn't appreciate Kauzlarich's remarks any more than she believed the story he was telling.
"Well, this guy makes disparaging remarks about the fact that we're not Christians, and the reason that we can't put Pat to rest is because we're not Christians," [she] said in an interview with [...] "Oh, it has nothing to do with the fact that this whole thing is shady," she said sarcastically, "But it is because we are not Christians."

After a pause, her voice full with emotion, she added, "Pat may not have been what you call a Christian. He was about the best person I ever knew. I mean, he was just a good guy. He didn't lie. He was very honest. He was very generous. He was very humble. I mean, he had an ego, but it was a healthy ego. It is like, everything those [people] are, he wasn't."