On September 12, 2001 I stood on the sidelines of a football field in North Texas observing a moment of silence for the victims of the attack in Washington D.C. and New York. Though not particularly athletic, or good at the game of football, I was a two-way starter for my junior varsity squad due to having one advantage over my peers; I was a very angry young man. Football, more than any other sport, allows for those who are lacking in physical gifts to still matter through a combination of tenacity, emotion, and will. But, on that day, with the memory of watching the second plane hit the south tower clear in my head, there was no anger to latch onto on the field, there was no will to push me.
Patrick Daniel “Pat” Tillman was the poster child of what “will” could do for a football player. Standing just five feet, eleven inches, and a slight two hundred pounds, measurements that are considered small for a football player, Tillman had managed to will himself into a player who won the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year while at Arizona State. After being drafted by the Arizona Cardinals in the 7th round of the 1998 NFL Draft, a round which rarely produces back ups, much less starters, Tillman’s will and work ethic landed him into the starting line-up his rookie season.
Tillman held his starting spot until May 2002, when eight months after the attacks on September 11th he walked away from a 3 year, $11.4 million dollar contract to join the Army along with his brother Kevin, a Cleveland Indians farm hand. The Tillmans were seen as an inspiration to many; patriots who left a life of fame to serve their country, Captain America come to life. Sadly it would end in tragedy.
By 2002 the Tillmans had both served in Iraq, by 2003 they had become Army Rangers, and had been deployed to Afghanistan. It was during this time that Pat Tillman started to privately express his disillusionment with the war, and the military. He was against the invasion of Iraq, and critical of the Bush Administration. At one point he had a meeting with an NFL team who wanted to sign him, despite his feelings he turned the offer down feeling that he had a commitment to fulfill.
On April 22, 2004 while on patrol in Afghanistan, Pat Tillman was killed in combat. It was a shocking and tragic event, one that sent waves of grief through the country. The Army quickly released a statement saying that Tillman died a hero’s death, charging the enemy to protect his fellow soldiers. This, like much of what the Army would say in the aftermath of Tillman’s death, was a lie.
In December of 2004 the Washington Post published a harrowing article by Steve Coll titled “Barrage of Bullets Drowned Out Cries of Comrades” which delves into how exactly a mishap between patrol squads managed to get Pat Tillman killed by his fellow soldiers, with his brother just feet behind the men who would kill him.
While on patrol, one of the humvee’s in Tillman’s platoon broke down. Under pressure from a commanding officer, Tillman’s platoon leader Lt. David Uthlaut ordered the his men to split into to squads, one to escort the broken humvee, one to push ahead. This split and the confusion inherent of a firefight led to Tillman’s death.
There’s a scene in Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 where various members of the Army discuss the rush of combat, and how they choose music to serve as a background to their exploits. The two favorite songs? Drowning Pool’s “Bodies” and The Blood Hound Gang’s “Fire Water Burn.” It’s a uncomfortable look into the psyche of young men who were raised in a world without conflict till the attacks on September 11th, who now found themselves in situations where war, and death, surrounded them. A writer better than I could delve into the conditioning inherent to this, and I’m sure many have, but to me it showed that in the end many of the people who fought in the US’s last conflict were boys who thought it was a game. According to the Washington Post’s story in 2004, some of these boys killed Pat Tillman.
This is how Pat Tillman died: Tillman’s squad had split from the squad dealing with the humvee, and had navigated its way through a canyon to a nearby village. The squad with the humvee was working their way through the canyon later in the day when according to reports it was attacked by an ambush. The squad opened fire on the surrounding canyon walls, and raced towards the exit. At the village, Tillman and others were ordered to return to the canyon to offer fire support to the other squad. With Tillman’s group was an Afghan paramilitary fighter. Tillman, the Afghan fighter, and another Ranger arrived at the side of the canyon right as a humvee full of young Rangers came through firing. The Rangers saw the bearded Afghan fighter and immediately started firing at his position, either failing to notice Tillman’s presence, or not caring due to the rush of the moment. Despite his best efforts to identify himself as a friendly, Pat Tillman fell, his body landing next to the Afghan fighter who had joined him in hopes of protecting his fellow soldiers.
What followed is one of the most shameful incidents in US military history, despite immediate reports from the squad of what happened the Army released the statement falsely describing Tillman’s death as a heroic incident against enemy combatants. A funeral packed with celebrities, and politicians was held, and it took over a month before an official told the family how Tillman was actually killed.
During this time a cover-up took place. Against standard regulations, Tillman’s armor, and uniform were destroyed. Tillman’s personal journal was also destroyed. Despite not being eligible for the award Tillman was quickly recommended for the Army Silver Star. It seemed the military was doing all it could to keep Tillman’s death from becoming a fiasco, while still using the idea of Tillman they were projecting to America to show that the war was just.
Of course we wouldn’t know any of this if not for Tillman’s mother. Chronicled in the 2010 film The Tillman Story, Mary Tillman spent three years trying to learn about her son’s passing, eventually leading to a congressional hearing in 2007, and the release of over 2,300 pages of Defense Department documents.
Two things learned from those documents are hard to ignore:
• There has never been evidence of enemy fire found on the scene, and no members of Tillman’s group had been hit by enemy fire.
• Army attorneys sent each other congratulatory e-mails for keeping criminal investigators at bay as the Army conducted an internal friendly-fire investigation that resulted in administrative, or non-criminal, punishments.
These facts have lead to a micro-industry of people banding about theories that Tillman was murdered because of his stance against the Bush administration and the war. In his 2009 book on Tillman and Afghanistan, Into The Wild writer Jon Krakauer doesn’t dwell on these theories, but instead shines a light on how rapid the cover-up was done. It’s a harrowing look into an administration that was trying to create a hero out of a victim.
Ten years since his death, Tillman exists as such: he’s an example of American selflessness, someone who had it all, and gave it up to serve his country. He also exists as an example of how our government exploits individuals for its means. Today, his wife Marie runs the Pat Tillman Foundation whose goal is to provide academic scholarships to military veterans and their spouses. A statue of Tillman stands outside of the Cardinal’s stadium in Arizona, a push has been made to induct him into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. This week ESPN is dedicating programming to his life, including interviews with Army Rangers who served with him, and were there the day he passed.
Pat Tillman’s life, and death, matter. They matter because of the quote he gave to NFL Films shortly after the attacks on 9/11, when his “will” for the game seemed to be wavering: “I play football. It just seems so unimportant compared to everything that has taken place.” And they matter because of what he told a friend when discussing the prospect of losing his life while in service: “I don’t want them to parade me through the streets.”
Tillman wasn’t the first athlete to die in service of his country, he won’t be the last, but we owe him the sincerity of remembering not just his selflessness and sacrifice, but his wish to just be a man. It’s a shame others didn’t do the same.