It's been 10 years since former Arizona Cardinals safety Pat Tillman was killed in action by friendly fire while serving as an Army Ranger. Details of Tillman's death are still emerging, as those involved in the tragedy spoke with ESPN's Outside the Lines.
Tillman and an allied Afghan soldier, Sayed Farhad, were shot and killed a decade ago after Farhad was misidentified as an enemy combatant. A group of Army Rangers opened fire on Tillman, Farhad and fellow Ranger Bryan O'Neal. When the firing subsided, only O'Neal survived.
When news first broke of Tillman's death, it was reported the 27-year-old was killed in a firefight with the enemy. Years later, however, the truth surrounding Tillman's death emerged resulting in an investigation of the cover-up.
The details of the disputed incident are now becoming more clear. O'Neal and Steven Elliot, one of the shooters who fired in Tillman's direction, spoke with ESPN on the 10-year anniversary of Tillman's death.
Here are the most poignant excerpts from the story.
Steven Elliot describes the events leading to Tillman's shooting death:
"I remember us being in motion," Elliott says. "I remember seeing Greg [Baker] out of the corner of my eye, because I am sitting kind of sideways-oriented. Seeing muzzle flashes out of his weapon. I remember seeing the shape of the [Afghan]. And then as we pulled across seeing really dark shapes. There was no discernible human form or outline of a soldier, if you will. I just saw human shapes. Ashpole fired. I fired, based on the fact that, 'Well, that must be an enemy position if Greg [Baker] fired there.' And based on the fact that in my mind, Serial 1 [Tillman's section of the platoon] was nowhere to be found. I had no idea that they were there."
Bryan O'Neal explains how and why he was abandoned by his fellow Rangers:
"When you are in the Ranger battalion you are told every single day that you are elite," O'Neal says. "Of everyone in the Army, you are the best that could possibly be. And everybody believes it. I don't want to say brainwash, but that is pretty much what it is. I was no different. That is exactly what I thought. And then Pat Tillman, the quintessential Ranger, gets killed. And then it comes out that he was killed by friendly fire. That, 'Oh no, the Ranger battalion is not perfect. They are not infallible and they can screw up.'
"So I was a constant reminder that a Ranger battalion can screw up. And because I wasn't going to fall into what everyone else did in changing their stories and try to put the blame on something else, a lot of people turned on me. I was alienated."
O'Neal explains how even the smallest things can bring back painful memories:
A mundane act of walking past a water fountain initially triggered flashbacks for O'Neal: "The sound it makes when the water is coming out — that is what it sounded like to me hearing Pat's blood."
Both Elliot and O'Neal refute the prevailing conspiracy theories surrounding Tillman's death:
Where Elliott and O'Neal find themselves in the same camp is in their rebuff of conspiracy theories that have festered — from Tillman's death having been ordered by former President George Bush as a means to silence his growing anti-war views to the notion the fatal rounds came from point-blank range.
"There is so much confusion and so much damn conspiracy out there," O'Neal says. "I read something on a website that said I killed Pat Tillman, because I was the only one close enough to put the shot group in his head. Like, really? Me? It is what it is. There are conspiracy theories everywhere."
Elliott adds: "You get conspiracy theorists who claim he was killed by somebody at point-blank range … I fired at a position that was a friendly position. Personally, I made the wrong choice."