Ten years ago Tuesday, former NFL star Pat Tillman was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan. Steven Elliott was one of the Army Rangers who fired on Tillman, and he told his story recently on ESPN's Outside the Lines.
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It was 10 years ago today that former NFL star turned Army Ranger Pat Tillman was shot and killed in a firefight in Afghanistan. For weeks, the Army said Tillman was killed by enemy fire. Finally, the Army admitted it was, instead, fratricide - friendly fire - in a shootout gone badly wrong.
Now, one of the Army Rangers who fired on Pat Tillman has come forward to talk publicly for the first time about the chaos of that day, and the impact it's had on his life. He is Steven Elliott. He told his story first to ESPN's "Outside the Lines." Their hour-long TV special airs tonight. And Steven Elliott joins me now. Thanks for being with us.
STEVEN ELLIOTT: Thank you for having me.
BLOCK: And let's start by going back to that day, April 22nd, 2004; and let's explain a little bit what happened. You were in a Humvee in a convoy that split up. There was an ambush. You were being fired on from above. And your squad leader started firing back up at a ridgeline, killing a man who turned out to be an allied Afghan soldier. So why don't you pick up from there and tell us what happened - what you saw, and what you did.
ELLIOTT: Well, in that moment, the sun had been set for roughly 20 minutes, so the lighting conditions were poor, to say the least. I remember seeing the muzzle flashes from the Afghani soldier. I remember seeing Greg fire out of the corner of my eye and...
BLOCK: Greg is Sgt. Greg Baker, who was in your Humvee?
ELLIOTT: Yes. That's correct. And I remember thinking for what I'm sure was just a second or two, but felt like longer - your perception of time in the midst of a firefight can be distorted. But I remember thinking that if he had fired - and without any other information to indicate a friendly position - that I should also fire. And so it was seeing that engagement occur and basically, just being able to make out shadowy figures. They weren't - even though we were roughly 80 meters away, I couldn't distinguish enough to know that they were friendlies. So...
BLOCK: So shadowy figures - were you trained to positively identify a target before you shot?
ELLIOTT: We were. In this case, positive identification included a team leader firing on a position; and it included, on some level, the lack of knowledge of any friendly being in the area. So my intent was clearly, not malicious on any level. And I felt like I had done what I needed to do in order to defend myself, believing that to possibly be an enemy position. But obviously, I failed to do that.
BLOCK: You were 23 at the time...
BLOCK: ...firing an M240 Bravo machine gun. Had you ever been in a firefight before?
ELLIOTT: No. That was my first enemy engagement.
BLOCK: I want to talk to you about the aftermath of this shooting, Steven. You were demoted from the Army Rangers, returned to the regular Army two months after Pat Tillman was killed. Did that seem, and does it seem, like appropriate punishment?
ELLIOTT: The real answer, to me - and I don't mean this to dodge your question or anyone else who would ask that - is, I truly don't know. I'm hardly an objective observer in the incident, as far as assigning my own punishment. And I don't really have a good framework for determining that.
BLOCK: Talk a bit about the lasting effects of the Pat Tillman shooting and your involvement in that, and what that's meant for you.
ELLIOTT: Yeah. For me, what it meant in a very real fashion was within about four months, I began what I later learned to be exhibiting symptoms of chronic post-traumatic stress disorder. And so that meant a lot of sleepless nights, a lot of nightmares. It meant hypervigilance, depression. And for me, in order to function professionally, it meant a lot of alcohol. And that persisted for about five years until, in 2009, my wife of about five years and I were divorced - and separated.
It was during that time of our separation that I began seeking much more intensive therapy for post-traumatic stress. It didn't, on any level, exorcise all of the demons, and it doesn't make you forget, and it doesn't remove the grief. But it certainly enabled me to function far more normally than I ever had before. And so throughout that process, we reconciled; and we remarried in April of 2010.
BLOCK: You've had no contact with Pat Tillman's family, is that right?
ELLIOTT: That's correct.
BLOCK: Why not?
ELLIOTT: I always felt very conflicted about that. I knew that they were very - just hurt beyond belief. I don't even know how you put words to that, to understand what they experienced both in losing Pat but then in the grief and the confusion of the deception. I guess part of my desire was to - you want to communicate remorse to them but at the same time, you don't want to make things worse. And I felt like I was somebody that they would not want to hear from.
And I don't say that in implying that they are not gracious people who can't forgive. I don't believe that at all. But I was overwhelmed with my own grief, and was hardly able to even articulate that to those closest to me. And I didn't know how I would do that to them. And so I think it's probably far more a commentary on my own weakness than it is on them, in any way.
BLOCK: Steven, you're the first of the Army Rangers who were shooting on Pat Tillman to come forward and talk publicly now, 10 years after. Why did you decide to do that?
ELLIOTT: The main reason for - and this is very much a joint decision between my wife, Brook, and I - and the main decision that we - or the main reason why we did that was, we knew it was a story that people would pay attention to. We just really wanted to highlight the fact that in our own life, regardless of our association with that incident, I was a vet returning from war that experienced post-traumatic stress after going through a wartime experience, and I know I'm not the only one.
BLOCK: Have you talked, Steven, with any other soldiers who've been involved in friendly fire incidents - not this one, but others?
ELLIOTT: I have, but not from Afghanistan or Iraq. I've talked to veterans mostly from the Vietnam era, and some much older veterans from World War II who have - who've articulated either known or suspected fratricide that they were a part of.
BLOCK: Hmm. And what have they told you?
ELLIOTT: Um - (Starts crying)
BLOCK: I'm sorry.
ELLIOTT: No, it's OK. I didn't expect to - for that to strike a chord. In some of those conversations, I felt like I was looking in a mirror. I saw the thousand-yard stare in their eyes and the - just the unresolved emptiness and hurt that that brings. And all of those conversations were offered as support, you know, for me and what I was going through. And so it was, ultimately, a great kindness. But you get an appreciation for just how much hurt, and how much regret, there is out there for those who've served.
BLOCK: Well, Steven Elliott, thank you for talking with us today.
ELLIOTT: Thank you so much for having me, Melissa.
BLOCK: Steven Elliott, former Army Ranger - he left the Army after completing his enlistment, and works now as a financial adviser in Washington state. The "Outside the Lines" special airs tonight on ESPN. It's called "Pat Tillman: Ten Years Later, An Enduring Tragedy." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.