Jewish World Review May 4, 2004 / 13 Iyar, 5764
A hero's parting message
The wars in Afghanistan, and especially in Iraq, come to the American public in the form of images, images that almost always reflect the violence of war, and particularly the violence of terrorism. So we see pictures of burned bodies, rioting mobs, and the handiwork of ruthless terrorists expressed in the form of cars and buildings blown up and innocents killed. And we viewers instinctively think, Who would want to fight in that war?
But, every now and then, there's a moment that gives a face and a name to those who are fighting and puts the patina of courage, and even heroism, on the everyday brutality we see on the TV screen.
Recently, it was the story of Pat Tillman, a former National Football League player who enlisted in the military after the 9/11 attacks and joined an elite group of soldiers known as Rangers, along with his brother Kevin. Pat Tillman's death, at 27, in a firefight in eastern Afghanistan against Taliban and al Qaeda assailants, has moved and even haunted the nation because he had everything to live for a lucrative career, fame enough to satisfy anyone, a new marriage. He chose to risk it all in the service of his country, trading his NFL millions and his prime years as an athlete to enlist for three years, at a soldier's pay of $18,000 a year. Now even more famous in death than he ever was as an athlete, he came home to America in one of those flag-draped coffins. It brings to mind what the poet said: "In peacetime, children bury their parents. In wartime, parents bury their children."
In harm's way. Why did Pat Tillman give up so much? Why did he set aside the natural instinct for self-preservation and put such a storybook life at risk, to confront the dangers of combat so directly? The answers bring home the wonderful dimension not only of Pat Tillman but of all the American soldiers who are serving in dangerous places overseas, for they are prepared to put themselves in harm's way to stand up for the country they love and to fight the evil of our time, terrorism. They put their lives at risk in the belief that some things are worth dying for, including our nation and the freedoms it offers all of us.
Tillman's remarkable sense of duty to defend his country led to the ultimate sacrifice and has produced a national outpouring of both praise and grief. No one would have questioned him if he had not enlisted. But Pat Tillman just went to an Army recruiter's office far from his home so as not to attract local attention and volunteered for the Rangers one of the toughest training programs in our military. Rangers train for about 20 hours a day, parachute at night under fire, sleep standing up, and subsist for days in the jungles or mountains without food. Tillman refused to talk about his service publicly and shunned every chance to use it as a platform to enhance his fame or fortune.
This man made a choice that many others would not because he had a sense of what made his own life significant, and it was not about making money or being more famous. It was about service to, and belief in, a country, and fighting for it. And so, he put his ideals into action and, in so doing, reminded all of us what those overused terms in sports "guts,""courage," and "tough" really mean. Tillman's great-grandfather served at Pearl Harbor, and many in his family fought for America. Tillman put it in his own words: "I really haven't done a damn thing as far as laying myself on the line like that," displaying his respect for those who had and what America's flag stands for.
He inspired us all to appreciate once again the many privileges conferred by America and how special it is to give something back. That's why he is being eulogized all across the nation. Reading about Tillman's life makes you know that he would be saying to all of us, "At ease I am just another soldier marching to my own drummer. That march is to the beat of patriotism and duty." Pat Tillman knew that all soldiers put their lives on the line. He would not want to be singled out for any consideration or attention.
That's why his sacrifice gives such a special face to our soldiers serving abroad and why his death so shocked us all. He reminds us of the many men and women willing to put their lives into the fire, lives that could be defined by words like "loyalty" and "honor" and "patriotism" and "courage." In fact, his personal history is so unusual, his courage so rare, his commitment to duty so exceptional, his patriotism so transparent that, in his willingness to stand alone and act on the demands of his conscience, he has raised our expectations about what we can do, and he has given America yet another reason to see its mission through to the end.
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© 2001, Mortimer Zuckerman