Pat Tillman died in Afghanistan ten years ago today. Cause of death: fratricide. Friendly fire. He was 27.
I never knew Pat Tillman. But he is a hero to me. Tonight, ESPN’s Outside The Lines series devoted a full episode marking Tillman’s death, interviewing former Army Rangers who served with the Arizona Cardinals’ 226th pick in the 1998 NFL draft, including the man who took cover next to Tillman but wasn’t harmed, as well as the man who may have fired the fatal bullet. Towards the end of the show, one of Tillman’s former teammates said something to the effect that Pat’s greatness lay in his normalcy. I struggle articulating exactly why I look up to Pat Tillman; even in my head it can seem incoherent. But it’s got something to do with that normalcy, of that much I’m sure.
From what I’ve read and interviews I’ve watched, Tillman was driven by curiosity and compassion and loyalty. At times, committed to a fault. Tillman spent a few weeks in jail the summer before his freshman year at Arizona State University after he beat the shit out of another kid in a parking lot who allegedly attacked one of his friends, except Tillman went after the wrong person, leaving the victim in serious condition. And of course, his loyalty to his country ultimately put him in the situation in which he began questioning the U.S. government’s military policies and his own culpability–a situation that claimed his life. He made decisions I wouldn’t have. But he’s a hero to me because he was an above average guy who maintained his convictions while existing in a realm that easily empowers men to discard them. History is littered with the errors made by men locked to their beliefs. But Tillman’s inquisitiveness indicates to me he understood himself as inherently flawed, like all of us, and when he was wrong, he corrected course, allowing his convictions to be informed, in order to be the best person he could be, mistakes and all.
Respect is earned by how we work to buff out the blemishes. For a young man, Tillman’s self-awareness was impressive. He’ll be remembered for striving to do the right thing, and knowing it was important to learn from the times when he didn’t. That’s not a bad legacy to leave behind.
(Pat’s high school sweetheart and wife Marie established The Pat Tillman Foundation. Top photo: Pat Tillman. Charles Gabrean/Courtesy of Doubleday. Via NPR.org)