The focus of Pat Tillman’s story was always just a little off the mark. When Tillman decided to pass up a new NFL contract (worth several million dollars, but still a relatively small contract by pro football standards) and to join the post 9/11 military, his decision was widely covered.
It seemed like the perfect storyline. A famous, talented and wealthy athlete gives up his career to go and fight the terrorists. But something was always wrong about that storyline. Tillman never really gave interviews about his decision and by all accounts, he demanded no special treatment by the military. It wasn’t a celebrity’s story. It was a soldier’s story.
If anything, Pat Tillman’s story was one of a military everyman. He was a guy who was willing to risk his future to defend his country and he didn’t want any pats on the back for it. Tillman joined a club of thousands of other soldiers, who just like him, were willing to risk their lives in the name of duty. The point of the story was not specifically what Pat Tillman gave up but rather what every soldier must give up and risk in order to serve.
But Tillman fit nicely into a marketing message and his story was used as such.
And it turns out that Tillman’s death on the battlefield was spun in much the same way. The story of Tillman’s battlefield death told of man, leading his unit and coming under heavy enemy fire.
No one mentioned that Tillman was not in fact in charge on that day. And no one mentioned that he was killed by friendly fire.
But again, the attempt to distort the reality of Tillman’s death is as misguided as the marketing of his decision to serve. Soldiers on the battlefield risk it all. And when they die, it can’t always be packaged in a perfect story. The point is that it shouldn’t have to be.
Pat Tillman went to Afghanistan to serve his country. He never marketed that decision. And his death by friendly fire on the battlefield is no less honorable than the version created by the Army. The distortions dishoner his service and more importantly, they dishoner the service of those with whom he stood shoulder to shoulder.
His, like those of his fellow soldiers, is a story of bravery and the American spirit. Why would anyone need to embellish that?