A former Army Ranger that was engaged in the firefight that killed former NFL star and fellow Ranger Pat Tillman says he may have fired the fateful shots. Speaking to ESPN’s Outside The Lines recently, Steven Elliot lamented his April 22, 2004 friendly-fire shooting death in the mountains of Afghanistan, saying that for the past decade he has lived with the belief that he ended the war hero’s life.
Elliot, now 33 and suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, said the events surrounding Tillman’s death were heartbreaking and ultimately preventable. Elliot said when his squad leader, Sgt. Greg Baker, mistakenly identified an allied Afghan soldier as the enemy and began firing, it was his natural inclination, along with that of two other Rangers, to also open fire on the same target. The soldier happened to be standing right next to Tillman. When all else fails, Elliot explained to ESPN, you do what your team leader does, go where your team leader goes and shoot where your team leader shoots. Elliot said Baker firing at that position was, in effect, the same as giving an order to shoot.
One month after Tillman’s death, an Army investigation into the shooting concluded that it was the result of three shots to the head and Elliot and another soldier in his platoon, Spc. Trevor Alders, were the most likely shooters. The other two men suspected of having fired on him that day have reportedly declined to comment.
Tillman’s stunning decision to forego a $3.6 million contract to enlist in the U.S. Army with his brother Kevin came in May of 2002, eight months after the September 11 attacks. Initially, the Army claimed that Tillman was killed by enemy gunfire when his unit was attacked in a roadside ambush. Subsequent independent investigations by the Department of Defense and U.S. Congress determined that his death was caused by friendly fire when one allied group fired on another after nearby gunfire was believed to be from enemy combatants.
For his part, Elliot said his choice to come forward is about raising awareness of post-traumatic stress disorder in the hopes that his story might help fellow veterans suffering from the same affliction. He is still haunted, he said, by the guilt of that day and what he could have done differently, noting if he could change anything at all, he would change what happened in a heartbeat.
Tillman was a standout linebacker for Arizona State University, helping his team go undefeated as a junior in 1996 and leading his them to the Rose Bowl. In 1997, he was voted the PAC-10 Defensive Player of The Year and, as an excellent student with a 3.85 GPA, he was also voted the Sporting News Scholar Athlete of the Year. He was drafted by the Arizona Cardinals with the 226th pick in the seventh round of the 1998 NFL Draft. Just prior to enlisting, Tillman enjoyed his most productive season as a pro, being named to the 2000 NFL All-Pro team and finishing the season with 145 tackles. The Cardinals have retired his number 40 and erected a bronze statue of his likeness on the grounds surrounding the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz.
Commentary by Rick Sarlat