Friday, April 23, 2004

Personal Thoughts on Pat Tillman

Thirty years ago, I enlisted in the U.S. Navy. Vietnam was winding down, and certainly the image of serving the country had become tarnished by that time in history. But like a lot of rudderless kids from the beginning of time until present, serving in the military was my answer to finding discipline, direction, and purpose. I like to think I gained all three of these attributes during my 7 years of service, and I may never have gained them otherwise.

As you read and hear eulogies for Pat Tillman over the next few days, consider this: Pat Tillman already had all three of the attributes that I sought when he made the decision to forego his NFL career and join the Army. He wasn't a freshfaced, naive kid straight out of highschool. He was a determined walkon that played four years at Arizona State, and then captured a nice NFL contract with the Cardinals. I assume he lived in a nice house, drove nice cars, and ate at the best restraunts - something few of us will ever have the luxury of doing.

Yet, something in him drove him to respond to the tragic events of 9/11. I don't know if it was respect for his brother's decision to serve, or if he felt that he needed to contribute his name and fame to the cause. I doubt it had anything to do with the 'fame' angle. If it did, he would have taken the Elvis route to serving, not the Ted Williams route.

This alone makes his death more tragic. I wonder, knowing what we know today, if Pat Tillman would have made the same life-altering decision with regards to serving his country. And after considering the story of his life, I don't think it would have turned out any differently.

I think it's important that both sides of the political aisle resist the temptation to make Pat Tillman's death a recruiting poster for their causes. Personally, I still need the magnitude of his passing to sink in a bit. And as Americans, we owe it to his friends and family to honor a man who served under the circumstances that he did without passing judgment on the circumstances that put him in harms way.

An NFL piece on Tillman from 2003 sums up the essence of Pat Tillman, and those more unheralded who are just like him, as follows:
The story that comes to mind is one told by Bruce Snyder, Tillman's coach at Arizona State. It seems that Snyder planned to redshirt Tillman as a freshman, extending his eligibility by a season. Of course, that would necessitate Tillman remaining in college for an extra year.

"You can do whatever you want with me," Tillman said, "but in four years I'm gone. I've got things to do with my life."
Lastly, there's a short exchange between two commentors on Atrios' blog that pretty much sums up my feelings:
Man, this story pisses me off. We aren't allowed to see the flag-draped coffins, the hundreds of other kids who have died barely get a mention, but a FOOTBALL PLAYER dies and everyone feels bad and oh, it's awful, so sad, such a sacrifice, what a great guy, hours of play on CNN. Typical of our sports-deifying patriarchal society. If you play sports, you are important, your death matters. Otherwise, you're just one of the nobodies who died in the "war."

Or, more accurately, one of the "nobodies" who didn't die in the war. Because there is no report of deaths, except as unverifiable numbers, there is no reality to it.

I remember Dalton Trumbo's introduction to one edition of his Johnny Got His Gun,, where he mentions reading the body count from Vietnam (a staple of newspaper and evening news reporting during that war). The numbers represented bodies, corpses, human remains. A small mountain of them, at the height of that war. But instead of throwing up, Trumbo said, we reach for the coffee.

Numbers are meaningless. If Tillman's death has any greater value, perhaps it will be in making people aware that real human beings are dieing in Iraq. Not just "numbers" or "soldiers;" but people.
As it is and will always be.

Here's to hoping that we all learn a little through Pat Tillman's story. Rest in peace, Pat.