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The 'muddy death' of Pat Tillman

Posted: August 31, 2010 3:25 p.m.
Updated: September 1, 2010 5:00 a.m.

The Pat Tillman saga has long fascinated me for a number of reasons, and a new documentary released in August, “The Tillman Story,” puts this complex and melancholy drama yet again in the forefront of my mind.

A quick rundown, if you’re unfamiliar with the story of Pat Tillman: Tillman was a pro-bowl safety for the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals who, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, was moved to give up his cleats and forego several million dollars to fight for his country in Iraq and Afghanistan as an Army Ranger.

Along with his brother, Kevin, who himself was giving up a career as a professional baseball player, Tillman went through training and took tours to both war zones.

In April 2004, it was reported that Tillman had been killed in action after rescuing several of his own during a Taliban ambush in a war he himself called “bull(expletive)”.

Weeks later, after much prying from the media and the fallen soldier’s family, the military acknowledged that Tillman had actually been killed by friendly fire; from men in his unit who were less than half a football field away. The details were many, but the gist was this – American military intelligence was deliberately blurring the facts of Tillman's death, both to his family and the public.

My second year of college I had the pleasure – honor, actually – of sitting down and speaking with Gary Smith, indisputably one of the greatest magazine writers of all time. Smith, who has won the magazine equivalent to a Pulitzer four times, shares my attraction to the Tillman tale, and he wrote perhaps the greatest account of the calamity for Sports Illustrated in 2006.

When you talk about Pat Tillman, you talk about a man of extreme mental and physical flexibility, Smith revealed.

Tillman never left the house without a book in his hand and enjoyed the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Allen Ginsberg. Though he considered himself an atheist, there was spirituality within him. He tested the limits of the human body, and read The Communist Manifesto, Mein Kampf, the Bible and the Koran “so he could carve out his own convictions,” Smith said.

Smith’s story, which I’ve read countless times and which still brings about both tears and chills, opens as follows:

“One day, God willing, Russell Baer was going to tell his son this story. One day, after the boy’s heart and brain had healed, he was going to point to that picture on the kid’s bedroom shelf of the man doing a handstand on the roof of a house, take a deep breath and say, Mav, that’s a man who lived a life as pure and died a death as muddy as any man ever to walk this rock, and I was there for both. That’s the man, when your heart stopped for an hour and they slit you open neck to navel, who I prayed to because ... well, because you wouldn’t exist if he hadn’t died, and I wouldn’t be half of who I am if he hadn’t taught me how to live. That’s Pat Tillman, the man you take your middle name from, and I’ve been waiting for you to ask since the day you were born.

Russ never got that chance: Maverick Patrick Baer died on Monday. So now Russ has Pat’s story stuck in his heart...”

Smith talks about Tillman’s mother sitting home, sleep-deprived typing into Google “Who killed my son?”

For those conspiracy theorists that seem to almost enjoy being terrified of government and its capabilities, the Tillman story says it all. Here’s a man who gave up everything for the sole purpose to fight for his nation, and had his family not pressed the military, they never would’ve known how their son breathed his last. Tillman’s mother discovered the military had burned Pat’s uniform, body armor, and diary. Inexplicable.

I’m still bewildered when I mention the name Pat Tillman and am treated with a blank stare. How don’t people know of this story?

Pat Tillman’s death itself is a tragedy, yes, but not necessarily any more than the 5,000-plus other young men and women who’ve died in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The true tragedy in Tillman’s death are the lies and lack of compassion for the family. Fortunately, thanks to luminous journalism by Smith and the filmmaker Amir Bar-Lev, and Tillman’s mother, the truth – or at least a pieces of it – was finally revealed.


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