Steven Elliott, an ex-Army Ranger turned financial advisor, went public with his war story in 2014 for ESPN’s “Outside the Lines.”
“It would be disingenuous for me to say there is no way my rounds didn’t kill him, because my rounds very well could have,” Elliott said in the article, ten years after the death of former NFL star Pat Tillman.
His words sent shockwaves through the nation. The same nation who had mourned the tragic loss of Tillman, and the same nation who had been outraged to learn that the nature of his death was covered up.
Instead of going out in a firestorm of heroic proportions, mowed down by the bad guy, Tillman had been shot – accidentally – by one of his comrades. More specifically, one who might have been Elliott.
So why did he wait so long to speak up?
“For ten years, from ‘04 to 2014, it was basically an exercise to pretend like it hadn’t happened,” Elliott explained.
As he sat adjacent to me, he was distinctly honest and forthcoming with his journey, always giving me more than I’d asked for.
“I put as much road between me and being in the military as possible – let alone being a Ranger, let alone going to Afghanistan, let alone all the other details of the event.”
ESPN writer Mike Fisher had approached Elliott for an interview, and at first, he didn’t want to do it.
“I went from thinking, ‘It’s going to be completely ignored and nobody’s going to give a rip,’ to ‘You’re a pariah, and people are going to look at you crossways for the rest of your life.’ Which is ridiculous, but those are the kind of fears that rise up,” Elliott said.
What Elliott wasn’t expecting were the reactions he got from other people – especially veterans – who were carrying around the same guilt and shame, and who were moved by hearing his story.
“You start to see this interesting thing, this terrible thing that happens, which is that often when we are on the receiving end of trauma, somehow we begin to take responsibility for that,” Elliott noted.
“So it wasn’t just: ‘I’m hurting, and it helps me to hear your story.’ It was: ‘I’m hurting, and I feel guilty and ashamed for things I’ve done and left undone, and it helps me to see that maybe there’s hope on the other side of that.’”
This hope that Elliott’s story was inspiring drove him to write an entire book on his experience.
War Story is, at its core, about a boy turned into a man by the Army.
On the surface, it’s about April 22, 2004, and everything that comes with that date. It’s about the death of Army Ranger Pat Tillman – what led up to it, how it happened, and how it impacted the man who may have caused it.
But underneath all that, it’s about much more. It talks about killing and its consequences. The true realities of war, and not just the war in Afghanistan, but the war in a Veteran’s mind. It is, at all times, brutally honest and painfully reflective.
In the beginning, Elliott asks this foreshadowing question: “What will it mean to kill?” The answer is made clear by his ensuing spiral into mental illness and alcoholism, ruining his marriage and nearly costing him his life.
A Veteran’s War
This excerpt from page 223 is a conversation between Elliot and his wife, Brook.
“‘I’m ashamed,’ I said honestly. ‘I’m ashamed of what I did and of what my military service stands for … You know, people thank me. They f—ing thank me for my service. What do they know? What are they thanking me for? Are they thanking me for shooting at good guys? Are they thanking me for being investigated four times? Are they thanking me for driving around a general or booking plane tickets? I mean, what was all that for?’”
Shame is a big theme throughout War Story, and a common feeling among Veterans. It’s dealing with those emotions that’s the hard part.
“For me, the only way that I’ve been able to look plainly at what I’ve done or haven’t done is to embrace the truth that my identity is not grounded in it,” Elliott said. “That’s not who I am. That’s not why I have value as a person.”
A big part of healing for Elliott has been opening himself up to the scrutiny of others, and being vulnerable. He’s a big advocate for finding community, and not going through hardships by yourself.
He learned this firsthand when he made the decision to contact Mary Tillman.
Reaching out to the Tillman Family
As revealed by ESPN in 2014, Elliott hadn’t talked to Mary Tillman, Pat’s mom, or Marie Tillman, Pat’s wife, since the friendly fire incident had occurred. He’d barely exchanged words with Kevin Tillman, who was a member of the same platoon.
“I never would have expected to have contact with anyone from the family in doing this. To take steps towards that, I had to be fully broken; my pride and my ego had to be put aside,” Elliott said.
He added: “To some degree I was using my concern for somebody like Mary Tillman as a shield for my own fear. It was really more about self-preservation, because I didn’t want to be rejected. I had to get to a place where it just wasn’t about me.”
Here’s an excerpt of their meeting, as written in War Story:
“She didn’t waste any time. “I just want you to know that I don’t blame you. I don’t think the situation you were put in was fair, and I’m sorry if anything we did made it worse. We were just trying to get answers.”
“Thank you,” I said trying to take that all in. “That’s beyond gracious. I’m so sorry for all you’ve been through. And I’m sorry that I may have fired on Pat. If I contributed to his death or pain in any way, I’m so sorry for that.” I strained to maintain my composure.”
After they parted ways with a hug, Elliott said to his wife: “It’s over now. I can feel it. It’s finally over.”
What was “over” was Elliott’s reliving of the accident. His nightmares, panic attacks and self-blame that he’d been experiencing for over a decade. When I asked him if he still struggled with these feelings, his answer came right away.
“I don’t anymore.”
On Current War Efforts
Though he was last on the battlefield over 15 years ago, that same war is still being fought today.
“It’s a slow-rolling version of Vietnam,” Elliott observed.
“We’ve managed to send almost exactly as many people in and out of Iraq and Afghanistan in 18 years as we did to Vietnam in eight — almost three million people. What do we have to show for this?”
Elliott draws a parallel between the U.S. waging war and the U.S. wanting to win, “with no real definition of what winning looks like.”
“We’re seeking to solve non-military problems with military solutions, and that’s something that goes back to World War II. We have never demilitarized since Pearl Harbor. We went directly from defeating the Axis Powers into the horror and the terror of a nuclear world. We as the United States maintained a continual militarized posture that continues to this day. For much of the Cold War, we had planes in the air at all times loaded with nuclear warheads. That’s how we lived then and, though the technology and the weapons delivery systems may have evolved, our war-like posture has not.”
His solution? Honest conversations about war.
“People are grateful for what the military’s done, but I think we need to figure out how to have a conversation that both honors people that we send to war and also can shine a light on the truth of those wars.”
He wants people to embrace the fact that the soldier is not the war; and just because you don’t agree with the war doesn’t mean you disrespect the soldier.
How Should we Honor our Veterans?
To start, we probably shouldn’t honor them without thinking deeply about what it is we’re honoring.
“I don’t think we understand why we honor the military,” Elliott stated.
“The reason why you hold out a special place in society for warriors isn’t because they’re doing something that’s so much better than anybody else. It’s because they’re the only class of people that society actually asks to be prepared to kill other humans.”
This horrifying aspect of a soldier’s job is examined in War Story.
“Dave Grossman, himself a former Army Ranger, was telling me that humans weren’t wired to kill other humans. That doing so can cause harm to our hearts and minds. That such wounds have always been a part of war. That I wasn’t alone. That maybe I, too, had permission to be broken.”
Ellliott reiterates: “Unless you are a literal sociopath, you are not designed to kill other people. I don’t care how big your biceps are.”
We often think about the sacrifice that soldiers make when fighting for our country. The “ultimate sacrifice”, as it is called, is to die for your country. But there’s another kind of sacrifice – one that happens when you knowingly take someone’s life.
“The reason why we honor Veterans isn’t to place them on a pedestal, it’s to share their pain. It’s seen in Native American culture as a form of repentance… it’s saying we honor you because we want to share in the evil that we’re asking you to do, and we acknowledge that.”
Mental Health in Today’s Military
In his postscript in War Story, Elliott talks about how the military deals with mental health; or more specifically, how they should be dealing with it.
Elliott received his own diagnosis years before: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“I had the diagnosis for “chronic PTSD”, but I had no idea what it meant. I thought it was just a medical acronym used broadly to describe someone having a hard time upon returning from combat. I thought it meant I was just one of the weak ones.”
Unfortunately, stories like Elliott’s are far too common. Now, with increasing awareness of PTSD comes awareness of other things, too, like the veteran suicide epidemic. Veterans take their lives at a staggering number of around 20 a day.
As far as a solution, Elliott backs Dr. Mark Russell’s proposal of implementing a Behavioral Health Corps in the military.
“There is no single individual who is responsible for ensuring adequate mental health care is provided to our service members in uniform. Those efforts are currently dispersed among so many branches and departments that they are far less effective than they could be. The creation of a Behavioral Health Corps alone will not solve the problem, but the problem cannot begin to be solved until such a corps is established and empowered.”
What Elliott wants readers to take from War Story is that it’s for everyone. Not just soldiers, and not just Veterans.
It’s for anyone who has experienced trauma, anyone who has felt guilt, and anyone who needs perspective on these very real aspects of life.
“The draft copy was originally called Every Soldier Has A War Story, and I was like, nope. This is about people. And maybe it’s a hyper-dramatized version that has military optics, but it’s about people.”
Every Soldier Has A War Story
War Story is available for purchase on Amazon here, and in participating bookstores.