The disturbing facts of Pat Tillman’s story are well-known, and yet we go over them repeatedly—in the face of the hagiography—in search of answers to unsettling questions. Pac-10 defensive player of the year as a senior at Arizona State; a record-breaking safety for the Arizona Cardinals; he left a multi-million dollar contract on the table to enlist with his brother in the U.S. Army (he became an Army Ranger): “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” (ESPN Classic).
In this, Tillman was one of those young Americans who enlisted in the armed forces following the attacks on 9/11. What was unusual was that he was a professional football player and a millionaire.
There was a time in the country’s history when the children of the rich and the offspring of powerful politicians felt compelled to defend the U.S. in times of peril. Theodore Roosevelt’s sons served during World War I and Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s sons served during World War II. George H.W. Bush and John F. Kennedy were decorated World War II veterans. Professional baseball players enlisted in droves during WW II. Ted Williams interrupted his career at its peak to serve during the Korean War.
But in our times, Pat Tillman was an oddity because he volunteered to serve. Even more, he was a notable exception who embarrassed us, who revealed, by his committed patriotism, the flimsy nature of our own. (more…)