The man saw and heard things, back in the States where he was wealthy and a Sunday star. The man saw and heard things in his mind's eye and mind's ear when he lay on pillows in $200-a-night hotel rooms on the eve of pretend wars surrounded by cheerleaders and screaming fans and breathless 26-year-old reporters. That's why he was here in the thick-wooded Afghanistan mountains that crawled with al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters traveling in packs of four and five dozen. That's why he would the tonight.
Here in Spera, where the enemy slipped across the Pakistani border a few miles to the east to infest the cliff heads and steep thickets of pine, 27-year-old Army Ranger Sgt. Pat Tillman had no need anymore to lie in bed imagining what a soldier's last gasps sounded and looked like. No reason now to dig at himself in the dark, wondering what right he had to live off the sacrifice of relatives and strangers who'd fought in American wars.
He and the thin detail of Rangers and Afghani fighters in his patrol would be in deep trouble if Muslim militants lay in wait tonight. The nearest U.S. firebase was in Khost, about 30 miles away. The density of trees and tortured geometry of the terrain made it nearly impossible for the Predator drones circling high overhead to detect the enemy and give warning, or for the Chinook choppers back at base to stage a swift rescue.
But there was no longer any lying back in the razor-wire-ringed bases where Special Forces had crouched through much of 2003. Operation Mountain Storm had begun. The Pakistani military was bringing down the hammer, at last, in the east, squeezing Islamic extremists out of sanctuaries there and through the mountain corridors into Afghanistan. The grim chore of the 2nd Battalion of the 75th Army Ranger Regiment was to patrol these twisting gorges, to cut down insurgents on the move, to live in mud-brick villages among the locals who might spill secrets. To find the big dog suspected to be lying low in the region—Taliban chief Mullah Mohammed Omar—and maybe the even bigger one, al-Qaeda No. 2 man Ayman al-Zawahiri, or the biggest one of all, Osama bin Laden. Pat Tillman had left Fort Lewis, Wash., three weeks before and joined Mountain Storm with his 26-year-old brother, Kevin, two Rangers assigned to separate units but near enough, a few times a week, to look into each other's eyes.
Even before the World Trade Center incinerated, even as a linebacker at Arizona State in 1996 and '97, Pat would lie in bed on the eve of games and picture things that no teammate did. He'd envision the American flag and the blood that had been spilled for it and utter words that football players didn't, shouldn't, just hours before entering battle. "There's more to life than football," he'd say. "I want to contribute to society and help people."
Then came the phone call one September morning from Kevin, an infielder in the Cleveland Indians organization—turn on your TV, right NOW, Pat!—and the live image on the screen of the second airliner hurtling into the second glass tower full of human beings. The next day came Pat's interview with NFL Films, when he said, "I play football, and it just seems so goddam—it is—unimportant compared to everything that's taken place.... I feel guilty even having the damn interview.... My grandfather was at Pearl Harbor and a lot of my family has gone and fought in wars, and I really haven't done a damn thing.... I think of—this, this kinda sounds tacky—but I've always thought about Pearl Harbor and the people in the boats and the bombs kinda coming down and what they were going through...their screaming and the passion they exuded and how they lost their lives. I think of stuff like that.... I imagine I'll probably have a few other things to think about now. Maybe a fireman running up those stairs...."
Kevin was dead-set. He was going to quit the minor leagues and give up his dream, a life in the bigs, to enlist and attempt to become an Army Ranger. But how, everyone in America would wonder, could Pat do that too? How could he walk away from a three-year, $3.6 million contract with the Arizona Cardinals and end up in a region so riddled with risk that Afghanis themselves trembled to enter unless they belonged to the local tribe?
Pat rattled along the dirt road in the lead pickup truck with his fellow Rangers, allied Afghani soldiers following in a vehicle just behind. For him the question had always been different: How could he not?
Dusk fell. The shadows twitched with treachery. The Afghanis here, even the locals who collaborated with coalition forces for cash, loathed the Americans. Sixteen months earlier U.S. warplanes acting on faulty intelligence had taken out a convoy of cars carrying several of Spera's revered tribal leaders, and now the woodcutters and shepherds of the Zadran tribe were tipping off Islamic insurgents on the whereabouts of Special Ops patrols so the Americans too would know the taste of blindside death.