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Arizona Cardinals safety Pat Tillman shocked both football fans and his teammates in May 2002 when he turned down a contract offer of $3.6 million over three years to join the U.S. Army in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.
On April 22, 2004, Tillman was killed while deployed in Afghanistan in what was initially reported as the result of enemy attack — but was later revealed as friendly fire.
ESPN’s Outside the Lines filmed a special investigative episode to air on Tuesday’s 10-year anniversary of Tillman’s death, but no one could have predicted that the show would bring about a reconciliation of two of the Army Rangers who were present when he was killed.
Steven Elliott, one of three Rangers who has told investigators that he accidentally shot Tillman, spoke about it publicly for the first time with ESPN’s Bob Ley, revealing how he has struggled to live with what happened for a decade. “I made a decision to fire. It was my decision and responsibility, and I made that choice,” he said.
On the other side of the heartbreaking story is Army specialist Bryan O’Neal, who was by Tillman’s side when he was fatally shot. “Pat was like a mentor… He was smart, awesome,” he recalled of the square-jawed 27-year-old.
The two young surviving soldiers where in separate convoys in the mountainous terrain of southeast Afghanistan, with O’Neal, 19, and Tillman going in one direction and Elliott’s group supposedly going the other. But when they found their route to be inaccessible, they too took the left path, leading to fatal confusion.
The second convoy then came under attack from above, so the first convoy went up to a ridge line to provide cover fire.
Elliott, then 23, “fired two to three bursts,” he told OTL, at what he described as shadowy-looking figures on the ridgeline during an ambush, saying his squad leader had fired first, which was the “same as giving the order to fire,” he confessed, while breaking down in tears during the interview.
Having been by his hero’s side high up on the ridge when the bullets hit, O’Neal recalled the NFL safety expressing his shock that he’d been shot, “I am Pat f—ing Tillman,” he repeated, before he succumbed to his injuries and become the first professional football player to be killed in combat since 1970.
In the years since, O’Neal has struggled to both come to terms with the loss and forgive those who caused it. “I guess to say I forgive someone means I think about them; they are meaningless to me,” he said harshly in prior footage. “I would have to acknowledge they exist.”
However, after watching the initial coverage of the anniversary on ESPN last weekend, he reached out to the show’s producers and ask for Elliott’s number because he was struck by how similar their life paths had been since the tragic incident.
In the aftermath, both turned their backs on religion and instead turned to drink, and both their first marriages ended in divorce. “I hated God that I survived, I flushed religion out of my life… I became a functioning alcoholic,” confessed O’Neal, who is now happily married to wife Heather.
Elliott too swapped church for the bottle, but has since found religion again and remarried his original wife. However, he revealed, “I am still wrestling with this thing that is years old now.”
When he watched segments of Elliott’s interview on ESPN and seeing how heartbroken and remorseful he was, O’Neal said he had to “soften my heart a little and accept what he’s putting out because at least he has the courage to come forward and admit that he was wrong.
“I had no intention of it being today, on the anniversary, but I am impulsive and today it came to me,” O’Neal admitted on Tuesday’s episode, having exchanged text messages with Elliott, who is now a financial planner, before going on air. “But I am kind of impulsive… It just kind of came to me.
“Maybe today is the day to go ahead and talk to Elliott and maybe repair this relationship that’s been severed over the past 10 years,” he told Ley.
“There was so much similarities with the circumstances that led up to Pat’s death between me and Elliott that in a lot of ways there’s bound to be a lot of similarities in the aftermath. We were both young, both new in the unit, in our first firefight…”
Also surprisingly, O’Neal said the landmark date had been easier than those in the past. “This is probably been the most stress-free, easy anniversary of Pat’s death that I’ve had in years,” because he was so involved in his new job as a range instructor, he revealed.
Following the emotional reunion, Outside the Lines went to include a voiceover from Tillman’s former Arizona State and Arizona Cardinals teammate, Jake Plummer, while his widow, Marie Tillman, shared the special wish he left behind for her in a letter.
Outside the Lines airs daily at 3 p.m. on ESPN and on Sunday mornings. Watch the video clip below for details on the events leading up to Tillman’s death, which has become one of the most infamous friendly-fire incidents in U.S. military history.
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James Gordon Meek