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Profile: Bryan O’Neal
Bryan O’Neal was a participant or observer in the following events:
Afghanistan Canyon Area. [Source: ABC News]Serial Two of the Tillman brothers’ Rangers’ platoon, the Black Sheep, heads in a different direction from Serial One to deliver a disabled Humvee to a wrecker on the Khost highway (see April 20-22,2004). However, the tow truck driver refuses to continue when the road becomes impassable. He suggests taking the same route as Serial One, passing Manah to “circle around to the designated highway.” Sergeant Eric Godec must make the call. Although he finds his serial, Two, has lost radio communication with One, he agrees. Two must now make it through the same narrow passage as One (see 6:14 p.m.-6:34 p.m. April 22, 2004) with about 17 men and six vehicles, including the tow. [Washington Post, 12/5/2004; CounterPunch, 8/9/2007; Krakauer, 2009, pp. 250-276]
Soldiers Have Eerie Feeling - Men in both convoys will recall having “an eerie feeling” as they pass through the canyon. Kevin Tillman will say, “I knew damn well we were going to get hit.” According to author Jon Krakauer, “the cliffs rose so precipitously [on either side of the canyon],” Private Bryan O’Neal, in Serial Two, has to “lie on his back in order to scan the canyon’s ledges for Taliban through the scope of his M4 carbine.” Sergeant Trevor Alders, manning the Squad Automatic Weapon (SAW) for Serial Two, and later named one of the “friendlies” shooting at Pat Tillman’s position, will recall that the men speak of this “mutual feeling” of “eeriness” among themselves. As he remembers it, “the canyon closed in on us as we went further into it.” [Associated Press, 11/9/2006; US Department of the Army, 3/19/2007 ; Krakauer, 2009, pp. 250-276]
Half of Pat Tillman’s platoon, the Black Sheep, attempts to exit a narrow canyon-slot in southeastern Afghanistan where it has been ambushed (see 6:34 p.m. April 22, 2004). Coming out of the ambush, the part of the platoon known as Serial Two, in which Tillman’s brother Kevin rides, fires on Serial One, Pat Tillman’s convoy (see May 23-June 1, 2002 and 6:34 p.m. April 22, 2004).
Serial Two out of Canyon, Keeps Firing - As the men in Serial Two race out of the canyon, firing at an enemy they believe surrounds them, they do not know where One is positioned. And they do not know that One is trying to provide them with cover. Testifying in the Army’s later criminal investigation, Pat Tillman’s squad leader, Sergeant Matthew Weeks, will state that he “heard over the radio” of Two’s change in route. But he does not recall being able to get through to Two to coordinate their positions. Yet, he will state that because Two had been briefed as to One’s route, according to “Ranger training,” its men should have been able to maintain “situational awareness.” He will add that he does not think, however, that they “had any idea how close we were.” [US Department of the Army, 3/19/2007 ]
Pat Tillman Leads Fire Team - Specialist Bryan O’Neal is nearest in proximity to Pat Tillman during the whole of the firefight. Initially, upon hearing an explosion, Lieutenant David Uthlaut orders the first convoy to dismount and “press the fight.” He assigns Tillman as one of the three fire team leaders. Tillman dismounts the second vehicle in the convoy and beckons for O’Neal, in the lead vehicle, to hurry up and follow him. One of the Allied Militia Forces (AMF) soldiers, an Afghani armed with an AK 47, has dismounted the vehicle he shares with four other AMFs and their interpreter, and he catches up with O’Neal and Tillman, the three of them then taking a position on a spur on the outskirts of a nearby village. Testifying in the third Army investigation which will, subsequent to this day’s events, be conducted by Brigadier General Gary Jones, O’Neal will state that he follows Tillman’s fire, opening up where he believes Tillman thinks the attackers are firing from. O’Neal can see muzzle flashes up on top of the ridge line. [Washington Post, 12/5/2004; ESPN, 7/19/2006; US Army, 7/19/2006 ; US Department of the Army, 3/19/2007, pp. 77-79 ]
Serial Two Draws Fire; AMF Soldier Fires AK-47 over Road - Weeks will report seeing muzzle flashes and silhouettes and that the first convoy “received fire from across the valley as well.” Tillman runs back to his squad’s leader to ask him if he can take off his body armor and also to let him know where he is positioned. According to Army regulations, Weeks cannot allow him to drop his body armor. O’Neal will tell Army criminal investigators that while Tillman seeks orders from Weeks, the AMF soldier is “firing in all directions… firing over the main road.” Coming back to position, Tillman tells the small firing team that it will be running up a hill.
Squad Leader Weeks Gives Cease-Fire Signal; Sets off Flare - At this time, Weeks gets a radio transmission with the information that “Serial Two [is] mounting up to get around the tow truck vehicle.” He will state: “I remember the lead vehicle starting to make its way out of the canyon, after I had to stand up and look over the spur. I told everybody on the fire teams that friendlies [were] coming out of the low ground, and the lead vehicle was coming out of the canyon, and they mimiced [sic] the call. When I saw the vehicle coming out I also saw [Tillman’s] position. I knew Serial Two did not know where we were.” He will further relate that he rolls on his back and prepares a pen flare gun, then sees a vehicle carrying Sergeant Greg Baker and others stop and “the M240B gunner in the back… fire a burst of fire towards me.” Weeks sets off the flare and gives the cease-fire signal; although some of the soldiers will state to criminal investigators that there is no such signal known, others confirm that the signal is made by waving a hand and arm over the front of the face, palm out. As Weeks does this, he hears another burst, and then people in Baker’s vehicle shouting “cease fire.” [US Department of the Army, 3/19/2007, pp. 77-79 ]
A soldier posted close to Pat Tillman on a ridge-line fired upon by “friendlies” (see 6:34 p.m. - 6:44 p.m. April 22, 2004) will later testify that he, Tillman, and an Allied Forces soldier fighting with them, are fired upon in two incidents involving two different vehicles.
Account of Eyewitness in Nearest Proximity to Tillman - In Private Bryan O’Neal’s account, provided in the Army’s third investigation prior to its criminal probe, he recalls two encounters with friendly fire from two different vehicles, each of which he refers to as a “GMV.” He will testify that the first GMV fires an M-4 at the location where the AMF soldier, Tillman, and he are positioned on the spur, and that the AMF soldier is not hit until the “second encounter of friendly fire,” from a different vehicle. In an official inquiry conducted by Brigadier Gary Jones, O’Neal will detail the two encounters: “[M]y belief was that the first GMV that shot at us was like a cargo GMV, sir. It wasn’t—I didn’t, at that time, see any heavy—heavy weaponry on that sir. It was pretty much—you know there was nothing on it. And then the next one that came on us had a mounted fifty-cal and 240 and they were the ones that opened up on us, sir.” O’Neal will relate that in the initial confrontation with the first vehicle, the one he identifies as being a cargo transport, he and Tillman recognize friendlies, but not considering the situation serious, try to signal that they are friendlies by “a lot of waving.” O’Neal believes the shooters in the first vehicle realize they have made a “mistake,” and, as a result, “stop shooting… pretty instantaneously.” He will say the cargo GMV moves past them. Then the second vehicle “came and they pretty much stopped in the exact same spot… not too far forward of that spot.” But, according to O’Neal, “that one [the second, heavily armed vehicle] had a better angle on us.”
"I Guess They Figured We Were All Dead" - O’Neal will say that the second GMV “stopped and fired for a good 45 seconds to a minute,” but that “it felt like forever.” He will remember that “when they initially opened up… we were waving back and forth, back and forth,” but after GMV-2 hits them with “the fifty-cal and 240,” they stop moving, “and then they carried on after, I guess they figured we were all dead.” Asked about the distance of the second vehicle from his and Tillman’s position, he gauges it to be “no more than 30 meters,” possibly as far as 35. Although he will say he cannot see individual faces, the light is still good enough that he can see that “they were my friends.”
Tillman: "I Have Something that Can Help Us" - O’Neal will describe Tillman’s attempt to save their lives: “Pat was behind some pretty good cover, to where he wasn’t really too much in danger, and I was completely open for getting shot. I was watching them as they were shooting at me, and I was watching the rounds where they were—and Pat could look around—and I was noticing that most of their fire seemed to be directed towards me. The AMF guy, he was dead at that time. He was lying down. I could see him lying down and I realized that they were predominantly shooting at me and I guess he [Tillman] did too. And he moved out from behind his cover to throw some smoke.… All I remember him telling me, ‘Hey, don’t worry, I’ve got something that can help us.’ And he popped a smoke, I guess, and that’s when he got shot—one of the few times he got shot, sir.” Questioned as to when GMV-2 stops firing, O’Neal will reply, “Not too long after Pat threw the smoke, because I just remember him throwing the smoke and then he started having a cry in his call, you know, and he started screaming, ‘My name is Pat Tillman,’ and he said that probably five to 10 times, and then he went silent completely.” O’Neal will confirm that the shooters continue firing all through Tillman’s repeated “cry.”
Shooters Stopped - Towards the end of his testimony, O’Neal will be asked several times about whether or not GMV-2 was stopped when “they were firing.” He will answer that “they pulled up, stopped, looked at our position directly… it was like, stop, acquire, okay that’s our targets, now we can start firing.” In subsequent investigations, O’Neal will not be questioned about his account of receiving fire from two different GMVs, and he will not reiterate it. [ESPN, 7/19/2006]
Serial Two Leader Only Sees 'a Figure Holding an AK-47' - Sergeant Gary Baker, leader of the convoy later established to have fired at Pat Tillman’s position, will state that when he sees “a figure holding an AK-47, his muzzle flashing,” who is not wearing a helmet that might identify him as a coalition force soldier, he “[gets] tunnel vision.” He will claim that he does not notice O’Neal, Tillman, or any other Serial Two soldiers on the ridge-line. He will recall that the bearded Afghan is lying on his stomach. Others in his convoy will say the Afghan is shooting standing up, which they know to be the traditional fighting stance of “the enemy.” Although men under Baker’s command will say they can see that the Afghan is not dressed in what they call “man-dresses” (traditional garb) worn by guerrilla fighters, and in fact the CIA-trained Afghans traveling with the Black Sheep are all in standard battle dress uniforms (BDUs), none of the soldiers have combat trained with the allied Afghan fighters, and “shifting alliances” in the province have previously led to fatal mistakes in identifying friend from foe. Baker will say he sees a man with a dark complexion firing “a rifle typically carried by the enemy.” He believes the Afghan is firing directly at him. Only later does he realize that fading light, distance, and angle compromised his vision. In fact, the AMF soldier is attempting to provide cover for Baker and his men.
First Investigation Reports Tillman Was Charged - Baker opens up on the AMF, who is standing about 10 feet to the right of Tillman. His men follow his fire. Baker will refute the first investigative report, which notes that he dismounted his vehicle and “charged 15 meters toward Tillman” before firing. Staff Sergeant Kellett Sayre, Baker’s driver, will say he is also initially wary of the AK-47, but he spots Ranger vehicles parked in the area and Rangers along the ridge. He sees hands thrown up in the air—O’Neal and Tillman frantically trying to signal they are friendlies. He hears shouts of “cease fire.” He yells cease fire and even pulls on Specialist Stephen Ashpole’s leg, while driving with one hand on the wheel, racing away hoping to deprive the squad of a stationary shooting platform. But Ashpole is busy unloading every round in the .50-caliber machine gun up in the turret. And the men will say that by the time their platoon mates are trying to stop the barrage of fire, they themselves have been deafened by it. [Washington Post, 12/5/2004; Associated Press, 11/9/2006; US Department of the Army, 3/19/2007 ]
"They Just Wouldn't Stop Shooting" - According to Krakauer, “as Baker’s Humvee kept driving across the wadi [dry riverbed valley], the shooters continued to spew bullets with reckless disregard, raking the entire hillside.” Many of the Serial One Rangers under Weeks’s command are arrayed up on a slope above Tillman’s position. Private Will Aker sees Specialist Steve Elliott “shooting [his 240 machine gun] everywhere,” over the slope and into village buildings. Aker recalls one of the bullets as landing within 12 inches of his foot. Specialist Russell Baer will reflect on a moment during which he contemplates shooting at his own men to put an end to the deadly chaos: “You could see rounds impacting all around us… they just wouldn’t stop shooting. I came so close to shooting back at those guys. I knew I would be able to kill everyone of them with my SAW.” Although he does not act on his impulse, and is glad not to have, he will say “it didn’t seem like anything else was gonna stop them.” [Krakauer, 2009, pp. 250-276]
The Toll - When the shooters’ Humvee finally comes to a stop, the toll amounts to two dead—Tillman and the AMF soldier—and two seriously wounded—platoon leader Lieutenant Uthlaut and his radio operator, Specialist Jade Lane, who had been attempting to communicate with Regimental Command in Kabul from 100 yards up the road. Tillman is killed by three shots to the forehead. The AMF soldier dies of chest wounds. Uthlaut is shot in the mouth, Lane in the knee. [ESPN, 7/19/2006; US Department of the Army, 3/19/2007 ]
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