WASHINGTON — Pat Tillman died while leading a team of Army Rangers up a remote southeastern Afghan hill to knock out enemy fire that had pinned down other American soldiers, the Army said Friday.
The Army released details of the former Arizona Cardinals football player’s death as it announced that he was posthumously awarded the Silver Star, its third-highest award for combat valor.
Tillman, 27, and his team were initially not in danger from the hostile small-arms and mortar fire when the April 22 ambush began. But when the rear section of their convoy became pinned down in rough terrain, Tillman ordered his team out of its vehicles “to take the fight to the enemy forces” on the higher ground.
As Tillman and other soldiers neared the hill’s crest, he directed his team into firing positions, the Army said. As he sprayed the enemy positions with fire from his automatic rifle, he was shot and killed. The Army said his actions helped the trapped soldiers maneuver to safety “without taking a single casualty.”
Walter Sokalski, a spokesman for Army Special Forces Command, said the Silver Star will be presented to Tillman’s family Monday during a public memorial service in San Jose, Calif.
“It will be presented by members of the 75th Ranger Regiment, by soldiers that knew him,” Sokalski said. Tillman was in the 2nd battalion of the regiment, based out of Fort Lewis, Wash.
Tillman, who walked away from a $3.6 million contract extension offered by the Cardinals to join the Army in 2002, this week also was posthumously promoted to corporal from specialist.
Pentagon officials had previously given only sketchy details of the fighting 26 miles southwest of Khost, saying the ambush occurred about 7:30 p.m. local time near the village of Sperah, and that two other soldiers were wounded and an Afghan Militia Force soldier was killed.
Tillman’s platoon was in the region as part of a spring offensive called Operation Mountain Storm, aimed at rooting out hard-line Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters.
But according to the details provided Friday, Tillman led his Ranger team that day “without regard for his own safety,” and was shot and killed heroically trying to protect his comrades.
Tillman’s platoon had been split into two sections during a patrol.
Tillman, a team leader, was in the platoon’s front when the rear section was hit with enemy fire. Because of the rough terrain, “the trail element was unable to maneuver out of the kill zone and it was difficult for the embattled trail section to target the enemy positions,” according the Army’s description of the events.
Although his group was safely out of that danger area, the Army said Tillman ordered his team members to get out of their vehicles and maneuver up a hill near the enemy’s location. As they got to the crest of the hill, “Tillman’s voice was heard issuing commands to take the fight to the enemy forces … on the dominating high ground.” It was during this effort, as he provided suppressive fire, that Tillman was shot and killed, the Army said.
Sokalski said he had no information Friday on whether any of the enemy attackers have been identified or captured.
During a briefing Friday with Pentagon reporters, Gen. John Abizaid, commander of U.S. Central Command, which includes operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, said he was able to talk Thursday with 1st Lt. Dave Hutman, Tillman’s platoon leader.
“I asked him about Pat Tillman,” Abizaid told the reporters. “He said, ‘Pat Tillman was a great Ranger and a great soldier, and what more can I say about him?'”
“When he was talking to me, he was still nursing a large number of wounds that he sustained in that firefight where Pat Tillman lost his life,” Abizaid said.