It took almost 15 years for former Army Ranger Steven Elliott to overcome the guilt associated with the 2004 combat “friendly fire” death of professional football star Pat Tillman.
Elliott served with Tillman in the 75th Ranger Regiment, and he is one of two platoon members likely responsible for firing the shots that killed the Arizona Cardinals linebacker by friendly fire during a battle at the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
For years after, Elliott said he questioned why he had been left to live with the guilt of possibly killing Tillman, he said. He sometimes wish he had died instead.
“You try to prepare yourself for, ‘Maybe I won’t come home,’ or ‘Maybe I’ll get hurt.’ … But you don’t prepare yourself for coming back with all your fingers and toes but being potentially responsible for the death of a comrade,” Elliott told the Daily News ahead of his Wednesday address to the Longview Noon Rotary.
During the public lecture, Elliott, a 38-year-old Olympia resident, highlighted his personal battle with mental illness, a recent memoir about that experience and what it teaches others about supporting friends and family struggling through hardship.
“I miss Pat, and the fact that he is dead is ridiculous. The things that happened were tragic. But that’s not the point of this story,” Elliott said.
Instead, his goal in sharing his experiences is to shed light on the issue of the “unseen wounds of war” for active duty soldiers and veterans and to advocate for cultural and policy change, he said. He uses Tillman’s notoriety as a springboard for addressing a crisis that thousands of other service members face, he said.
“My story has a certain amount of attention in the press (because of Tillman) … and the only reason we are talking about his is because he played in the NFL,” Elliott said. “We want to talk about how we take the experiences that surround that date, April 22, 2004, that he died and have a much more meaningful conversation about the unseen wounds of war, the 22 veteran suicides a day and the very acute mental health problems that are manifesting themselves in (active duty soldiers).”
Elliott said the “human chain of connection” helped heal his PTSD and survivor’s guilt. But before he allowed people into “the mess” to help him battle his demons, he isolated himself and was closed off from friends and family.
Shortly after finishing his term of enlistment in 2007, he started working as a wealth management officer. Though his professional life looked shiny and successful to others, Elliott would often go home to self-medicate his pain with alcohol.
His “downward spiral” led to a divorce in 2009. At one point, Elliott said he considered suicide.
“For reasons that I don’t and will never be able to explain, my story didn’t end there,” Elliott said. “I was given grace and mercy at exactly the point that I deserved it the least.”
Elliott said he has since made amends with those he hurt while “wallowing in my own junk,” including his wife (who remarried him in 2010) and Tillman’s mother, Mary.
“It was a really big deal. I had not had contact with the (Tillman) family up until then. …. I had a realization that people that stand at opposite ends of the issue can be actually suffering from the same things. (In essence), what happened was an accident and everybody lost,” Elliott said.
Army investigations determined that Tillman died of three shots to the head from either 7.62 caliber or 5.56 caliber rounds, one of which Elliott was firing. However, authorities never identified the specific round or shooter that killed Tillman during an enemy ambush.
Elliott shares the story of his time with the 75th Regiment and his post-war battle with mental health in “War Story,” a memoir published this May. The story documents the events leading up to, during and after Elliott’s military enlistment. It ends with his meeting with Tillman’s surviving family members about three years ago.
All proceeds from memoir sales are donated back to organizations serving the mental health needs of the active duty and veteran community. The donations are managed by The Elliott Fund, an online platform that hosts a petition to government officials detailing Elliott’s proposal for specific reforms to improve mental health care for active duty service members and veterans.
During his address to the Rotary, Elliott said very little of the friendly fire incident itself. He’s already shared most of that story at length with ESPN for “Outside the Lines” documentary program in 2014.
That’s when he decided to continue telling his story as a way to shed light on the issue of the unseen wounds of war, he said.
“I had spend the 10 years prior to that trying desperately not to talk about my military service because it was a source of shame. … What happened after the ESPN thing was that it was evident that I was not alone. There are lots and lots of people trying to figure this out, both in uniform and not.”
Almost 130 people die by suicide every day, including almost 17 veterans, according to the Department of Veteran’s Affairs. (The VA notes that other agencies have reported between 20 or 22 veteran suicides per day, but those calculations use a different definition for “veteran” or were taken in other years.)
In 2017, the suicide rate for veterans was 1.5 times the rate for non-veteran adults, the VA reports.
People often feel like they are the only one who is struggling, Elliott said, so they never ask for help.
Elliott said he’s outlined a list of 17 potential actions Congress can take to improve services and support for active duty service members. For example, Congress should pass a law to allow active duty soldiers to come forward for psychiatric help without being listed as “non-deployable,” Elliott said.
“We want to see policy and culture change so … there is a safe pathway for people to acknowledge and raise their hand to say, ‘I’m not doing okay.’ So they don’t get to that point where they are facing divorce or facing a DUI … or the point that creates a downward spiral in life,” Elliott said.
On a personal level, he encourages people to openly share stories about their own struggles or anguish, whether or not they’ve served in the military.
“Story is the way we learn. Story is the way we are challenged. Story is the way we are inspired, and story is the way we are connected,” he said.
And connection through storytelling helps people suffering from emotional hardship know they are not alone, Elliott said.
“At the end of the day it starts with us,” Elliott said. “It starts with who is it you know that you just haven’t talked to in a while. … When The next time comes that you have the opportunity to ask, ‘Hey, how are you doing,’ maybe you spend a little more time on that question. And maybe tell truth when people ask you that question.”
© 2019 The Daily News
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.