Corporal Patrick Daniel “Pat” Tillman, Jr. was killed in the mountains of Afghanistan on April 22, 2004. I remember being enthralled and moved by his story – he left a million dollar career in the NFL to enlist with his brother Kevin in the Army. Stories of people with Pat Tillman’s conviction and strength of character are so very rare. I remember thinking Pat Tillman’s story was both enigmatic and inspiring.
At Tillman’s funeral, the following official account of his death was read:
Corporal Tillman put himself in the line of devastating enemy fire as he maneuvered his Fire Team to a covered position from which they could effectively employ their weapons on known enemy positions. While mortally wounded, his audacious leadership and courageous example under fire inspired his men to fight with great risk to their own personal safety, resulting in the enemy’s withdrawal and his platoon’s safe passage from the ambush kill zone. (Excerpted from Pat Tillman’s Silver Star Citation)
The problem is, this is not what really happened, and several people present at the funeral, including Lt. General Phillip Kensinger, knew it. Pat Tillman’s dying words were “I’m Pat fucking Tillman!” He yelled this several times as a warning to the people that were shooting at him and his buddies. Pat Tillman was shot and killed by members of his own unit, and the Army knew this before they gave him The Silver Star. Unfortunately, not only was his family lied to, but they are still fighting to learn the full truth about what happened to Pat and who was responsible for the cover-up.
I learned all this by watching the excellent documentary entitled “The Tillman Story.” You’ve probably not seen this film, but I would highly recommend that you take the time to watch it. This movie is powerful because it is told through interviews with Pat’s comrades that were present the day he was killed, and with his family, especially his father Pat and incredible mother, Mary Tillman. I’ll never forget the looks of disgust on the faces of Pat’s family as they sat in the back of the room during the congressional hearings and listened to senior military leaders, including Donald Rumsfeld, evade the truth about what they knew and when they knew it.
My image of Pat Tillman and what happened to him was a myth which this movie dispelled. He deserves to be more than a myth to us, and we all need to be reminded of the dark side of leadership that enables and sustains these self-serving illusions.
What do you remember about the Pat Tillman story? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.