I didn't know Specialist Pat Tillman (search), the NFL football star-turned U.S. Army Ranger. But I do know the rugged terrain where he was killed this week. This past month I was embedded with the 1st Battalion 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, the conventional soldiers who work the same border area between Afghanistan and Pakistan where Tillman was killed. It is Badlands.
The mountain roads along which the soldiers drive are perfect ambush trails. They're not really roads at all. They're usually just dry river or stream beds cut out of sheer rock cliffs. They wind and turn every 100 yards or so. Rock outcroppings and scrub brush are great shields for any terrorist wanting to target American soldiers or other foes. And that's probably what happened.
U.S. officials say Tillman's Special Force patrol was attacked. When he and his fellow American soldiers plus Afghan allies got out of their vehicles to find the culprits, a "sustained" firefight broke out, lasting as long as 20 minutes. When bullets, rockets and mortars are flying around you, 20 minutes is a very long time. Tillman and two other American soldiers were hit. Another Afghan fighting with them was killed.
Local officials gave Fox News the "enemy" side of it. An area militia commander claimed there were 15 fighters. There's no confirmation of that but considering the casualties on the U.S. side that sounds right. It's reported some of them were local Afghans. Others were Central Asian and Arab — the sort of guys who are "rank and file" Al Qaeda (search) members. The folks Pat Tillman left his U.S. life behind to tangle with after the atrocity of Sept. 11.
The local commander also told us nine of the enemy were killed.
Pat Tillman and the two other injured American soldiers were then brought out of the area. Tillman was declared dead shortly after the fighting was over. His body brought back to Bagram Military base. The injured soldiers were brought to a hospital there and are listed in stable condition.
The killing of Pat Tillman hit all the troops in Afghanistan hard for a couple of reasons. First, of course, there's the incredible selfless sacrifice that he embodies, casting aside a relatively cushy multimillion-dollar pro sport life for climbing around craggy mountains searching for guys in beards with guns. As Specialist John Bushnell from Fort Bragg (search), California, told me, "That was a lot money and a good career he gave up. ... He's a real American hero."
Then there's the fact that casualties in Operation Enduring Freedom have been relatively low. Since the Fall of 2001, just over 80 American soldiers have been killed in action.
Finally, there's the understanding among all those serving here that they remain in the line of fire...putting their lives on the line in the name of freedom from the tyranny of terror. Lt. Theresa Allaire, a native of Tillman's home state of Arizona probably put it best: "It's unfortunate he lost his life," she said, "but at least he lost it fighting for something he believed in very much."
I asked Lt. Allaire if there were a lot of sad people in Arizona. She replied softly, "Definitely sir." Then with a trace of tears in her voice, she finished up, "here too."
But back to where Pat Tillman was struck down. The weird thing is, the landscape doesn't look a lot different than his home state of Arizona. Desert and mountains. Some evenings when the sun sets in the area, there is a real beauty to it. I've also seen some pretty sunrises there too. But there was nothing pretty about what happened there last week.
It was noble, though And the fight goes on. U.S. military officials indicate the Rangers are still out there. Still running down the people with little regard for how other people run their lives. Again, I don't know him, but I have to imagine Pat Tillman would have liked that too.