As bullets flew above their heads, the young soldier at Pat Tillman's side started praying.
"I thought I was praying to myself, but I guess he heard me," Sergeant Bryan O'Neal recalled in an interview on Saturday. "He said something like, `Hey, O'Neal, why are you praying? God can't help us now.'"
Tillman's intent, O'Neal said, was to "more or less put my mind straight about what was going on at the moment."
"He said, `I've got an idea to help get us out of this,'" said O'Neal, who was an 18-year-old Army Ranger in Tillman's unit when the former NFL professional football player was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan in April 2004.
O'Neal said Tillman, a corporal, threw a smoke grenade to identify themselves to fellow soldiers who were firing at them. Tillman was waving his arms shouting "Cease fire, friendlies, I am Pat [expletive] Tillman, damn it!" again and again when he was killed, O'Neal said.
A chaplain who debriefed the entire unit days after Tillman's death later described this exchange to investigators conducting a criminal probe of the incident. But O'Neal strongly disputes portions of the chaplain's testimony, outlined in some 2,300 pages of transcripts released this week by the Defense Department in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.
The chaplain told investigators that O'Neal said Tillman was harsh in his last moments, snapping, "Would you shut your [expletive] mouth? God's not going to help you; you need to do something for yourself, you sniveling ..."
"He never would have called me `sniveling,'" O'Neal said. "I don't remember ever speaking to this chaplain, and I find this characterization of Pat really upsetting. He never once degraded me. He's the only person I ever worked for who didn't degrade anyone. He wasn't that sort of person."
Soldiers and commanders who worked with Tillman have repeatedly testified that he was well-liked, respected and admired.
Tillman gave up a multimillion-dollar football contract to enlist with his brother in the Army after the 2001 terrorist attacks.
The military initially told the public and the Tillman family that he had been killed by enemy fire. It was only weeks later, when the truth was about to be published, that the Pentagon acknowledged he was gunned down by fellow Rangers.
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