The Real Story of Pat Tillman

As a new documentary about the NFL player turned Afghan war hero opens, Lloyd Grove talks to Jane Fonda and others about his unvarnished legacy.

08.18.10 9:47 AM ET

“I’m Pat Tillman! I’m Pat fucking Tillman! Why are you shooting at me?”

With those livid last words, pro-football star and Army Ranger Patrick Daniel Tillman Jr.—who gave up a multimillion-dollar contract with the Arizona Cardinals to serve his country and become the most famous enlisted man in Afghanistan—died in a fusillade of friendly fire on a rocky hillside near the Pakistani border. The bullets, coming at him from 40 yards away at a rate of 950 rounds per minute, were from a machine gun wielded by a member of his own platoon.

“I remember the sound of a drinking fountain,” Private Bryan O’Neal says in The Tillman Story, a masterfully produced documentary opening in theaters Friday. On the evening of April 22, 2004, O’Neal was crouching next to his team leader, Corporal Tillman, as the furious volleys flew. “And I look over at my side and I see this blood pouring down this rock that I’m sitting by. His head was gone. Completely gone. And I take my helmet off and I throw it against the ground and then I kind of black out.”

Tillman’s father, California lawyer Pat Tillman Sr., remarks dryly: “I suspect that he was a bit disappointed that his own team was shooting at him. I imagine with those comments—‘I’m Pat fucking Tillman’—he was looking straight at ‘em with a face that would make most people nervous.”

His mother, Dannie Tillman, pored through thousands of pages of redacted official documents in an attempt to understand what really happened. "You want to believe they're telling you the truth," she tells the filmmakers, "and yet you're getting this terrible sense that you're being lied to." About the U.S. soldiers who shot at her son, Dannie says, "Initially I felt bad for them, for killing their own." But then, "It seemed much more like gross negligence." Pointing to the transcript of an interview in which an unidentified Ranger tells army investigators, "I wanted to stay in the firefight," Dannie Tillman says: "That doesn't sound like someone who's afraid. That sounds like someone who wants to shoot at something."

Pat Jr.’s death, at age 27, was a colossal media event, dominating the news cycle for days. The Pentagon’s official cover-up began almost immediately, as did a dazzling PR campaign by George W. Bush’s White House to turn the dead soldier into a hero and recruitment tool for the president’s policies of military adventurism.

Within days of Tillman’s death—which the Pentagon brass initially and erroneously portrayed as the result of a Taliban ambush—officers on the scene ordered his diary destroyed, and his body armor, uniform, and vest set ablaze. Another witness to the tragedy, Army Ranger Russell Baer, was ordered to accompany his close friend’s flag-draped coffin to the States, but to say nothing about it to Tillman’s family, including Tillman’s younger brother Kevin, a Ranger in the same platoon who was also with the coffin on the cargo plane. “Keep your mouth shut about it,” Baer was told. Tillman, according to his commanding general, Philip Kensinger, was "killed by an errant bullet during a choatic ambush." When Tillman was posthumously awarded a Silver Star, the narrative of his exploits in the accompanying citation was almost entirely fictitious.

Private O’Neal, Specialist Baer, and the elder Tillman—along with Pat’s young widow, Marie, his little brothers, Kevin and Richard, and especially his mother, Dannie, who relentlessly pressed the Pentagon for the uncomfortable facts surrounding her son’s death—bear witness to this terrible episode and its Kafkaesque aftermath in The Tillman Story. “I think they thought if they spun the story and we found out, we would just keep it quiet because we wouldn’t want to diminish his heroism,” Dannie Tillman, a schoolteacher, says to the camera. “What they said happened didn’t happen. They made up a story.”

In its understated, just-the-facts way, the film is powerfully affecting. After a Manhattan screening the other night, perennial anti-war activist Jane Fonda, who famously acquired the nickname “Hanoi Jane” after visiting North Vietnam in 1972, looked stricken. “It’s an important movie,” she told me. “I sort of feel dead. I feel numb from anger and sadness that nothing has changed in the cover-up. We covered up in Vietnam and we’re still covering up.” The 72-year-old Fonda added, “God bless the mother. What a good family!”

Indeed, the Tillman family, of New Almaden, California, comes across as attractive and poised in the Weinstein Company release, narrated with deft restraint by Josh Brolin and written and directed with a sure-handed sense of storytelling by documentary filmmaker Amir Bar-Lev. Baby brother Richard, at a May 2004 memorial service in San Jose attended by such bigwigs as Arizona Sen. John McCain and California First Lady Maria Shriver (who tried to console the family with visions of Pat in heaven), administered a bracing, typically profane dose of reality.

“I feel numb from anger and sadness that nothing has changed in the cover-up,” Jane Fonda tells The Daily Beast. “We covered up in Vietnam and we’re still covering up.”

“There’s a lot of people here. Thank you for coming,” a t-shirted Richard Tillman said at the microphone. “Just make no mistake—he’d want me to say this—he’s not with God. He’s fucking dead. He’s not religious. So thanks for your thoughts, but he’s fucking dead.”

The Department of Defense didn’t launch a full-dress internal investigation of Tillman’s death and the cover-up until a year later, when Pat Sr. sent a detailed letter alleging a whitewash, signing off: “Fuck you…and yours.” The army bureaucracy eventually pinned all the blame on retired three-star general Kensinger, stripping him of one of his stars as punishment. But Kensinger, without identifying the higher-ups who allegedly told him to dispose of the case, appears in the movie to claim that he was just following orders.

The film’s dramatic climax is an April 2007 House committee hearing that, the family hoped, would finally get to the truth. In his first public comments about his brother’s death, Kevin Tillman testified, “A terrible tragedy was turned instead into an inspirational message to support the nation’s foreign-policy wars. With any luck, our family would sink quietly into our grief and the whole unsavory episode would be swept under the rug. However, they miscalculated our family’s reaction.”

But committee members, led by Chairman Henry Waxman, a California Democrat representing Santa Monica, allowed former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and a panel of VIP witnesses to slip away into a fog of deniability concerning when or even whether they read a classified memo revealing he shabby facts of Tillman’s death—totally at odds with the army’s official version. It was written a mere seven days after it occurred. The author: General Stanley McChrystal.

“I’m so disappointed in Henry Waxman,” former Santa Monica resident Fonda told me about her congressman. Waxman did not return my phone call seeking comment.

Also at the screening was Russell Baer, a fledgling director himself who’s studying at a film school in San Francisco. I asked him if, more than six years later, he has managed to put some psychic distance between himself and the events of April 2004.

“Fuck, no. I’m always going to be mad about it,” he told me. “Are you kidding me? These are things that you live with on a day-to-day basis and they never go away. And you’re always going to be furious about it.”

Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for The Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.