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Krakauer Explores Pat Tillman's Death And Cover-Up

The latest book from Jon Krakauer, author of Into Thin Air and Into The Wild, focuses on the life and tragic death of former NFL player Pat Tillman, who left a lucrative contract with the Arizona Cardinals to join the U.S. Army Rangers.

Krakauer talks to NPR's Melissa Block about his investigation into Tillman's death by friendly fire — and the Army's subsequent effort to cover up the circumstances of that death.

A Spray Of Bullets

At least half the members of a platoon traveling through Afghanistan on April 22, 2004, had never been in a firefight before. But on this day, the enemy attacked. In response, the American soldiers sprayed thousands of rounds from their machine guns, M4s and grenade launchers.

Not far away was Tillman, accompanied by another American soldier and an Afghan militia fighter, who had been firing his weapon at the opposite canyon wall, where he suspected enemy fighters could be. When, from a distance, the leader of one of the U.S. platoon's Humvees saw the Afghan militia fighter, he reacted.

"He testified that the [Afghan] guy had on an American uniform, but in the panic of the moment, he reflexively put the guy in the sights of his M4 and put seven rounds into his chest," Krakauer says. The shots by the leader of Humvee were followed by a spray of bullets from the rest of his men. It was an attack that ended in Tillman's death.

An Army Cover-Up

What happened next was an effort by the government to suppress the circumstances of Tillman's death.

"Within hours, certainly, and probably less, the Ranger regiment — officers, high-ranking officers back in the States — were conspiring to cover this up," Krakauer says.

A recommendation to award Tillman with a Silver Star medal, one of the U.S. military's highest honors, immediately began moving through the Army ranks — something that is not done for deaths by friendly fire, Krakauer says.

And, says Krakauer, "when a soldier is killed in combat, you should put his uniform, his weapon, everything — anything that can be considered forensic evidence should be sent back to the States with the body, so the medical examiners could determine the cause of death. In the case of Tillman, none of that happened."

Tillman's uniform and body armor were burned, says Krakauer, and his weapon, helmet, even a part of his brain, which fell to the ground after the attack, disappeared. Army officials told the medical examiners that Tillman had been killed by the Taliban — and they stuck by this story when they reported the death to his family.

"The Army intentionally lied," Krakauer says. "They just broke regulation after regulation."

One soldier, Russell Baer, was sent back to the United States with instructions not to reveal to the Tillman family that their son had been killed by friendly fire.

After attending the funeral, Krakauer says, "He was so upset at having to lie to Pat's mother that Russell Baer went AWOL."

New Details

Though the death of Pat Tillman, and the subsequent congressional inquiry into it, has been covered closely by the news media, Krakauer says there are many details that have yet to be exposed.

The author uncovers several new aspects of the story by combing through the more than 4,000 pages of documents related to the government's investigation of Tillman's death, and conversations with his fellow soldiers.

Krakauer points out that Gen. Stanley McChrystal, now the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, signed off on the Silver Star recommendation, even though he knew that Tillman's death was a result of friendly fire. In confirmation hearings earlier this year, McChrystal acknowledged that the Army had failed the Tillman family, and he apologized for his part in that. But he maintained that he "didn't see any activities by anyone to deceive," and that he "absolutely" believed that Tillman earned the Silver Star.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.