This Memorial Day, let’s honor the real Pat Tillman

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Let’s try to all remember what Pat Tillman stood for this Memorial Day.
Let’s try to all remember what Pat Tillman stood for this Memorial Day.
Illustration: Getty Images

It’s Memorial Day, which means it’s time for the NFL and the right to start co-opting the life and death of Pat Tillman, a former safety for the Arizona Cardinals who passed on a $3.6 million deal to enlist in the Army after 9/11. Rarely mentioned is Tillman’s brother, Kevin, who left the Cleveland Indians farm system to join Pat in fighting a war on two fronts.

We’ve all seen the photo of Tillman in his Army Ranger uniform, posed in front of an American flag. There are statues honoring Tillman outside both State Farm Stadium in Glendale and Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe. But perhaps the biggest monument to Pat Tillman is the myth the NFL and the United States Army created to sell to the American people, still furious after 9/11 and ready to believe any “America, Fuck Yeah!” moment that was set to a Toby Keith soundtrack.


The story America was sold about Pat Tillman was that of an elite athlete who gave up all the trappings of fame and fortune to serve his country in the War on Terror, who rescued American POW Jessica Lynch amidst a hail of gunfire and later, tragically, gladly, gave his life defending America and “our freedom.”

Now, with the benefit of 17 years of hindsight, we recognize that the same unholy alliance between the NFL and military that brought us American flags the size of football fields and pre-game military jet flyovers also gave us the myth of Pat Tillman: An American Patriot who bled red-white-and-blue and cared for nothing more than defending “freedom.” We know that when Tillman’s unit showed up to liberate Lynch from an Iraqi hospital, Iraqi troops had already cleared out and doctors were waiting to hand Lynch over. Tillman himself wrote in his journal that the lies and fabrications around Lynch’s rescue were “a big Public Relations stunt.”


We know that Pat Tillman was killed not by foreign fire, but in a friendly-fire incident, the fog of war not making nearly as marketable a story as an American hero cut down in battle. In death, Tillman would become yet another “big Public Relations stunt” for the United States Army, the NFL, and the right.

What the USA! USA! Propaganda machine doesn’t want you to know about Pat Tillman are these things: That he enlisted in the Army 9 months after 9/11, largely because he didn’t believe it was fair that defending the nation fell disproportionately on marginalized communities and Americans of color. As SI’s Gary Smith wrote in perhaps the definitive piece on Tillman’s military service, “The foisting of all the dirty work onto people less fortunate than an NFL safety clawed at his ethics.” Tillman wanted to serve in Afghanistan, but was sent instead to Iraq (he was later re-deployed to Afghanistan), a war which he would eventually call “so fucking illegal.”

Tillman didn’t want a military funeral or a 21-gun salute, should he be killed in battle. He probably also didn’t want a nationally-televised memorial service, but that’s what he got. Johnathan Krakauer, author of a biography of Tillman called “Where Men Win Glory,” told the Washington Post that the last thing Tillman wanted was to be held up as a patriotic emblem by the government. According to Krakauer, Tillman told a fellow soldier, “’If get killed, I don’t want Bush to parade me through the streets to use as a political tool.”


After Tillman’s death on April 22, 2004 in Afghanistan, it took the U.S. Military over a month to admit to the public that Tillman wasn’t killed by enemy combatants, but by his own unit.

Smith writes:

“‘Stop! Friendlies! Cease fire!’ Pat and the other Black Sheep from Serial 1 screamed from the hill. But the gunners on that lead GMV, still deafened by the blasts inside that tight gorge and now by the .50-caliber gun blazing on the roof, couldn’t hear them. The fire from the ridgelines seemed to have ceased, the Taliban apparently in retreat. Pat and his mates raised their arms and waved them back and forth to signal cease-fire. Some of the men in the GMV didn’t see the gesture, others didn’t recognize its meaning. They kept firing.

“Suddenly, the machine guns opened up again. ‘Cease fire, friendlies!’ Pat howled in disbelief. Russ, hugging the ground, waiting to be hit, heard Pat screaming words he never would have for the first 27 years, five months and 15 days of his life: ‘I am Pat f——— Tillman, dammit! I am Pat f——— Tillman!’

O’Neal, bracing for his own death, suddenly heard pain in Pat’s voice. A moment of silence passed, then he heard what sounded like water gurgling down the hill, felt his shoulder dampening.

“O’Neal turned. It wasn’t water. It was a river of blood. The back of Pat’s head was gone.”


It’s funny how no one ever talks about that part. We live in a nation that loves to glorify war and sacrifice, we can’t escape it, even before sporting events. But we rarely get into the gruesome details. Better to have the Blue Angels fly overhead while we “honor the troops” with some jingoistic nonsense before watching large men smash into each other for money.

What you should know about Pat Tillman is this: He was a voracious reader who never stopped trying to learn. He read everything from Noam Chomsky to the Holy Quran to WWII histories to Karl Marx in an effort to understand others and the world around him. He had set up a meeting with Chomsky, an infamous anti-war academic, which was ultimately prevented by his death. He wasn’t religious, calling himself an atheist in his journals, though he read some of the great religious works of mankind in an effort to challenge himself with new ideas. He called out bullshit wherever he saw it.


Former President Donald Trump was just one of a string of politicians who used Tillman’s death to vilify protests during the national anthem, particularly Colin Kaepernick’s decision to take a knee, as opposed to sitting, during the pregame singing of the Star Spangled Banner, a decision he reached after speaking with retired Army Green Beret Nate Boyer. It was literally the least intrusive thing Kaepernick could have done. According Krakauer, Tillman would have seen the value and heroics in Kaepernick’s protest.

Krakauer said that Tillman “often struggled with the meaning of military service and considered moral conviction a high virtue.”


“Pat would have found Kaepernick an extremely admirable person for what he believed in,’” Krakauer told The Washington Post. “I have no doubt if he was in the NFL today, he would be the first to kneel.”

As I sat down to write this piece, a paragraph from David Bentley Heart’s “Three Cheers for Socialism,” comes to mind in which he writes:

Americans are, of course, the most thoroughly and passively indoctrinated people on earth. They know next to nothing as a rule about their own history, or the histories of other nations, or the histories of the various social movements that have risen and fallen in the past, and they certainly know little or nothing of the complexities and contradictions comprised within words like “socialism” and “capitalism.” Chiefly, what they have been trained not to know or even suspect is that, in many ways, they enjoy far fewer freedoms, and suffer under a more intrusive centralized state, than do the citizens of countries with more vigorous social-democratic institutions ...An enormous number of Americans have been persuaded to believe that they are freer in the abstract than, say, Germans or Danes precisely because they possess far fewer freedoms in the concrete. They are far more vulnerable to medical and financial crisis, far more likely to receive inadequate health coverage, far more prone to irreparable insolvency, far more unprotected against predatory creditors, far more subject to income inequality, and so forth, while effectively paying more in tax (when one figures in federal, state, local, and sales taxes, and then compounds those by all the expenditures that in this country, as almost nowhere else, their taxes do not cover). One might think that a people who once rebelled against the mightiest empire on earth on the principle of no taxation without representation would not meekly accept taxation without adequate government services. But we accept what we have become used to, I suppose.


It struck me as the kind of thing Pat Tillman might have liked to read, and might have agreed with. True patriotism isn’t killing other people on behalf of your country, it’s knowing your country is far from perfect, but dedicating your life to force it to be better. To be what it promised to be. It’s constantly growing and learning and educating oneself, in order to better put yourself in someone else’s shoes. It’s an endless quest to be better, do better for those around you than you did the day before. It’s accepting nothing without questioning it. It’s sticking up for the less fortunate no matter what blowback it brings. That’s who Pat Tillman really was.

This Memorial Day, let’s remember the real Pat Tillman.