Opinion

True heroism transcends political rhetoric

The recent death of Army Sgt. Pat Tillman, on a combat mission in Afghanistan, has filled daily newspapers across the country, including Seattle and Tacoma.

First came the reports of Tillman’s violent death — he was killed while on patrol in the rugged back country of Afghanistan a few days ago. Next came all the in-house newspaper pundits (editors and columnists) weighing in on his heroism, quitting a million-dollar job to join the Army.

What added to Tillman’s story, though was, unlike most other servicemen (and women) who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan (more than 700 combined for both wars so far), Tillman gave up a lucrative pro sports career to join the military after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Tillman was a starting safety for the Arizona Cardinals of the National Football League before he enlisted, along with his brother Kevin, a minor league baseball player.

I seldom write about sports in my columns, but I am a sports fan. I played basketball and ran track in high school, played baseball until curve balls drove me to the bench at 16, played some football while in the service, played basketball at the AAU level for years, and now, in addition to swimming and yoga, I still keep trying to play golf and tennis.

I admired Pat Tillman ever since I read an article about him in Sports Illustrated eight or nine years ago. Tillman was a free spirit, a smart man, a good student, and a good football player.

Even his University of Arizona teammates, quoted in that long-ago article, commented on how idiosyncratic Tillman was. He did his own thing and he did it well.

I remember thinking when I read about him joining the Army after the 2001 football season, “I sure hope nothing happens to him.”

I guess I worried because I felt like I knew Pat Tillman, which isn’t that odd in our celebrity-driven culture. There have been many books and articles about celebrity stalkers, people who after watching some performer in countless television shows, or sporting events, become convinced they are personally involved with their “hero” or “heroine.”

I never take my fandom that far, but Tillman’s death affected me (and many others, judging by the response of readers and friends) in a way most recent combat deaths haven’t outside the family circles of the dead.

But I probably wouldn’t have written a column about Tillman if I hadn’t read all the letters to the editor about his death that have been published in the Seattle and Tacoma papers.

I find it offensive that people on both sides of the Iraq War are kicking Tillman’s death around like it is a political football.

There are the fallen-heroes — people who somehow justify Mr. Bush’s war in Iraq by praising Tillman, repeatedly tying his tragic end to national politics.

Just as offensive to me, though, are the anti-war folks who try to somehow diminish Tillman’s sacrifice, comparing him to radio talk show hate peddlers, as if dying in combat is somehow connected to supporting the war on the radio, or writing pro-war letters to his local newspaper,

Tillman walked his talk. He served in both Iraq and Afghanistan in an elite combat unit.

A third group of letter writers is complaining that Tillman’s death got too much publicity and that every combat death, 700 and counting, should receive the same treatment. These short-sighted folks forget Pat Tillman didn’t seek the publicity his death has gotten. He was a combat soldier, by choice, not a publicist for the Army.

But because he had been a professional sports star he was valued differently than other soldiers. That’s because we are celebrity crazy. That was not Pat Tillman’s fault.

I was for the war in Afghanistan, as were most of our allies, and even some of our enemies. Everyone in the world knew we had to respond to Sept. 11.

I was and am against the war in Iraq. The more I read the less I feel able to support what seems to me a misguided effort, giving freedom to a people who by and large don’t seem to define the word freedom the way most Americans, pro- or anti-war, do.

But none of that really has anything to do with Pat Tillman, or his tragic death. What seems lost to me in all the rabid blathering published since Tillman died is the fact that he was that rarer and rarer creature — someone who lived, and died, for his beliefs.

I have known some Rangers, and Navy Seals, over the years since my two undistinguished years of service in the armed forces during the Vietnam era.

All of the guys I knew were brave men. Some were smart, some were not.

Some were kind and quiet, letting their actions speak for them. A couple were noisy, prone to bullying, and ready to fight at the drop of a beer bottle, anywhere, anytime.

But all of them were braver than I am. In the past week I have had to tell two friends of mine to be quiet after they began ranting about Pat Tillman.

One, a self-proclaimed patriot who loves George Bush, and who avoided service during Vietnam by stretching his college career out over six years, tried to say Tillman was a political hero whose death somehow vindicates Mssrs. Bush and Cheney.

The other, recently out of the Army and not yet 30, said Tillman was a dupe and a fool.

Both of these people, pushing their own political agendas, are wrong.

What I can say without really knowing Pat Tillman is, he was brave enough to put his life on the line for something he believed in. I’ve known a lot of “patriots” over the years on both sides of the political aisle who do most of their fighting in front of the television, or at the neighborhood tavern, surrounded by their fellow armchair sportsmen and soldiers.

Life is not a video game.

Pat Tillman believed in a wartime mission I personally think is misguided. But my political differences with Tillman’s beliefs pale before the simple fact of his bravery.

He was willing to die for an idea. Just like Martin Luther King, for example.

Talk is cheap. Tillman at some deep level understood that.

He was only 27, but he walked his talk, and I think the world is a less good place every time a brave man or woman dies. Pat Tillman, whatever he was or wasn’t, was brave.

May he rest in peace.

Dennis Wilken is a former Port Orchard Independent reporter.

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