— Wednesday marks the fifth anniversary of the death by friendly fire in Afghanistan of Pat Tillman, the man who gave up professional football to fight for his country.
To call Tillman extraordinary is an understatement. He was an outstanding student, a great football player, an avid reader with a level of intellectual curiosity rarely seen in sports, a man who loved nature and distrusted fame, a good friend and a beloved teammate.
Five years have passed, but his memory remains as strong as ever, so strong that there is growing talk of honoring Tillman by enshrining him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
It’s a fine and commendable sentiment, but it’s wrong for several reasons. The least of those is that his four-year career was neither long enough nor stellar enough to merit such an honor. The more important is that it is exactly the sort of gesture that Tillman would deplore.
A far better memorial would be to demand that the Pentagon come clean on how he died and the coverup and lies that followed. Tillman would approve of that. He believed, above all, in justice and in living an ethical life. He would have campaigned for that, had he survived. The least we can do to honor him is to see that those reforms are accomplished.
Tillman loved playing football. He distrusted fame, especially the type lavished on individuals simply because they could play a game at a very high level. Being a member of a team was more important than being a star, and while with the Cardinals, he reportedly turned down a pile of money to sign with the Rams. Before entering the military, he rejected a multi-million offer to return to Arizona.
The reason those who knew him best give for his decision to leave the NFL after the 2001 season and fight for his country was his belief that people like him are protected by their fame and incomes from having to do the nation’s dirty work. It wasn’t about revenge for him; he wasn’t that kind of man. It was about service, about being a good citizen.
So he no doubt would disapprove of being set up as a famous example, just as he would probably blush furiously at the bronze statue the Cardinals have erected of him at University of Phoenix Stadium. Any team would have done the same to remember a man like him. But a statue doesn’t call attention to the lessons we all can and must learn from Tillman’s life and death.
A whole mythology has grown up around Tillman and his tragic death. One of the myths is that he enlisted in the Army because he wanted to get payback on those who authored the 9-11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Tillman was killed when the Pentagon and the White House were reeling from the revelations of the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison and the insurgency in Fallujah. His death was the result of a tragic set of decisions and circumstances that ended with his Ranger unit being split against the advice of commanders on the ground. In gathering darkness, his segment of the unit was fired upon by the other. His brother, Kevin, was in the second unit. Despite his efforts to identify himself as an American, Pat Tillman was killed by friendly fire.
The Army knew very early what had happened, but the Pentagon, apparently unwilling to admit that this NFL safety-turned-soldier had been killed in a terrible accident, concocted a story about Tillman dying with guns blazing charging the enemy. It was a John Wayne kind of scenario, and the public lapped it up. This was not long after Pentagon cooked up a similarly heroic tale about the actions of Jessica Lynch, the soldier who was captured by insurgents and subsequently freed in a daring raid.
The Pentagon allowed Tillman’s family to bury him, thinking that he had died in combat with Afghani rebels. It wasn’t until a month later, when Kevin Tillman was returning home with the knowledge of what really happened, that the family was informed that Pat Tillman had been killed by friendly fire.
Five years later, his family still feels it has not had a full accounting nor a proper apology from the government. They also feel the people responsible for the coverup have not had to pay for their actions. Tillman’s mother, Mary Tillman, wrote a book published last year about her search for justice and the truth: “Boots on the Ground by Dusk: My Tribute to Pat Tillman.”
In the book and in many investigative reports published since, the Pentagon’s actions have often been nothing short of shameful.
After serving in Iraq, Tillman had come to believe that the invasion of that country was, as he put it, “illegal.” And he was increasingly outspoken in his criticism of the way the Pentagon was conducting the war.
All of these characteristics — an atheist in a foxhole, a hero who couldn’t be manipulated to parrot the party line — are things that important commanders do not appreciate.
Mary Tillman and Stan Goff, a former Special Forces soldier who has been highly critical of the military’s handling of the affair, both are convinced that there is no truth whatever to the claims — popular among some in the blogosphere — that he was murdered.
Goff puts the blame for much of what happened after Tillman’s death on the shoulders of his commanding officer, Lt. Col. Ralph Kauzlarich. In an incident recounted by Mary Tillman, Kauzlarich berated her for not accepting the Army’s fictions and continuing her dogged search for the truth. He suggested if she were a good Christian, she wouldn’t be so obsessed with his death.
“When you die, I mean, there is supposedly a better life, right?” he reportedly said. “Well, if you are an atheist and you don’t believe in anything, if you die, what is there to go to? Nothing. You are worm dirt.”
Kauzlarich never has apologized for those hateful words. The Pentagon has not satisfied its obligation to the citizens of this country to tell the truth. Putting Pat Tillman in the Hall of Fame won’t change that. Only we can do that by demanding that justice be served.