Where Men Win Glory
If David Uthlaut was still angry when the convoy finally rolled out of Magarah, Afghanistan, the young lieutenant kept his emotions hidden from the forty-four Army Rangers under his command. Certainly he had reason to be steamed. For the previous six hours his platoon had been stopped in the middle of Taliban territory while he argued with headquarters over what to do about a wrecked Humvee. When the discussion finally concluded, Uthlaut was on the losing end of the debate. He was ordered to complete a series of problematic tasks before nightfall, and not nearly enough time remained to meet the deadline without taking dangerous chances.
The date was April 22, 2004. For eight straight days Uthlaut and his men had been combing the rough backcountry of Khost Province for Taliban insurgents. The Rangers had slept in the mud, been soaked by freezing rain, humped up and down towering escarpments with inadequate rations. At one point they got so hungry that one of the platoon’s machine gunners had resorted to rooting in a garbage dump for edible morsels. But none of these tribulations had kept the elite Special Operations unit from executing its mission.
At 11:30 that morning, however, the gnarly terrain delivered a terminal blow to one of the platoon’s eleven vehicles, bringing the Rangers to a halt in Magarah, a ramshackle hamlet where the Taliban held sway. Both of the Humvee’s tie-rods had broken off, leaving its front wheels flopping uncontrollably in opposite directions. After the platoon mechanic determined that repairing the damage in the field was impossible, Uthlaut radioed headquarters to request that a helicopter be dispatched to hook a sling to the vehicle and airlift it back to their base, an operation considered routine for a CH-47 Chinook — a jet-powered, tandem-rotor behemoth that brings to mind an immense titanium insect.
Earlier in the day the Rangers had observed Army Chinooks lumbering purposefully across the sky, but headquarters told Uthlaut that no helicopter would be available to extract the crippled Humvee for at least ninety-six hours.
With a sling-load operation ruled out, someone in the platoon suggested they simply pull the .50-caliber machine gun from the Humvee’s turret, yank its radios, blow the damn thing up with C-4 explosives so the Taliban couldn’t salvage it, and abandon the smoldering wreckage where it lay. Uthlaut knew from a prior tour in Afghanistan, however, that destroying a vehicle was strictly forbidden without approval from the commander of the 75th Ranger Regiment. Because the colonel in question happened to be on the opposite side of the planet at Fort Benning, Georgia, such approval was unlikely to be granted any time soon, if ever. Some other solution to the problem would be required.
At 4:00 p.m. headquarters provided one. Uthlaut was ordered to split his platoon into two elements. Half his unit was directed to immediately begin towing the damaged Humvee toward the only paved road in all of Khost, which lay on the far side of a high massif. Concurrently, the other half of the platoon was supposed to proceed to a village called Mana, situated four roadless miles from Magarah in the opposite direction, to complete the day’s mission: search every building in the settlement for caches of enemy weapons. Word came down the chain of command, moreover, that “this vehicle problem better not delay us any more.” The platoon leader was admonished to quit wasting time and “put boots on the ground” in Mana before nightfall.
Khost Province was the home turf of Jalaluddin Haqqani, a short, scrawny man with Coke-bottle eyeglasses and a beard like black steel wool that hung to his belly. Although his physical stature was unimpressive, he was legendary throughout Afghanistan for his bravery and military acumen. Commander of Taliban forces in much of the country’s eastern region, Haqqani was one of Osama bin Laden’s most trusted associates. The enemy fighters the Rangers had been hunting were part of the so-called Haqqani Network — a loose amalgam of Taliban militias and tribal insurgents. Mana was the last village in the area that the Rangers needed to search for Haqqani’s forces, and headquarters was adamant that they clear it at the earliest possible opportunity in order to conform to a schedule established weeks earlier by deskbound officers at a distant base.
Uthlaut and his men were no less eager than headquarters to finish their business in Mana, because as soon as it was completed they could return to Forward Operating Base Salerno, where they’d be able to shower off the stink and grime, repair their battered vehicles, re-zero their weapons, and spend a night or two on honest-to-God cots before heading back outside the wire. But the Rangers on the ground weren’t keen to take unnecessary risks simply to meet an arbitrary bureaucratic timeline set by “fobbits”: officers who seldom ventured beyond the security of the forward operating base (FOB, in military-speak), and therefore, from the grunts’ perspective, had no clue what it was actually like to fight a war in this unforgiving country.
Uthlaut sent a series of e-mails that respectfully but vigorously registered objections to the orders he’d received. The twenty-four-year-old platoon leader pointed out, among other shortcomings, that the mountainous topography would make communication between the divided elements problematic, and that embarking for Mana with just half a platoon, in his view, “was not safe.”
One of the most highly regarded young officers in the Army, Uthlaut had graduated at the top of his class at West Point as first captain of the Corps of Cadets. When George W. Bush was sworn in as president in 2001, Uthlaut was the guy chosen to lead the Army’s procession down Pennsylvania Avenue in the inaugural parade. After leaving the academy and becoming a platoon leader in the 2nd Ranger Battalion, he quickly earned the admiration of the enlisted men and non-commissioned officers who served under him. Uthlaut was a disciplined soldier who seldom questioned orders, and never without a compelling reason. But his urgent requests to reconsider the directive to split the platoon elicited this brusque reply from headquarters: “Reconsider denied.”
“Nobody on the ground in Magarah thought it was a good idea to split the platoon,” recalls Specialist Jade Lane, who, as Uthlaut’s radio operator, had been privy to the entire extended debate between headquarters and the platoon leader. “The PL didn’t want to do it. But in the Army you obey orders. If somebody with a higher rank tells you to do something, you do it. So Uthlaut split the platoon.”
Less than an hour of daylight remained by the time Uthlaut had finished dividing the platoon into two elements. After placing himself in charge of the element bound for Mana (designated Serial One, it consisted of two Humvees and four Toyota pickup trucks carrying twenty Rangers and seven Afghan Militia Forces), he hurriedly rolled out of Magarah in the lead Humvee at 6:00 p.m. Absent a road, Uthlaut’s convoy drove down an intermittently dry riverbed, followed closely by the second element’s convoy, designated Serial Two. A few minutes outside the village they reached a fork in the wadi. Uthlaut’s convoy turned downstream, to the left. Serial Two, towing the trashed Humvee, turned upstream, to the right.
A British soldier named Francis Leeson, who battled a fierce tribal insurgency in this same area in the late 1940s, wrote a book in which he characterized the terrain as “frontier hills [that] are difficult of access and easy to defend. When one speaks of them as hills, rolling downs on which tanks and cavalry can operate are not meant, but the worst mountain-warfare country imaginable — steep precipices [and] narrow winding valleys.….” Six decades after Leeson’s tour of duty, this remains a chillingly accurate description of the landscape that confronted Uthlaut’s Rangers.
Half a mile west of the junction where the convoys had separated and gone in opposite directions, Serial One entered the mouth of a spectacularly narrow canyon. It was 6:10 p.m., and the lower flanks of the gorge already lay in shadow. The afternoon’s warmth had been supplanted by the chill of the advancing evening, prompting the Rangers to don Gore-Tex jackets beneath their body armor. The air smelled of sage, dust, and wood smoke rising from cooking fires in a nearby village.
Ahead, the route snaked through a deep, crooked slot the river had gouged into the bedrock of the surrounding mountains. In places the passage was only a foot or two wider than the Humvees and was constricted by vertical limestone cliffs that reduced the sky overhead to a pale blue stripe. Only by sharply craning their necks could the soldiers see the canyon rim. Up there on the heights, far above the gloom of the valley floor, the otherwise barren slopes were dotted with graceful Chilgoza pines still washed with sunlight, their silver bark and viridescent needles glowing in the fleeting rays.
The magnificence of the setting was not lost on the Rangers as their vehicles lurched over gravel berms and limestone ledges. This canyon was the most dramatic landform they’d seen since arriving in Khost: the sort of geologic wonder one might encounter in Utah’s Zion National Park, or the Mogollon Rim of northern Arizona. One soldier remarked that it would be “an awesome place to go rock climbing.” But most of the Rangers were less interested in the natural splendors than in the unnatural hazards that might be lurking somewhere above them.
Specialist Russell Baer was in the convoy’s fourth vehicle, a Toyota Hilux pickup. Turning to Sergeant Bradley Shepherd, who was driving the truck, Baer declared, “This looks like those movies they showed us before we deployed. Back in the 1980s the Afghans used to ambush the Russians in places just like this. They slaughtered them in these canyons from above. It’s how they won the war.” Shepherd pondered the obvious implications of this comment, nodded soberly, then pulled out his camera and documented their passage through the dirty windshield as he drove.
For the next twenty minutes the convoy crept through the claustrophobic rift, forced by the severity of the terrain to move at an excruciatingly slow pace. The slot was so tight that the Humvees’ fenders sometimes scraped against its sheer walls. The Rangers remained twitchy and anxious, expecting to be attacked from the high ground at any moment. According to Private Bryan O’Neal, a rifleman, “The canyon was very rough, there were large boulders everywhere, and the walls were at least a hundred feet high on each side. I actually had to lay on top of the vehicle to be able to pull security” — the cliffs rose so precipitously that O’Neal had to lie flat on his back in order to scan the canyon’s ledges for Taliban through the scope of his M4 carbine.
After twenty minutes, Uthlaut’s Humvee emerged from the western end of the slot. The valley opened, and the canyon floor broadened into a relatively flat gravel channel some thirty yards across. Corn and poppies grew in terraced plots of cultivated earth on both sides of the wadi. Clustered on a dun-colored hillside just outside the mouth of the narrows, eight or nine mud-walled buildings stood above the opium fields. Young Pashtun boys in filthy clothing ran up to the convoy as it rolled by, waving and laughing. The danger of an ambush appeared to have passed.
A moment later, a series of loud explosions echoed from the narrows behind them. “I turned toward where we had just come from,” says Baer, “and all of a sudden it looked like Star Wars back there. Red tracer rounds were flying up out of the canyon, lighting up the sky.” Tracers are special bullets manufactured with a pyrotechnic charge that ignites as each projectile exits the barrel of a weapon, making the bullet’s trajectory appear as a bright red streak, enabling the shooter to more easily adjust his fire toward the intended target. Every fifth bullet loaded into the machine guns used by American forces in Afghanistan was a tracer round; the Taliban in that area didn’t use tracer ammunition. Baer understood instantly, therefore, that the red streaks flashing through the canyon’s shadows were bullets from American soldiers returning fire against an enemy ambush. “I knew it was our guys getting hit,” he says. “It was the other half of the platoon.”
The platoon’s other element, Serial Two, was supposed to be miles away by then, towing the derelict Humvee in the opposite direction. Uthlaut and his men had no idea why Serial Two would impulsively reverse course and follow them, but apparently their counterparts in the other element had done precisely that, and were now caught in the middle of what looked and sounded like an intense firefight half a mile away.
Serial One skidded to a halt and the soldiers jumped out of their trucks and Humvees. The element’s highest-ranking Ranger under Uthlaut was a self-possessed staff sergeant named Matthew Weeks who had been awarded a Bronze Star for his valorous actions during a firefight in Iraq the previous year. He assigned a half-dozen soldiers to stay with the six vehicles, and then ordered most of the rest to move with him up the north slope of the canyon toward the cluster of mud buildings they’d just driven beneath. Weeks informed Uthlaut, “I’m going to try to push past the village and see if I can overwatch [Serial Two’s] movement out of the ambush zone,” explaining that his squad would move no farther than a brow of high ground above the settlement.
A Ranger platoon is typically organized into three squads, each consisting of two “fire teams” of six or fewer men. When Uthlaut was forced to hastily divide his platoon back in Magarah, he put Third Squad (commanded by Weeks) in Serial One, and assigned the bulk of First and Second squads to Serial Two. Because the two convoys needed to be of more or less equal size, however, Uthlaut pulled two men from Second Squad and added them to Serial One. These two soldiers were Private O’Neal, a baby-faced eighteen-year-old who was the youngest, greenest member of the entire unit; and Specialist Patrick Tillman, the leader of O’Neal’s fire team.
Tillman — twenty-seven years old, previously employed as a strong safety in the National Football League — was unquestionably the most famous enlisted man in Afghanistan. When the World Trade Center came crashing to earth on September 11, 2001, he had been a star player with the Arizona Cardinals, renowned for patrolling the defensive backfield with riveting intensity. But Tillman came from a family with a tradition of military service that went back several generations, and he believed that as an able-bodied American he had a moral obligation to serve his country during a time of war. He didn’t think he should be exempt from his duty as a citizen simply because he played professional football. So after the 2001 NFL season he walked away from a $3.6 million contract and volunteered to spend the next three years of his life as an infantryman in the U.S. Army. His brother Kevin, fourteen months younger than Pat, had enlisted at the same time and was a member of Uthlaut’s platoon, as well.
When the platoon was split in Magarah, Kevin had been assigned to Serial Two. Now, as Pat listened to the exploding mortar shells and the pop-pop-pop-pop of rifle fire, he was hyper-aware that his little brother was somewhere back in the confines of the canyon getting hammered. The moment Sergeant Weeks directed the Rangers to move up the hill, Tillman sprang into action. “Pat was like a freight train,” says Private Josey Boatright, recalling how Tillman sprinted past him. “Whoosh. A pit bull straining against his leash. He took off toward the high ground, yelling, ‘O’Neal! On me! O’Neal! Stay on me!’”
According to O’Neal, Pat told him, “‘Let’s go help our boys,’ and he started moving. And wherever he went, I went.”
The route to the village ascended a steep gully, the bottom of which was six thousand feet above sea level. Between his weapons, body armor, night-vision optics, CamelBak water bladders, grenades, and extra ammunition, each Ranger was carrying more than sixty pounds of dead weight. Thus burdened, within seconds of leaving the vehicles,everyone was gasping for air, but the sounds of the nearby battle — moving noticeably closer by the minute — kept the Rangers pushing upward despite the pain. When they reached the village, the Rangers performed a “hasty clear,” passing quickly through the settlement without pausing to search inside any of the buildings, and then hurried toward the crest of a spur that rose above the village.
Tillman was among the first to arrive atop the spur, which was devoid of trees or other cover. After pausing for a few seconds to assess the lay of the land, he continued over the crest and scurried down the other side to a pair of low boulders, accompanied by O’Neal and a twenty-seven-year-old Afghan soldier named Sayed Farhad. These rocks afforded only minimal protection from enemy fire but provided an excellent view of the wadi where Tillman expected Serial Two to emerge from the mouth of the gorge.
A few minutes later two vehicles came speeding out of the canyon and stopped ninety yards beneath the boulders. Several Rangers climbed out of a Humvee and gazed up toward Tillman and O’Neal, who waved to let their buddies know they were up there and had them covered. It appeared as though Serial Two had escaped the ambush and everything was copacetic. And then, without warning, hundreds of bullets began to pulverize the slope around Tillman, O’Neal, and Farhad.
Ever since Homo sapiens first coalesced into tribes, war has been part of the human condition. Inevitably, warring societies portray their campaigns as virtuous struggles, and present their fallen warriors as heroes who made the ultimate sacrifice for a noble cause. But death by so-called friendly fire, which is an inescapable aspect of armed conflict in the modern era, doesn’t conform to this mythic narrative. It strips away war’s heroic veneer to reveal what lies beneath. It’s an unsettling reminder that barbarism, senseless violence, and random death are commonplace even in the most “just” and “honorable” of wars. Consequently, and unsurprisingly, when soldiers accidentally kill one of their own, there is tremendous reluctance to confront the truth within the ranks of the military. There is an overwhelming inclination to keep the unsavory particulars hidden from public view, to pretend the calamity never occurred. Thus it has always been, and probably always will be. As Æschylus, the exalted Greek tragedian, noted in the fifth century B.C., “In war, truth is the first casualty.”
When Pat Tillman was killed in Afghanistan, his Ranger Regiment responded with a chorus of prevarication and disavowal. A cynical cover-up sanctioned at the highest levels of government, followed by a series of inept official investigations, cast a cloud of bewilderment and shame over the tragedy, compounding the heartbreak of Tillman’s death.
Among the several thousand pages of documents generated by military investigators, some baffling testimony emerged from the Ranger who is believed to have fired the bullets that ended Tillman’s life. In a sworn statement, this soldier explained that while shooting a ten-round burst from his M249 Squad Automatic Weapon (commonly referred to as a SAW gun) at the hillside where Tillman and O’Neal were positioned, he “identified two sets of arms straight up” through the scope of his weapon. “I saw the arms waving,” he acknowledged, “but I didn’t think they were trying to signal a cease-fire.” So he pulled the trigger again and sprayed them with another ten-round burst. How was one supposed to make sense of this?
Or this: in July 2007, the Associated Press published an article reporting that the Navy pathologist who performed Tillman’s autopsy testified that the forensic evidence indicated Tillman had been shot three times in the head from a distance of thirty-five feet or less. The article prompted widespread speculation on the Internet and in the mainstream press that he had been deliberately murdered.
Many other details about the fatal firefight that found their way into the public domain were similarly perplexing. Perhaps the greatest mystery, however, surrounded not the circumstances of Tillman’s death but rather the essential facts of his life. Before he enlisted, Tillman was familiar to sports aficionados as an undersized, overachieving football player whose virtuosity in the defensive backfield was spellbinding. But during the four years he spent in the NFL, Tillman played for the Arizona Cardinals — at the time a mediocre small-market team that was seldom in the limelight — so his name wasn’t recognized beyond the realm of hard-core football fans.
Although it wasn’t Tillman’s intention, when he left the Cardinals to join the Army he was transformed overnight into an icon of post-9/11 patriotism. Seizing the opportunity to capitalize on his celebrity, the Bush administration endeavored to use his name and image to promote what it had christened the Global War on Terror. Tillman abhorred this role. As soon as he decided to enlist, he stopped talking to the press altogether, although his silence did nothing to squelch America’s fascination with the football star who traded the bright lights and riches of the NFL for boot camp and a bad haircut. Following his death on the battlefield, the public’s interest in Tillman shot through the roof. The posthumous media frenzy shed little light on who he really was, however. The intricate mosaic of personal history that defined his existence was obscured by the blizzard of hype.
Unencumbered by biographical insight, people felt emboldened to invent all manner of personae for Tillman after his passing. Most of these renderings were based on little more than rumor and fantasy. The right-wing harridan Ann Coulter claimed him as an exemplar of Republican political values. The left-wing editorial cartoonist Ted Rall denigrated him in a four-panel comic strip as an “idiot” who joined the Army to “kill Arabs.”
Neither Coulter nor Rall had any idea what motivated Pat Tillman. Beyond his family and a small circle of close friends, few people did.