Tuesday, May 27, 2014

I'm Pat F***ing Tillman

I woke up this morning haunted by four words. And I couldn't put the national holiday behind me. War has a way of doing that...

Over the Memorial Day weekend, a new service took place on the Mall.  For nearly eight hours different people read the names of the men and women who have died in Afghanistan and Iraq fighting the war against terror. Perhaps you know one of them. Or, perhaps you understand—had I been there—why I would not have heard "Corporal Patrick Daniel Tillman." 

No, what I would have heard what were (probably) his last words: "I'm Pat F***ing Tillman."
Pat's parents Mary and Patrick Tillman
Killed by fratricide on April 22, 2004, Tillman's death by "friendly fire" is an unfortunate reality of war. So is the fact that men in his own battalion heard his cry for help as he realized who was shooting—members of his convoy. 

Today, we call out the names of the fallen. Ten years ago, Pat Tillman called out his own; a desperate plea for help. Corporal Tillman wasn't the first and he won't be the last to die in this way. This is important to know and understand above and beyond his life and death. 

The power of Saturday's service, which resembles the beauty of the Vietnam Memorial, is that it recognizes no one is just a number; everyone has a name. Pat Tillman is much more than his retired ASU jersey #42 or Arizona Cardinals uniform #40. He is, like every man who serves our country, someone's son, brother, or husband. Pat was all three. (please pardon the gender specific language).
Reminders of Tillman. Sun Devil Stadium at ASU
He was also an athlete and a solider. I finally began to make sense of the story we talk about today, when we discuss Pat Tillman, through the integration of those two components of his identity. It came to me through an unlikely resource.

The April 28, 2014 issue of Sports Illustrated ran a tribute to one of its great writers, Gary Smith, who is retiring after 30-plus years of magazine writing. "His great achievement was an inversion of sport's central allure -- the way it reduces messy existence to clear winners and losers, good guys and bad guys. He made it OK to feel uncertain about the athletes we were sure we knew, to empathize more than judge, to end a story feeling more conflicted than consoled. Because at gut level- we understand: No human is ever as simple as a ball game." (S. L. Price)

I reviewed this insight several times. It stayed with me. Why? It's Pat Tillman. It's his story.

Tillman, an emotional leader was the
Pac-10 defensive player of the year.
You don't have to dig deep to realize that Pat was much more complicated than what may appear on the surface. If Pat Tillman were one of my students I would love him and yet I know I would have to be ready for the challenge he would bring to class—discussion, debate, etc. On good days, I can handle a personality like Pat's. On bad ones, it would be tough. 

But Pat drew his friends, teammates and family members in with empathy, more than judgment (see "The Tillman Story" Pat Tillman read the entire "Book of Mormon." Despite the fact he was an atheist, he wanted to discuss Mormonism and religion with a fellow member of his battalion, a devout Mormon). Learn his story and conflict will serve as the operative word. Consolation is not at hand.

The powers that be used his death as an opportunity to paint a picture of a clear "good guy and bad guy." Us vs. them. On the surface it appeared as though they found the perfect personality. An athlete who becomes a solider. A man who knows the importance of winning over losing. They were wrong. 

"No human is ever as simple as a ball game." Nor should they be. Pat entered the army to serve and found out more questions than answers. He put his thoughts to paper in his journal; this was burned immediately after his death.

Tonight I will pray the Litany of Saints. I love this prayer because it calls out the names holy men and women who have loved and served God. I will not call out Pat Tillman as one of them; he wouldn't want me to. So I'll pray for 8,000 as a collective whole. And I won't forget his cry....I'm Pat Fucking Tillman....

Photo Credits
All Photos from E-60: An Un-American Tragedy

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