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From AJR,   October/November 2007  issue

Probing Pat Tillman's Final Mission   

ESPN.com's award-winning reporting.


By Raquel Christie
Raquel Christie (rchristie@ajr.umd.edu) is an AJR editorial assistant.      

Pat Tillman was us, but he was superhero us. He was down-home and toothy and friendly and well-mannered, that big-jawed California boy we could so easily adore because he was like us. We rooted for him when he joined the NFL and put on that big uniform, Arizona Cardinals, No. 40, and we rooted for him even more when he put on that bigger uniform, U.S. Army Ranger, and went to that big war, because, he said, he hadn't "done a damn thing as far as laying myself on the line like that," and he had "a great deal of respect for those that have and what the flag stands for."

Then, on April 22, 2004, three bullets pierced his skull, and he was dead. And the newspapers gave us good, heroic reasons for his death, the way we liked it. The Boston Globe, April 24: "[H]is Rangers patrol was attacked by small arms fire and mortars during a coordinated ambush." The White House praised Tillman as "an inspiration both on and off the football field." And in May there was a funeral with a flag and a speech by a fellow soldier. And so he died for the right reasons. And we were angry. But we were satisfied.

But we were misled. We found out, months after that dusty April night, that what killed Pat Tillman in Afghanistan was not enemy fire, but fratricide, jargon for friendly fire, jargon for his fellow troops. And that a fellow soldier burned Tillman's body armor, just hours after he died. And that Tillman had talked about getting in touch with angry antiwar academic Noam Chomsky just before he left for war. We learned the story wasn't what we thought it was, and we reported it vigorously. And the Pentagon said it would keep digging. And we were angry. But we were calmed, because we were tired. Because it was time to lay the story to rest. Because we were, now, a little more skeptical, but we were satisfied.

But some of us weren't.

Like Mike Fish, an investigative reporter for ESPN.com. The story just didn't sit well with him. Brainstorming with colleagues at the sports juggernaut in Bristol, Connecticut, in January 2006, he decided the story couldn't rest until we knew just what happened that night, until the soldiers of the Black Sheep platoon and the Tillman family had their chance to speak after two years of being spoken for.

"It was too simple, too easy, too perfect," Fish says now. "It had to be more complex."

They finally got their chance. Five months, 2,000 documents, countless interviews, cross-country flights and FOIAs and threats later, Fish's "An Un-American Tragedy" painted their stories with vivid anecdotes, document descriptions, interactive maps, timelines and videos. A 19,000-word, four-part series posted on ESPN.com in July 2006, it's a journalistic goliath, a painstaking multimedia venture that is not just a bold recollection of the horrors faced by Tillman's unit and an enlightening look at Tillman himself but also a glimpse at the misdirection that still plagues the war.

It doesn't answer all the questions, Fish says. But, unlike most other coverage of the Tillman tragedy, it poses them.

In October, "An Un-American Tragedy" will receive an award in Arlington, Virginia, from Military Reporters and Editors, the top prize in the group's annual competition that honors military-interest journalism. "Tillman's Final Mission," the 30-minute ESPN documentary inspired by Fish's work, will take home the MRE television award. The two are the first MRE awards the sports network has received, says Michael Knisley, a senior deputy editor at ESPN.com who edited the story.

"I think this is the most important story ESPN.com has ever done," says Kevin Ball, the site's copy chief, who also worked with Fish on the story. "Because it goes beyond sports. And I think that's the greatest thing about sports it's not just about the field, but it's about life."

"It's incredibly thorough," says Ellen Shearer, a Medill journalism professor who was one of three judges in the competition.

It is far from the first investigative honor for Fish, who twice has been nominated for Pulitzers in a 20-plus-year career that has included stints at the St. Petersburg Times, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Sports Illustrated. Fish's investigative work has caused the NCAA to bring sanctions against college sports programs and Georgia to pass the "Equity in Sports Act." "On everything he does, he's a bulldog," Knisley says. "He doesn't take no for an answer... He's the single most dogged reporter I've ever met."

Doggedness was Fish's key to success on the Tillman story, one that relied so much on his ability to build close relationships with sources who were ashamed or distrustful or fearful. Fish recalls talking to Steve White, a Tillman family friend who, at Tillman's funeral in 2004, described how Pat charged up a hill and "sacrificed himself so his brothers could live" in a fight against the Taliban. He provided the same story when nominating Pat for a Silver Star. Pat won it.

The story, White revealed to Fish, was false. White, a Navy SEAL who did not fight with Tillman's platoon, had been misled and embarrassed not just in front of the 2,000 people at the funeral but the entire military community:

"They wanted me to let everyone know he was being awarded the Silver Star, posthumously, and all that. I wanted to have an idea of what happened. So they told me their version at the time of what happened, which is the heroic tale that they initially came out with. I repeated it back. I summarized it and read it back. I said, 'Does that sound accurate?' He said, 'Absolutely.'..

"About [three weeks after the memorial service] is when Kevin [Tillman, Pat's brother] was at work and found out, hey, this thing was fratricide. And he called me, devastated 'What is going on?' He had absolutely no idea that it was fratricide."

"The guy felt he had been totally set up," Fish says. "He had basically been used by the Army to tell this story that in many cases was exaggerated or fabricated. He felt he'd betrayed the family and Pat. He felt horrible."

Fish recalls the difficulty of talking to Bryan O'Neal, the Ranger who was standing next to Tillman when both were shot. O'Neal managed to survive. Fish flew from Atlanta to Tacoma, Washington, to meet him. After four days of Fish's begging over the phone, O'Neal rescinded his offer. He didn't want to talk.

"He was still in the Army. He had to be careful about what he said," Fish says. "It seemed like a wasted effort." Years later, that effort paid off. O'Neal talked. And provided, Fish says, "one of the most remarkable parts of the story."

From O'Neal: "For a long time, I'd get drunk as often as possible and try to stay drunk as long as possible. I drank probably every night. I went through $1,000 worth of alcohol in a little over a month one time. I used to try to stay perpetually drunk...

"I felt that I was going to die. In fact, I knew it. I was positive while it was happening. I felt what he did, the actions he took and then sacrificing himself the way he did, are really the main factors why I walked off of the area alive."

A bigger challenge was the Tillman family. Pat's brother Kevin was also a member of the Black Sheep platoon. He was there the night Pat was killed and, like the rest of his family, unaware of the possibility of fratricide for five weeks. Kevin hung up on Fish and refused to go on the record. Mary Tillman, Pat's mother, did go on the record. But she was equally distrustful:

"Pat may not have been what you call a Christian. He was about the best person I ever knew. I mean, he was just a good guy. He didn't lie. He was very honest. He was very generous. He was very humble. I mean, he had an ego, but it was a healthy ego. It is like, everything those [people] are, he wasn't."

"It was difficult. I have a great respect and admiration for the family and everything they've been through, but it was difficult," Fish says. "'Difficult' sounds mean-spirited, but they were suspicious of people and media outlets. They felt people were looking for sound bites, and they didn't want to be compromised. They didn't want to be Cindy Sheehans."

Despite his efforts, Fish is low-key about his work. When asked "How does it feel?" he huffs into the phone before answering: "It's pretty neat, and I'm proud of it, but at the same token I respect people who do this for a living who are war correspondents and who are in Iraq or Afghanistan or the Middle East. There's a guilt in it. I didn't have to go to war. I was safe."

The Worldwide Leader's investigative reporting has won other awards in recent years, and "Tillman's Final Mission" has already taken an investigative prize from the Deadline Club in New York City.

Nonetheless, his peers say, Fish's story is a reminder of the value of investigative sports journalism. As such episodes as the steroids scandal and the Michael Vick case show, there's far more to sports journalism than covering the games. "Investigations in sports aren't easy, and they aren't inexpensive, and there aren't a lot of newspapers..that would have the kind of resources to do it the right way," Knisley says. "But it's very important."

Says Ball, "I think many of our readers and reporters and writers have a shorter attention span, and it's tough to stay on a topic long-term when you're juggling other short-term projects." But, he adds, providing unique content like the Tillman package is "what differentiates our site from others."

The way Fish's work differentiated itself from others on the Tillman tragedy is one of its major achievements. Several congressional investigations later and more than three years after Tillman's death, his piece remains distinctive and enlightening, still remarkably valid, still refreshingly human.

"Three days removed from the ambush and the ensuing firefight, it wasn't the memory of the rounds of gunshots raining clouds of rock and dust down the towering canyon walls that troubled Spc. Ryan Mansfield. It was the madness of making sense of it all. Spc. Pat Tillman was dead...

"Tillman had been killed in a case of fratricide, otherwise known as friendly fire, by someone among them at the meeting.

"By then, they knew that. Like Mansfield, though, many of them were struggling with how it had happened. With why it had happened. With the awful enormity of it all."

Raquel Christie (rchristie@ajr.umd.edu) is an AJR editorial assistant.