War Story: Olympia man recounts death of Pat Tillman and overcoming the role he played

OLYMPIA, Wash. -- It's been 15 years since former NFL star and Army Ranger Pat Tillman died from friendly fire during a battle in Afghanistan.

Steven Elliott, an Olympia man, is now speaking about that horrible night.

Tillman set aside his football career to serve his country following 9-11, hailed as an American hero in the process. Elliott, after graduating college, also felt a need to serve like his grandfather did decades before during World War II.

“It just felt like, for me, I couldn’t shake the sense that I needed to join,” said Elliott.

Elliott eventually became a ranger and shipped out to Afghanistan, where he served in the same platoon as Tillman.

During an early mission, the decision to split up their platoon when a Humvee broke down proved deadly. Elliott’s squad was caught in an ambush, and he and two fellow soldiers returned fire on the enemy.

In that crossfire, Pat Tillman was killed.

“You’re numb,” said Elliott. “You have no container to process it. For me, it was a very cerebral response.”

Elliott says, in his mind, a tactical failure by leadership led to Tillman’s death, so he put his head down and focused on the next mission. But as time went on, the weight of what happened the night Tillman died dragged him into depression.

“You tell yourself all of these things to kind of talk yourself off that emotional ledge,” said Elliott. “But you can’t quite get yourself there because the feeling of the guilt and shame that you’re experiencing.”

Elliott turned to alcohol to self medicate. His marriage fell apart and he considered suicide, not realizing he was suffering from PTSD.

“I started really exhibiting what I now understand as chronic post-traumatic stress disorder, including the hyper vigilance, the anxiety, the difficulty sleeping, and the underlying feeling that you’re kind of a marked man. You feel like your crime is tattooed on your forehead," Elliott recalled.

After suffering for years, the turning point came when he finally took the trip to speak with Tillman’s mother and family.

“I had to be willing to go and say, 'I’m sorry,' because I think I hid behind that for a long time. It was one of the hardest and scariest things that I ever did, and I was just kind of owning that. I think that’s the point when things really began to change," he said.

Elliott began speaking about his war experience. He talked with a therapist, then family and friends, along with fellow veterans.

He came out of the cloud that hung over him for so long. And now his new mission is to help those who are also struggling.

He is releasing a new book called "War Story: A Memoir." It goes into detail about his experiences, and he hopes it helps others battling PTSD, especially veterans and active-duty soldiers who may be suffering while they still serve.

“Many of us have a war story, whether we’re civilian or otherwise, where we’ve experienced struggle pain and loss in life. We’re trying to pick up the pieces to that, and throughout the story you will find instances of other people close to me sharing their war stories. There is vulnerability in that, there’s danger in that, and there’s healing in that.”

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