Monday, May 28, 2012

Cardinal Virtue: the Pat Tillman Story

Memorial Day is a special holiday in the United States.  It’s special because any American, regardless of religion, gender or race can celebrate.  We pause to remember friends and family who have departed this life, and we honor in particular those brave men and women who perished in military service to keep us safe.  Today, Naptime Huddle remembers one man in particular whose story of selflessness and courage made a lasting impression on his fellow Americans. 

In May of 2002 a young man, at the age of 25, made a shocking career decision.  That decision was to enlist in the U.S. Army and then join the Army Rangers.  This individual was a healthy, strong, red-blooded American who, like many other Americans at the time, felt compelled to take action in the wake of the September 11th terrorist attacks.  That a man in such a situation would choose to enlist in the U.S. Army would not normally be shocking.  What made this particular career decision so remarkable was that it cost $3.6 million dollars to make it. 

The young man who made that choice was Patrick Daniel Tillman, star safety for the Arizona Cardinals.

Tillman at ASU
Tillman graduated in three years with a 3.85 GPA from Arizona State University (where he had claimed the last available scholarship for the football program his freshman year).  Not only was he a big success for ASU on the field, as part of an undefeated senior season and Rose Bowl appearance, he won numerous academic awards as well.  Though he was one of the last players to be drafted in 1998 (he was selected 226th overall by the Cardinals), he quickly made his mark on the NFL, starting in ten of sixteen games in his rookie season.  Over his four-year career, Tillman amassed impressive stats:  238 tackles, including 2.5 sacks and 3 interceptions.

In May 2002, Arizona offered him a 3-year, $3.6 million contract.  Pat, who had once said no to a lucrative contract from the St. Louis Rams so he could stay with Cardinals, turned down the offer.  On May 31st, he enlisted in the Army.  His brother, Kevin, himself a promising athlete who had already signed a contract with the Cleveland Indians, also enlisted and the two completed basic training together.  After serving in the initial invasion of Iraq in September 2003, Pat Tillman graduated from Ranger School and was redeployed to Afghanistan as an Army Ranger. 

Pat (left) and brother Kevin

On April 22, 2004, Tillman’s platoon was moving through a desert canyon in two separate groups, forced to separate when one of their Humvees broke down.  After Tillman’s group passed through the canyon, the trailing half of the platoon came under heavy fire in an enemy ambush.  Tillman’s group doubled back on foot, taking a higher position from which to provide cover fire for their comrades.   Unfortunately, as they attempted to relay a “friendly” signal to the troops in the canyon, the lead vehicle of the cornered platoon opened fire on their position.  Pat Tillman and an Afghan militia soldier were fatally wounded, victims of friendly fire.

An image from the Sperah province of Afghanistan, the province where Tillman died.

Death in combat by so-called “friendly fire” is a hazard as old as combat itself.  In the frenzy of battle, adrenaline, instinct and even fear sharpen the soldiers’ senses.  However, they can also cloud those senses, making it impossible to distinguish between friendly and hostile combatants.  Perishing under such circumstances, however, should in no way minimize the sacrifice of the fallen soldier, and such individuals still deserve the honors bestowed on those who fall in combat at the hands of the enemy.  This is particularly so in Tillman’s case, as the friendly fire was in response to an engagement initiated by enemy forces.

Unfortunately, Pat Tillman’s sacrifice was tarnished by the ensuing cover-up involving members of his own platoon and the Army Special Operations Command, which initially reported Tillman’s death the result of hostile fire.  An investigation conducted by Brigadier General Gary M. Jones revealed that Army investigators and senior commanders were aware of the true facts of Tillman’s death shortly after the skirmish, but still approved the Silver Star and Purple Heart commendations for Tillman while citing his heroic actions “in the line of devastating enemy fire.”  The next day after approving the awards, Lieutenant General Stanley McChrystal sent a confidential memo to senior government officials warning that Tillman’s death may have actually been the result of friendly fire.

The Silver Star

The timing of outside events may explain the Army’s desire to paint the circumstances of Tillman’s death in a certain light.  On April 28, 2004, the day Tillman’s Silver Star was approved, CBS news broke the scandal of prisoner abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.  The Silver Star was awarded to Tillman on the 30th and a nationally televised memorial service for him took place on May 3rd.  Without excusing their reprehensible actions, it is apparent that correcting the public’s understanding of what happened to Pat Tillman in the midst of the publicity nightmare of Abu Ghraib would have been embarrassing—to say the least—for the Army and the entire U.S. military.

Tillman's mother (center) and brother testifying before Congress
The treatment of their son’s death as a PR opportunity outraged Pat Tillman’s parents, and angered his brother Kevin.  The family has not hesitated in speaking out about the case and criticizing the Army’s handling of it.  They have willingly spoken to reporters and Kevin and his mother testified at the Congressional hearings probing into the matter.  Unfortunately, the public attention brought Tillman’s personal views on religion (he was an atheist) and the Iraq war itself into the spotlight.  Certain evidence, such as a meeting with war critic Noam Chomsky arranged for after his return from Afghanistan, indicate that he was opposed to the war at the time of his death.  Tillman’s journal that he kept while deployed, in which he may have recorded these sentiments, was never returned to his family, and its location is unknown.

Despite the controversy surrounding Pat Tillman’s death, and his personal stance concerning the war in Iraq, his personal sacrifice resonated with many, and he is no less deserving of the countless tributes that have been made to his memory.  One legacy that he leaves behind is the Pat Tillman Foundation, which was started by his friends and family after his death.  The mission of the Foundation is to support military veterans and military spouses through education and community.  To date, the Foundation has awarded 171 scholarships totaling over $2 million.  Click here to learn more about this special organization. 

Several articles and books have been written about Pat Tillman's story, but two stand out:  Boots on the Ground by Dusk, written by his mother, Mary Tillman, and Where Men Win Glory, written by Jon Krakauer.  You'll find links to purchase these books in the left sidebar.

Pat Tillman was the first NFL player to die in action since the Vietnam War.  Two players perished in that conflict and several more died in World War II.  To learn more about these gridiron warriors who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country, click here to visit the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s page noting their service.

As you grill your hamburgers and hot dogs today, I hope you will take a few moments to pause and remember these individuals, and the countless others, who have given literally all they could to ensure our freedom.

Have a wonderful Memorial Day!

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