Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Pat Tillman - Still a hero

Here's the draft of the piece I worked up for this week's Sports Column. Lately, ideas have been sparse, but I thought this one turned out pretty well. See what you think.

Pat Tillman - Still a hero


On Monday -- Memorial Day -- I found myself thinking about the battered story of Cpl. Pat Tillman, the man who turned down a $3.6 million pro football contract to join the Army Rangers after Sept. 11, 2001, and eventually was killed by friendly fire on a dark mountainside in Afghanistan.

Public anger erupted when the true details of Tillman's death eventually surfaced in the Washington Post, and many accused the Pentagon of hijacking and obfuscating Tillman's story for its own ends; namely, to create a "recruiting poster boy" for the Army in an attempt to bolster sagging enlistment figures.

The truth of what happened to Tillman -- that he was killed due to a communications mishap that resulted in another squad firing on his position -- was kept from the public and from his family until well after the highly-publicized Silver Star memorial service held in his honor last May, and his parents are rightfully angry.

But in the midst of the public debate over government cover-ups and full disclosure, it seems to me that the core of Tillman's story has been forgotten.

The fact is, Tillman WAS a "recruiting poster boy" -- a real hero -- long before he died in tragic fratricide.

I never met Pat Tillman, so I don't know what he was like in person. I don't know him the way his friends and family did, and I never got a chance to learn about the particular mixture of flaws and virtues that made him a human being like everyone else.

But I've read enough about him to know that he was an exemplary man. A little background research shows that Tillman graduated Summa Cum Laude from Arizona State in three and a half years with a degree in marketing, a 3.84 grade-point average, and a spot in the 1998 NFL draft.

He played for the Arizona Cardinals, and stayed with the team even after being offered a more lucrative contract by St. Louis in 2001. Tillman apparently knew about loyalty long before he learned that it was one of the Army Values.

After witnessing on TV the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Tillman showed where his values lay. He and his brother Kevin, a minor-league baseball player at the time, joined the Army, determined to become members of the elite Rangers corps and to "make a difference."

While Tillman's April 22, 2004 death was a tragic accident, he didn't fail in that goal. He made a difference by demonstrating with his own life that there are higher ideals than money, celebrity, and success in professional sports.

I doubt Tillman needed an extensive interview with his recruiter, because he clearly wasn't joining the Army for the benefits. He didn't need to hear about SGLI, the G.I. Bill, student loan repayment, or other incentive programs.

He wanted to do more with his life, and he gave his life in the service of his country. He gave it freely, because he felt that doing so was a greater reward in itself than the millions of dollars he was promised as a professional athlete.

So on Memorial Day, I found it helpful to think about Pat Tillman's sacrifice, and to look at my own decisions and intentions in the light of his. Regardless of any spin put on his story after the fact, Tillman is and will continue to be a role model not only for Soldiers, but for American citizens.

And it bears remembering that it was his life -- not his death -- that made him a hero.


UPDATE: Once again, I leech the almighty Greyhawk's Open Post traffic.
UPDATE: Added the link to the article on Turret.com. Click the headline.