Every American soldier killed in the line of duty is a tragic hero, a life willingly offered to ensure the safety and liberty of thousands of others. As viewers of The Passion understand, that sacrifice is all the more meaningful when it is freely given. Army Ranger Pat Tillman made such a sacrificed Friday in the barren reaches of Afghanistan. However, the mass media has chosen to cover his death as a curiosity, perhaps even a noble gesture. But their opposition to the War on Terror will not allow them to call Pat Tillman what he is: a hero.
The fact that an “objective” news crew would fail to call Tillman a hero is shameful. But the media give Tillman’s story short shrift at their own peril. His has all the trappings of the best Hollywood movie: a seemingly doomed high school athlete saw his dream of professional sports stardom come true, only to give it up to make the ultimate sacrifice for his country.
Determined to make his mark in football, the teenage Pat Tillman chased an apparently hopeless scholarship at Arizona State University. At 5’11” and 200 lbs., Tillman was thought to be too small to play his position on the field. Receiving the last remaining football scholarship at Arizona State University, he rose from a backbencher to become the Pacific 10 Conference’s Defensive Player of the Year in 1997. Unlike the stereotypical “dumb jock,” Tillman tackled academics, as well, earning a degree in marketing summa cum laude in 3 ½ years with a 3.84 grade point average. He then set out to pursue his dream of playing in the NFL. He held tough as draft pick 226 – out of a field of 241 – but found a home with the Arizona Cardinals. There skepticism dogged Tillman again, as many openly considered him too slow to play safety. The Cards’ bet paid off, as he set a team record 224 tackles in the year 2000. Once again, he had overcome hostility through sheer determination and competence, qualities that did not go unnoticed by other franchises. When the St. Louis Rams offered him a $9 million, five-year contract, he turned them down out of loyalty for the team that had taken a gamble on the slow linebacker from Arizona State. Faithfulness has become the rarest virtue in professional sports, in an era when even the teams themselves hop cities to save a few cents in taxes. Tillman’s action restored the dignity of a forgotten era when no offer could coax The Babe from Cooperstown.
Then tragedy spurred Pat Tillman to his greatest sacrifice. Teammates say the slaughter of 9/11 had a profound effect on him. “Pat has very deep and true convictions,” said Cardinals coach Dave McGinnis. (Usually when coaches say a player has “convictions,” they mean something entirely different.) “He’s a deep thinker,” McGinnis said of him. And Tillman began thinking deeply about family, duty and sacrifice. The day after 9/11, Tillman told a crowded press conference, “My great grandfather was at Pearl Harbor, and a lot of my family has...gone and fought in wars, and I really haven’t done a damn thing as far as laying myself on the line like that.” Cardinals defensive coordinator Larry Marmie says Tillman began telling him of his need to “pay something back” for the nation that had allowed a last-choice college football bencher to choose between multi-million dollar deals in the NFL.
In May 2002, he turned down another multi-million contract – $3.6 million over three-years offered by the Cardinals – to put on another kind of uniform, that of the United States Army. As one writer put it, “What's a three-year, $3.6 million pro football contract when you can collect $18,000 a year from Uncle Sam?” In our cynical media age, one would be tempted to see this as publicity stunt: announce that you will play the good soldier, then roll out the product line for public consumption. Except there was no publicity. Tillman shunned countless requests for interviews or television coverage after making the decision to join the armed forces. He retreated from the spotlight to assume a new role: U.S. GI.
Tillman received basic training at Ft. Benning, Georgia – the same military base 45 arch-leftists stormed last November during a protest that drew 10,000 people, including Medea Benjamin and Pete Seeger. Pat and his brother Kevin went through grueling training to become members of the elite Army Rangers. Then in March 2003, Pat was deployed to Iraq, to fight a war the Left deemed a genocidal act of imperialist aggression. The Army then transferred him to Afghanistan, to serve in the same unit as Kevin, who had himself given up a promising minor league baseball career to serve in Operation Enduring Freedom.
Then tragedy would again change Pat Tillman’s destiny. Islamist hatred rained down on Americans again last Friday, this time on a battlefield in southeastern Afghanistan. Tillman’s patrol came under ambush by the remnants of al-Qaeda lurking in the mountainous region near the Pakistani border. After a sustained firefight lasting 20 minutes, nine Islamist guerrilla fighters lay dead. So did one Afghani militiaman. And so did 27-year-old Pat Tillman.
“There are very few people who have the courage to…walk away from a professional sports career and make the ultimate sacrifice,” said Michael Bidwill, vice president of the Cardinals. Former Cardinals General Manager Bob Ferguson agreed. “In today's world of instant gratification and selfishness, here is a man that was defined by words like loyalty, honor, passion, courage, strength and nobility. He is a modern-day hero.”
Bidwill and Ferguson are right. Millions of Americans, even those with an aversion to professional football, understand the immense dedication Tillman must have had to go from the lap of luxury to the brutal austerity of the Afghan terrain, and ultimately to an early grave.
Pat Tillman is a hero, and all the more when compared with others in a similar position. Gone are the days when Hollywood stars like Jimmy Stewart flocked to the army to do their patriotic duty. Tillman was alone among our nation’s stars in joining the service. The only other pampered American to go to war in Afghanistan was John Walker Lindh.
In fact, Tinseltown opposed the War on Terror with all its might. It is to Hollywood’s undying shame that as Tillman went off to fight the enemy, they organized huge marches to tell him he was doing the Devil’s bidding.
Tillman, though, showed more courage than many enlisted men and women in the reserves, who, when their nation called, tried to get out of going to war. Some signed up for the extra income and generous educational scholarship, never thinking they would be called into active duty. When they were, they wailed their misfortune to whomever would listen. One such reservist told his Marine instructor he would not do well in combat, “I told him…I wouldn't (do) well. I think killing is wrong.” But as long as he could collect a paycheck without danger, his conscience seemed strangely tranquil. Leftists like Medea Benjamin and Leslie Cagan actively recruited GIs in Iraq to become born-again Conscientious Objectors, so the soldiers could be sent home. Tillman, on the other hand, gave up the good life to go into the cauldron of war.
And unlike a certain presidential candidate, he did not use his uniform as a steppingstone to public acclaim; he jettisoned the pleasures of fame to die with a literal “band of brothers.” His life’s purpose was higher than himself.
Naturally, the media don’t get it.
If Hollywood’s leading men no longer quit acting to join the War in Europe, neither does Hollywood lionize real-life war heroes like Audie Murphy. (The lone exception being Mel Gibson’s outstanding “We Were Soldiers Once.”) Even the mass media’s coverage of FrontPage Magazine’s Man of the Year, Col. Allen B. West, was decidedly unfriendly.
Although the media trumpet every casualty in Operation Iraqi Freedom, most media outlets have not made this extraordinary case their headline. Instead, they continue to bombard us with tales of Michael Jackson’s (hopeless) shakeup of his legal team and Terry McAuliffe’s (hypocritical) attacks on Dick Cheney’s military record. Meanwhile, they ignore the true heroes of the world: the Pat Tillmans and Todd Beamers, and the thousands of nameless soldiers felled by the enemy while defending freedom around the world from the beginning of our Republic to the present. Their sacrifices are too “conservative,” too “mundane,” to merit media attention. No, just keep the cameras focused on the latest freak show and crank out more hideous reality TV shows for the masses.
Not everyone has overlooked Tillman’s dedication. Both the Cardinals and Tillman’s alma mater, ASU, will retire his jersey. The Cardinals will also name their new stadium the “Pat Tillman Freedom Plaza” and, with the college, is establishing a scholarship in his name. However, his most meaningful contribution will be the education Afghanistan’s young girls will receive, now that they can attend school. It will be the freedom Afghanis will enjoy, to grow up free from the oppressive strictures of the nightmarish, Islamist interpretation of Shari’a law. It will be the dawning of freedom in the land neither Soviet nor terrorist agents could conquer. Tillman’s selflessness, service and sense of duty assured that the innocent people of Afghanistan would live a better life in a better world. Because of his sacrifice, so, too, does he.