“I don’t want them to parade me through the streets.” – Pat Tillman
ONE DAY THE battle will end. The sword will be laid down and the solider might then rest, a well-earned peace. That day is not today.
Marie Tillman is a wife, a mother, an entrepreneur, and a philanthropist. She is also a solider. Her battlefield doesn’t have mountains to climb nor rivers to traverse. There is no gunmetal or gunpowder, not bombs nor bullets, no sounds of anxious young men marching toward glory.
Yet she still fights for a cause as worthy as those who laid down their lives on the rolling hills of Gettysburg, the beaches of Normandy, the jungles of Vietnam, and the mountains of Afghanistan.
She fights for someone who died fighting for us. Her war is waged to honor the legacy of an American hero, and it is fought against those who might pervert this legacy for their own ambitions.
13 years after her battle began, she is still fighting. She recently showed us again why her courage and strength is worthy of the cause for which she fights, worthy of her husband: Pat Tillman.
In September, the American commander-in-chief took some time away from threating a Korean dictator with total annihilation to criticize the employment practices of the National Football League.
President Trump, in case you’ve just recently crawled out from beneath the rock you’ve been residing under, shared his very stern opinion that professional athletes who do not stand for the national anthem should be suspended or even fired.
That the current president of the United States would broadcast such things is not really shocking. Neither is it that his comments added gasoline to a controversy that has periodically flared since before Trump took office earlier this year.
As people shared their views about various professional athletes kneeling during the playing of the national anthem, inevitably, thoughts and tweets turned to the noble sacrifice of a former NFL player. Twitter users began comparing those who’ve decided to practice their lawful right not to stand during the national anthem with Pat Tillman.
Tillman, I pray I don’t have to remind anyone, gave up millions of dollars in NFL salary to join the Army Rangers following the attacks on 9/11. He fought in Iraq before he was killed in action serving in Afghanistan 13 years ago. Now, his sacrifice is being used to shame NFL stars on social media.
Only God truly knows how Pat Tillman would react to today’s political controversy, but that hasn’t stopped people from speculating:
The fascination that some Twitter users have with Tillman’s grave is a bit discomforting. In all certainty, there is not a Twitter user out there who understands how Tillman’s afterlife might be unfolding. In no way, can anyone verify if Pat Tillman is indeed “rolling in his grave…”
On the final Monday in September, President Trump took to his favorite social medium to retweet a Twitter post concerning Tillman, a post that contained the hashtags #BoycottNFL and #StandForOurAnthem.
There are obvious reasons why people would use Tillman’s sacrifice to promote their cause. Tillman’s story is like something out of Homer. He is a real example of the values we strive to instill in our children, the ideals we, as Americans, hold dear. He is the personification of words that politicians love to throw out like grenades: sacrifice, honor, duty, glory, strength, heroism. His decision to give up a lucrative professional football career to enlist was a moment post-9/11 where we could all be proud to be Americans.
There are only a handful of people in this world who have earned the right to openly speculate on how Tillman would react to today’s climate. One of those people is Tillman’s widow.
Hours after a presidential retweet firmly placed Pat Tillman into a debate that he never asked to become a part of, Marie Tillman responded, releasing a statement to CNN:
As a football player and soldier, Pat inspired countless Americans to unify. It is my hope that his memory should always remind people that we must come together. Pat’s service, along with that of every man and woman’s service, should never be politicized in a way that divides us. We are too great of a country for that. Those that serve fight for the American ideals of freedom, justice and democracy, they and their families know the cost of that fight. I know the very personal costs in a way I feel acutely every day.
The very action of self-expression and the freedom to speak from one’s heart — no matter those views — is what Pat and so many other Americans have given their lives for. Even if they didn’t always agree with those views. It is my sincere hope that our leaders both understand and learn from the lessons of Pat’s life and death, and also those of so many other brave Americans.
Marie’s response was eloquent and brave. In the message, you can see Marie’s incredible strength. It’s a strength that was born out of the ashes of tragedy.
The following Tuesday morning, Taya Kyle, the widow of Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle (whose story was chronicled in the Oscar-winning movie American Sniper) took a different perspective. She posted her own letter to Facebook criticizing the NFL for alienating fans with politics. She wrote: “Your desire to focus on division and anger has shattered what many people loved most about the sport.”
Although her perspective differs from Tillman’s, it is no less thoughtful or brave. This isn’t about that. It’s about those who would use a sacrifice to advance a political opinion. Marie Tillman and Taya Kyle have earned the right to speak for their husbands. We most definitely have not.
I can only imagine what it was like for Marie in those first days, when the American nation was waking up to the news that its proclaimed patriot poster child was mortal: the folded flag, the salutes, the stadium ceremonies, the deafening silence, the roaring loneliness. I can only imagine what it felt like to be surrounded by people who just want a piece of your husband’s sacrifice so they can wear it like a red baseball cap meanwhile, all you want is one more shared laugh, one more stolen kiss, one more lasting deep gaze of unadulterated affection.
I can only imagine what those mornings were like when getting out of bed seemed as difficult as storming a garrison, when getting dressed and making breakfast was an internal firefight, when stepping outside felt like stepping onto a minefield.
Maybe on those mornings there was a soft whisper in her ear that said, “You’re strong enough to handle this.” I don’t know, and I suppose I shouldn’t. Just because Pat Tillman thought we were worthy enough to die for doesn’t necessarily give us the right to know such things. Even if we feel we have the right to turn Pat’s life into a parade of patriotism, to run his sacrifice up the flagpole so we can stare at it when we need a healthy dose of American glory, there are pieces of Pat that Marie gets to keep for herself.
Marie’s battlefield would quickly stretch far beyond her own personal grief surrounding Pat’s death. With the celebrations of Pat’s life still raging, the collective tears of America still not dry, Marie and Pat’s family would be forced into a battle for the truth against a country that Pat Tillman gave everything for.
When the truth doesn’t look good on a recruitment poster, it can be convenient to cover it up. When reality isn’t palatable to a crafted narrative, one can always spit reality into a napkin and hide it under a dinner plate.
While the US government was actively working to conceal the fact that Pat’s death came at the hands of friendly fire, it was Marie and the Tillman family (notably the unwavering efforts of Pat’s mother Mary and brother Kevin) who grabbed shovels and pickaxes and started digging.
Thanks to their determination, eventually the United States of America was forced to reveal Pat’s death wasn’t of the kind you might see in a Hollywood war movie starring a man nicknamed The Duke. It was messy and complex and tragic.
I’m certain Marie carries a lot more of Pat today than just his last name. Yet, in the 13 years since Pat’s death, Marie has found hope in unimaginable grief. She has remarried and become a mother. She has founded her own business and is the president of The Pat Tillman Foundation, which offers scholarships to veterans and their families.
WE WANT OUR HEROES to be defined in a specific way. We want our warriors to be big and strong and carry weapons that can accomplish dangerous things. We want our soldiers to swell with nationalism and never question authority or the absolute righteousness of their mission. We want our heroes to return home, and when they do not, we want the accounts of their losses to be uncomplicated.
You cannot order a hero like you do an entrée. There are no stores tucked deep into suburban American malls where you can build a hero like you might build a teddy bear. Pat Tillman wasn’t GI Joe or Captain America, although there are people and politicians who would like to make him out to be. He was so much more.
Pat Tillman was a man who seemingly had everything a man could ever want: a meaningful career that paid him well, a beautiful woman beside him, his family and his health. His life was secure. On a September morning in 2001, his life changed, as it did for almost every American alive at that time. Of course, for Pat Tillman it changed more.
In the smoldering ashes of the trade towers did he hear a call of duty? Did he see an opportunity for adventure? Was his mind set on vengeance? To answer these questions is to build a hero. That would be to bow Tillman to our narrative, the one that we wish to view over Saturday evening popcorn, the narrative for which we give up our seats on airplanes and honor before football games.
Tillman was a hero. There is no question about that. But his heroism didn’t come out of an erector set. It came from his heart, his very fiber. Tillman was a hero because that’s who he was: the parts that make red blooded Americans share his photo on social media and the parts that red blooded Americans might find less agreeable because it doesn’t fit cleanly into their chosen narrative. It’s the part of him that compelled him to run into fire for his nation. It’s also the part of him, a steely resolve, that made him question, but never shame, his mission and the rectitude behind it.
This is the same steely resolve his wife and family would later use to challenge the US government and seek the truth about Pat’s death. It’s the same steely resolve used to tell an American commander-in-chief 13 years ago and an American commander-in-chief today: You can’t do that to Pat! We will not let you do that to Pat!
You can’t build a hero, but one can be forged. We find heroes forged in battle, holding swords or rifles, tested in the iron fires of combat. Too we find our heroes in the midst of great trials. We find them when they pull themselves up and say, “I’m going to make it through this day”, when they stare an injustice in the face and do not flinch, when they stand up for something they believe in or someone they love.
13 years ago, Marie Tillman lost her husband. She was then thrust into a, likely unwelcome, position. Whether she liked it or not, Marie Tillman became the keeper of her husband’s legacy. This is no small position, considering her husband is the personification of American spirit.
In her journey, she’s showed us what it means to be brave and how to be strong for the people that you love and the ideals that you stand for. Like her husband before her, Marie Tillman has showed us what it means to be a hero.
Soon solider, you will lay down your arms, and you will rest. It will be a well-earned peace. But that rest will not come today. Today, we need you to fight.