Today marks the 15th anniversary of the death of Pat Tillman, who famously left the NFL following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, to enlist in the Army, only to be killed in 2004 by friendly fire in the mountains of Afghanistan.

Fans, friends and admirers took to social media to remember the 27-year-old native former Arizona Cardinals safety.

The first NFL player to be killed in combat since Buffalo Bills guard Bob Kalsu died in the Vietnam war, Tillman was a seventh-round pick out of Arizona State in 1998 and promptly became a reliable, if unheralded leader of the Cardinals defense.

But it was in 2002 that Tillman first became well-known across the country when he and his brother Kevin, a former minor league baseball player, famously enlisted in the Army in response to the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.

The two were accepted into the elite Army Rangers and after graduating from that academy in 2003, they were deployed to Afghanistan.

Tillman would be used in Operation Iraqi Freedom, but was later returned to Afghanistan in 2004, where it was originally reported that he was killed by enemy combatants.

Pat Tillman, AZ Cardinals

The Army initially claimed that the unit was ambushed near the Pakistani border, but subsequent investigations later revealed that he was the victim of friendly fire. An Afghan Militia Force allied soldier was killed in the incident and Tillman’s platoon leader and another soldier were also wounded.

A Criminal Investigation Command report from 2007 described the incident, explaining that Tillman’s portion of his platoon had backtracked to give fire support to the platoon’s other half, which had been ambushed.

“Tillman’s portion of the platoon dismounted their vehicles and moved on foot, to a more advantageous position to provide overwatch and fire support for the other portion’s movement out of the ambush,’ the report read. ‘Upon exiting the gorge, and despite attempts by Tillman’s portion of the platoon to signal a ‘friendly position’, occupants of the lead vehicle of the other portion opened fire on Tillman’s position, where he was fatally shot.”

However, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press in 2007, Army medical examiners were suspicious about the close proximity of the three bullet holes in Tillman’s forehead and failed to persuade authorities to investigate whether his death amounted to a crime.

 

“The medical evidence did not match up with the scenario as described,” a doctor who examined Tillman’s body after he was killed on the battlefield told investigators.

The doctors β€” whose names were blacked out β€” said that the bullet holes were so close together that it appeared the Army Ranger was cut down by an M-16 fired from 10 yards or so away.

Ultimately, the Pentagon did conduct a criminal investigation and asked Tillman’s comrades whether he was disliked by his men and whether they had any reason to believe he was deliberately killed. The Pentagon eventually ruled that Tillman’s death at the hands of his comrades was a friendly fire accident.

The medical examiners’ suspicions were outlined in 2,300 pages of testimony released to the AP in 2007 by the Defense Department in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.

According to that document, there was no evidence of enemy fire at the scene.

Tillman’s family, which has a tradition of military service, believed that a cover-up had taken place in order to help then-President George W. Bush’s 2004 re-election campaign.

‘The administration clearly was using this case for its own political reasons,’ father Patrick Tillman told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2005. ‘This cover-up started within minutes of Pat’s death, and it started at high levels. This is not something that [lower-ranking] people in the field do.’

Pat Tillman

Marie Tillman, his widow, said at the time that her husband’s service ‘should never be politicized in a way that divides us.’

‘As a football player and soldier, Pat inspired countless Americans to unify,’ Marie Tillman said. ‘It is my hope that his memory should always remind people that we must come together. Pat’s service, along with that of every man and woman’s service, should never be politicized in a way that divides us. We are too great of a country for that. Those that serve fight for the American ideals of freedom, justice and democracy. They and their families know the cost of that fight. I know the very personal costs in a way I feel acutely every day.”

As many on social media were quick to remind readers today, Tillman was an avowed atheist who had become disillusioned with the war in Iraq.

In addition to ESPN’s Arthur Ashe Courage Award in 2003, Tillman was awarded the Army’s Silver Star, Purple Heart, Meritorious Service Medal, and the Army Achievement Medal, among other honors.

The Pac 10 Conference’s Defensive Player of the Year award is now named for Tillman, who earned the honor himself at Arizona State in 1997.

 

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