Pat, who often
played football with no pads other than those on his shoulders, shouted back to
a trailing sergeant: Could he rip off his body armor so he could really run?
Pat and his
advancing platoon mates began taking fire from the northern ridgeline as they
scrambled toward a hill near the kill zone. A radio operator behind them tried
to call Serial 2 to inform them of Serial 1's new position. No response. He
tried to call in aerial support. No response.
Pat reached the
hill first, and was caught in a crossfire all his own: his need to protect
O'Neal, the young Ranger at his side, and his own screaming need to keep going
and take out the Taliban threatening his mates and brother. He crested the hill
and positioned his two men behind boulders, taking small-arms fire from both
ridgelines and firing back. Now they were the ones nearest to the dirt road and
to the chaos in the canyon. Pat retraced his steps, went back over the hill,
near Russ's position, and asked permission to go even closer and attempt to
take out the enemy on the southern ridgeline. The sergeant nodded. Russ watched
Pat run back over the crest, vanishing from his view for the last time.
Back in the
canyon, Serial 2's lead GMV finally got the jinga driver to move his vehicle,
then maneuvered around it. The gorge twisted, and the lead GMV--bristling with
a .50-caliber heavy machine gun on the roof, an M240B rack-mounted machine gun,
a SAW gun, three M-4s and buckets of adrenaline--got around the bend, to where
the canyon opened wide. The squad leader, Baker, saw muzzle flashes on the hill
to his right and a bearded Afghan soldier. At last, an enemy position they
could fire on, unlike the unreachable enemy atop the canyon walls. Wrong. It
was the Afghan soldier 10 to 15 yards from Pat, wearing old U.S. desert
camouflage fatigues, firing his AK-47 at the Taliban up on the ridgeline.
someone shouted. Baker began firing his M-4 at the Afghan, just as Pat returned
to his position and began to tell O'Neal of his attack plan. The machine guns
in the GMV, following Baker's lead, unloaded on the hillside. The Afghan
soldier dropped dead.
Friendlies! Cease fire!" Pat and the other Black Sheep from Serial 1
screamed from the hill. But the gunners on that lead GMV, still deafened by the
blasts inside that tight gorge and now by the .50-caliber gun blazing on the
roof, couldn't hear them. The fire from the ridgelines seemed to have ceased,
the Taliban apparently in retreat. Pat and his mates raised their arms and
waved them back and forth to signal cease-fire. Some of the men in the GMV
didn't see the gesture, others didn't recognize its meaning. They kept
The driver of the
GMV, meanwhile, had spotted Serial 1's vehicles up ahead and realized those
were Black Sheep on the hill. "Friendlies on top!" he shouted. No one
heard him. A hot .50-caliber brass casing fell from the roof and burned him.
Some of his mates heard his howl of pain and thought he'd been hit by enemy
fire, heightening their confusion.
On the hillside
Pat heard his young partner's cries from the boulder below his. "Hey, don't
worry," Pat called to O'Neal, "I've got something that can help
us." Popping up to fling a smoke grenade he hoped would halt the hail of
fire, he drew a fusillade of bullets, zinging all around him, pocking his
bulletproof vest. The men in the lead GMV thought the smoke had come from an
exploding mortar round.
The lead GMV kept
moving along the dirt road, but the firing stopped. Russ and O'Neal later
recalled seeing it stop, perhaps 33 to 55 yards from Pat's position, and some
of the men inside it getting out. The men in the GMV would say later they
didn't leave the vehicle and the distance they shot from was never that close.
Pat and O'Neal, thinking that at last the gunners had realized their blunder,
stood and exchanged a few words of relief.
machine guns opened up again. "Cease fire, friendlies!" Pat howled in
disbelief. Russ, hugging the ground, waiting to be hit, heard Pat screaming
words he never would have for the first 27 years, five months and 15 days of
his life: "I am Pat f------ Tillman, dammit! I am Pat f------