Ballistics evidence suggests the bullets that killed NFL-player-turned-soldier Pat Tillman were fired from just 10 yards away. We know it was friendly fire — his mother believes it may not have been an accident. Here’s a review I wrote for the SF Chronicle of the book written by Tillman’s mother. To read it, click this link, or see the text below:


“Boots on the Ground by Dusk” by Mary Tillman with Narda Zacchino

Review by Michael Shapiro, June 15, 2008

You’ve most likely heard of Pat Tillman, the former NFL standout from San Jose who gave up his football career to enlist in the U.S. Army. And you probably know that in 2004, weeks after the Army told his family and the nation that Tillman died heroically in a firefight with the enemy in Afghanistan, the military acknowledged Tillman was killed by bullets fired by his fellow Army Rangers.

But what you may not know is that Pat’s mother, Mary Tillman, author of “Boots on the Ground by Dusk,” believes his April 22, 2004, death in a narrow Afghan canyon may not have been an accident. She thinks it could have been premeditated murder. And she has some evidence to back this up.

Mary Tillman has tenaciously and persistently investigated her son’s death since irregularities in the Army’s narrative began to surface almost immediately after her son died. One example: She learned the Army burned her son’s bullet-riddled body armor, a violation of policy, in what she believes was an attempt to cover up his death by “friendly fire,” an appallingly euphemistic term she deplores.

So it was with great anticipation one dives into “Boots,” eager to learn what Mary Tillman believes happened to her son. Written with former Chronicle Deputy Editor Narda Zacchino, the book opens with a heartrending scene of Mary sitting by a fire pit in her front yard, smoking and blowing out her “anger, frustration and sense of crippling loss.” Then she flashes back to childhood vignettes about Pat and his two brothers, Kevin and Richard. We see Pat climbing trees, questioning authority, and excelling at soccer, which give some clues to the man he’d become. But at times this seems a bit like a family slide show that goes on too long.

“Boots” jumps to May 2004 when Mary learns – from a reporter rather than from the military – that her son was killed by friendly fire. Her description of the tears spilling down her cheeks can bring tears to the reader’s eyes. We don’t just see this mother’s pain – we feel it. The next flashback chronicles Pat and Kevin’s post-9/11 decision to the enlist in the Army. Though the Tillman family has a long tradition of military service, Mary and her brother Mike fear “Bush’s cockiness and lack of empathy.” Mike says he’s proud of Pat and Kevin’s willingness to defend their country, but “I don’t want them fighting for this commander-in-chief.”

The shocker comes on Page 60, when, after a series of inconsistent briefings with senior military officials, Pat’s distraught brother Richard says, “I think my brother was f- murdered.”

Much of the rest of “Boots” segues from accounts of the family’s ordeal of trying to uncover information about Pat’s death to stories of Pat’s brashness.

“Boots” shows Pat graduating summa cum laude with a 3.86 GPA from Arizona State. He was a voracious reader whose appetite ranged from Thoreau to the Economist, from the Book of Mormon and the Koran (though he wasn’t religious), to Noam Chomsky and Bob Woodward’s “Bush at War.”

The undersized (5-foot-11) NFL player was so grateful to the Arizona Cardinals, which drafted him, that after becoming a successful safety he chose to stay with the team and turned down a much more lucrative $9.6 million contract from St. Louis. After fulfilling his contract with Arizona, he joined the Army.

Though he did not support the Iraq war and enlisted to serve in Afghanistan, Tillman was initially assigned to duty in Iraq. In “Boots,” Kevin, who served alongside him, recalls a time when Pat saw a frightened old man with “a look of terror” in his eyes. Pat shouts – in Arabic – “We will not harm you,” a testament to his compassion and ability to speak the local language.

Admirably, Mary Tillman doesn’t deify her son – her portrait is realistic and shows some of his faults, such as Pat’s impatience and involvement in a high school fight.

But “Boots,” called a “Tribute” in the subtitle, shows Tillman as the best of what a young American man can be: hard-working, honest, constantly striving to improve and willing to sacrifice everything in service to his country. Which makes the deceit surrounding his death that much more outrageous.

But was he murdered? Mary Tillman notes that spring 2004 was a disastrous time for the Bush administration with the failure in Fallujah and the Abu Ghraib torture scandal. “I wonder if it’s possible the ambush was staged,” she writes. “I wonder if Pat was killed (for PR reasons) on purpose.”

A July 26, 2007, Associated Press report revealed medical evidence stating it appeared Tillman was shot by an M-16 from much closer than originally reported: “a mere 10 yards or so away.” This could lend credence to the family’s belief his death wasn’t accidental.

Confoundingly, this evidence isn’t mentioned in “Boots,” which ends in September 2007, weeks after this report surfaced. Despite Mary Tillman’s best efforts, we may never know exactly how or why Patrick Daniel Tillman was killed. But the book’s conclusion would have been much more satisfying if this insightful woman shared what she now believes. {sbox}


Michael Shapiro is the author of “A Sense of Place” and wrote an investigative feature about Pat Tillman last year for a South Bay weekly newspaper. E-mail him at

This article appeared on page M – 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle