Two former Army Rangers who shared a tragic bond in their platoon mate Pat Tillman's death -- but from starkly different perspectives -- took initial steps toward reconciliation Tuesday, the 10th anniversary of Tillman's death in Afghanistan.
Steven Elliott, who had fired his machine gun in the direction of Tillman and Bryan O'Neal after an enemy ambush, spoke publicly about the friendly fire incident for the first time to ESPN's "Outside the Lines." Both were featured in ESPN reports in recent days, with O'Neal -- who for years has harbored anger -- telling "Outside the Lines" that Elliott and the others who fired upon him were "meaningless" to him and that he had not forgiven them.
But seeing a tearful Elliott recount the effects the incident has had on him -- that he turned away from God, battled alcohol dependency and suffered through a divorce -- caused O'Neal to reach out to the producer of ESPN's reporting on the story to put him in contact with Elliott on Tuesday morning. O'Neal has battled similar challenges, wracked by survivor's guilt.
Elliott separately contacted the same ESPN producer on Tuesday, saying he would like to reach out to O'Neal. Upon receiving O'Neal's contact information, Elliott says he nearly immediately sent a text message.
"There is so much to say that can't be communicated via text, but I want you to know how incredibly sorry I am for my decision to fire on your position," Elliott wrote. "It pains me to know what you went thru and I can't imagine how difficult that has been these past years. My family and I care for you and are praying for your continued good health and healing."
O'Neal responded: "I am very grateful that you decided to come forward and say what you said. I will have a hard time getting past the anger and frustration that I've endured these past 10 years but I think it's time I do so. It will obviously be challenging to forgive you for what happened but I feel that not only do I need to do this to move on but you also deserve it. I can't imagine the hardships you've suffered over these years but I can understand the pain you've felt. I know that I can't speak for Pat's family but I am ready to let this pain go and tell you that you have earned my forgiveness."
In a later interview with Bob Ley of "Outside the Lines," Elliott said he reached out to O'Neal because "I just really felt for Bryan because I just have no concept as far as what he's been through and how difficult it's been. I didn't take [his anger] personally ..."
O'Neal said seeing and reading about Elliott made a huge difference for him.
"I started really thinking that here's Elliott, who seems absolutely heartbroken and remorseful and he's taking the step to come forward and admit that he was wrong, and it made me think that I need to probably soften my heart a little bit and accept what he's putting out, because at least he has the courage to come forward and admit that he was wrong, and who was I to really say that it wasn't good enough?"
Tillman was killed instantly 10 years ago -- several minutes before 7 on the evening of April 22 -- by three bullets to the forehead. O'Neal, a freshly minted Ranger, had been curled up near a foot-high slab of rock in front of Tillman and somehow survived, later walking down a hill traumatized and covered in Tillman's warm blood.
The simple version to the complex story classifies the carnage as fratricide, written up by investigation after investigation as a horrific screw-up by Army Rangers, a fact inexplicably concealed from the Tillman family and the nation for more than a month back then, as military leaders pitched a phony script of embellished bravery and heroism.
Truth is, Tillman's platoon had been ordered divided by superiors just a short time before, and the two groups struggled to communicate with one another in the steep mountainous terrain. A deafening ambush ensued. A squad leader in a heavily armored vehicle would mistake the allied Afghan soldier for the enemy and open fire, prompting Elliott, then 23 -- a newbie in his first and only firefight -- and two other Rangers to let loose on shadowy images along a barren ridgeline, which they would later learn to be Tillman and the 19-year-old O'Neal.