Introduction: A Photo
My first boss in Okinawa was a prior infantry officer turned lawyer in the Marine Corps. His perpetually calm and caring demeanor seemed at odds with the stereotypical image one conjures of an infantryman forged in the early 2000s. His office contained typical Marine Corps memorabilia, but what really dominated the space was a poster of a football player with a number 42 jersey. The player is facing away from the camera as they walk up a football field. A goal post hovers in the background. The photo is done in a black and grayscale casting a somber tone. No motivational words or phrases adorn the photo. It’s simply the man. His right foot is coming onto its toes, ready to take the next forward step. The left arm is swinging slightly forward, cast in the shadow of the man’s body. The right arm is more visible. A thick vein runs across a muscular forearm. Triceps protrude even though the arm is relaxed. The photograph has a thick golden border. At the bottom reads “Pat Tillman Foundation” in unassuming and undistracting letters. They don’t attempt to draw attention away from the sole figure. Even without understanding who I was looking at, my gaze always seemed to wander to that photo. My boss never professed being a football fan, so that always thickened the air of mystery around the photo. I don’t recall asking him about it either. Its position in the office, the color scale, the faceless man—there was something reverent and intangible I was afraid to intrude upon. It was a church with its doors firmly closed. To force my way in would have been sacrilegious.
“My great grandfather was at Pearl Harbor and a lot of my family has given up and gone and fought in wars, and I really haven’t done a damn thing as far as laying myself on the line like that.”
I was 11 in 2004. In my early days I spent a large amount of time with my grandfather who lived on the same property as me. A short 1-minute walk and I would be at his house asking for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Until his wife commandeered the remote control in the evening after her work as a transcriptionist, there would always be a Fox News anchor bellowing in the living room. My grandfather’s loyalty to Fox News was unwavering and the TV has to be pretty loud when you’re nearing 80 years old.
I would sit on the couch or empty recliner and watch the news with him. We didn’t have cable back at my house, so the plethora of available channels were an allure even if they were underutilized until the evening hours. It was in one of those everyday moments I was introduced to the story of Pat Tillman. It was a fragment of a story. News of his death had just begun circulating and little details or pending controversy were unavailable to the anchors at the time. It was a solemn note amid the duly scheduled political discourse and partisanship.
Pat Tillman, Army Ranger who turned down an NFL contract, was killed in action. My grandfather made a comment. My memory is hazy about what he said. He usually paused shows intermittently to provide commentary or life advice. The words allude me, but the feeling remains lingering inside my stomach. Sadness. My grandfather had a way of saying blunt or sarcastic comments tinged with sadness. Whether it was about abuse he suffered as a child, walking among the dilapidated remains of Japan in the wake of World War II, or the death of Pat Tillman, my grandfather’s emotional side could be glimpsed against the gruff exterior. From that day in the living room until 2019, I didn’t have any further interactions with Pat Tillman. His inspiring life story, his sacrifice, and the controversies that followed alluded me until I stepped into the office of my new supervisory attorney in Okinawa.
As I was nearing a decade of service in the United States Marine Corps, I made the decision to not reenlist and instead pursue my aspiration to become a lawyer to serve as a juvenile public defender. After I completed the LSAT and began applying to schools, the same attorney with the iconic poster recommended applying to become a Pat Tillman scholar. It’s there where my journey with Pat Tillman really began.
Pat Tillman Foundation
The subtitle for the Pat Tillman Foundation website is “Building the Next Generation of Leaders.” The front page challenges the reader with bold letters calling them to action. “Somewhere inside, we hear a voice. It leads us in the direction of the person we wish to become. But it is up to us whether or not to follow.” Images and videos of Pat Tillman and the Foundation play in the background. Reading the foundation’s core values of service, scholarship, humble leadership, and impact imparted in me a sense of nostalgia and hope. It was like walking into the Marine Corps recruiting office all over again.
A Marine Corps recruiter displays a plethora of dog tags on their desk to a new applicant. Instead of the tags containing the iconic list of name, Social Security number, blood type and religious preference, a single bold word is emblazoned on each of them. Honor, courage, commitment, camaraderie, adventure, challenge, etc. These words, the Marine dressed in a tailored service uniform across the desk, and a Marine Corps documentary playing in the background pulls the applicant in. Their troubled past is unable to enter this hallowed ground with them. It stares at the applicant’s back pitifully through the glass front door. An incommunicable feeling takes hold. The applicant realizes the opportunity to become part of something far greater than themselves not only exists, but is available to them.
I felt the same pull I experienced all those years ago as I went through the Pat Tillman website. Maybe it’s corny and overly dramatic, but the tug at my insides was real. The youthful desire to be a hero, not yet extinguished by time and bitterness, flares up. The Marine Corps, though I love it deeply, failed to live up to my young, fanciful idealism. As I transitioned away from it, here arrives another organization that’s truly striving to make a difference in the world. I was enamored on the idea of being a part of a driven community dedicated to betterment of the world. The underlying association with the military and focus on veteran scholars helped fuel the connection.
In preparation for the application process, I consumed what literature I could. I read Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman by Jon Krakauer, Boots on the Ground by Dusk by Mary Tillman, and The Letter: My Journey Through Love, Loss, and Life by Marie Tillman. These were my first forays into the story of Pat Tillman, each book starkly different from one another in their approach to retelling the story of Pat. One saw him as a public figure, one raised him as a son, and one loved him as a husband. Despite their different focuses, the beating heart of their narrative remained the same—Pat Tillman, a man who followed his passions, lived with integrity, and made the ultimate sacrifice for his country.
A glimpse at Pat Tillman. The power of a second chance.
When I discuss my readings and application process to become a Pat Tillman scholar, most of my colleagues and friends will attest “they know who Pat Tillman is.” The generic summarization often touted is, “He’s the man who turned an NFL contract down and enlisted in the Army.” Undoubtedly, I would have done the same thing a few months ago. After reading so much about him from reporters, friends, and family, the synopsis feels cheap. These defining moments that have imprinted themselves onto the American consciousness are but a small blip in his life.
When we read stories, especially biographical accounts of great people, I think it’s common to seek out parallels to our own experiences. Our inclination is to grab unto details that mirror our own life in hopes of being able to stand closer to the podium the protagonist resides on. After all, if this renowned individual went through the same tribulations as me, we’re not so different. The same internal fiber that constitutes their heroic figure possibly contains the same strands found in ourselves.
In that same vein, I found myself clinging to the newfound knowledge that Pat Tillman also went through the juvenile court system (though the circumstances of our respective situations are drastically different). After a night of drinking and celebrating, 17-year-old Pat Tillman is at a pizza restaurant with a group of friends. One of Pat’s friends goes outside and begins accosting another group, who, after much prodding, begin to respond violently. Pat and his friends are called to help (unbeknownst to them that their friend initiated the altercation) and rush to their friend’s aid. In the ensuing chaos, Pat severely assaults Darin Rosas, one of the boys from the other group. In that single inebriated, adrenaline-fueled moment, Pat irrevocably altered the course of his life. Charges for felony assault were brought against him. Pat’s future, much less his football scholarship to Arizona State University, was in jeopardy.
To the chagrin of the victim’s family, the judge reduced the charge from felony assault to misdemeanor assault. Pat was awarded 30 days of confinement in a juvenile facility and community service. The judge reducing the charges to a misdemeanor and awarding a sentence that didn’t interfere with Pat’s ability to start the football season on time allowed Pat to retain his football scholarship and attend Arizona State University. By this act, the judge gave Pat a second chance.
If Pat hadn’t gone to ASU, would he have ever joined the NFL? Would he have enlisted in the Army on the same day and been in the same firefight in Afghanistan? Would his sacrifice have left the legacy it has and inspired an organization that continues to support future leaders of our society? These hypothetical “what ifs” and “would haves” could fill an entire novel. I think the victim's family was rightfully upset about the outcome of the case. It’s easy and satisfying to correlate “justice” with a prison sentence. Was 30 days justice for Darin Rosas? Whether the sentence was too light or too harsh, it obviously had a profound impact on Pat Tillman. All of the books highlight how those nights spent in the detention center were a sobering experience for him. It strengthened his relationship with Marie, it made him more serious about his scholastic endeavors, and it gave him insight into where poor decisions could lead kids less fortunate than him.
Erin Clarke, one of Darin Rosas’ friends, is quoted in Jon Krakauer’s novels saying, “What I take from Pat Tillman is that you are not who you are at your worst moment. After what Pat did to Darin, it seems like he really turned his life around and became quite an honorable person… That judge held Pat’s future in her hands. She had the power to send him down one path or another, and she decided to make what turned out to be a really good decision.”
After this tribulation, Pat Tillman went on to a successful college education and football seasons, a contract in the NFL, married his high school sweetheart, and served in the military. He also did small things, often unacknowledged in the broad-brush strokes presented to the passersby. He helped an old fisherman on the beach bring in their day’s catch. He fretted over whether or not he accidentally didn’t pay for one of many second-hand books he had bought. He volunteered in the local area and gave signatures generously. He welcomed in new Army Rangers and treated them with dignity. He traveled. He read. He loved. He was a brother, son, and husband. He was given a second chance and in turn gave so many their own opportunity at redemption.
It’s difficult to read the harrowing sequence of events leading to Pat Tillman’s death by fratricide. Lack of communication amongst the soldiers. Unidentified targets being fired upon. The conflicting accounts of what actually occurred. The sudden memory lapses by senior officials. Hearing Krakauer’s condemnation of the Middle East conflict followed by Mary Tillman’s frustrations and probing questions about the firefight that ended her son’s life left inadequately answered began to shake my faith in the armed services and my country.
There’s a lot that can be said about America’s involvement in the Middle East. Reading Krakauer’s introduction to the conflict and lesson in Middle Eastern history creates a sour feeling in one’s stomach about the whole affair. I’m certainly not educated enough or in a position to comment on the validity of his words, the politics motivating our country’s decisions or the military stratagem. I’m unread in the field and have never deployed to the Middle East. Despite this, I feel confident to say war is a terrible thing. Some brave soldiers never return from it. For those that do, it remains a haunting and indescribable experience for many.
A large amount of criticism is laid at the feet of the Army Rangers for their actions that resulted in Pat Tillman’s death. A reader shouldn’t overlook how it’s also frequently noted in the novels that Pat Tillman and his brother were older than most of their fellow Rangers. They were enlisted soldiers. Pat’s and Kevin’s college experience and life outside of high school was and still is an anomaly amongst new enlisted service members. The vast majority of the active-duty component of the armed services is 18 to 22 years old. When you thrust young men and women into unimaginable situations, it’s bound to lead to tragedy.
When I hear the condemnation for the men on the ground during Pat Tillman’s death, I often think back to another book I read—No Time for the Truth: The Haditha Incident and the Search for Justice. As the subtitle suggests, this book also covers another incredibly dark period of the war in Iraq. It uncomfortably parallels Pat Tillman’s death—confusion, death, changing stories, inadequate investigative work, and a lack of accountability for those “responsible.” The quotation marks aren’t meant to make light of the events. They serve as supporting anchors for a heavy word. Responsible. Responsibility. Without the necessary assistance, the word might slide down the page wreaking havoc among the prose below. Who is responsible for these events? Is it the high school graduate behind the trigger or the political powers that placed him there and financed the gun?
General James Mattis, a renowned Marine Corps infantry officer, was the convening authority for a number of Marines involved in the Haditha Massacre. In one of his disposition letters to a Marine, he provides an eloquent glimpse into the realities of combat.
“The experience of combat is difficult to understand intellectually and very difficult to appreciate emotionally. One of our Nation’s most articulate Supreme Court Justices, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., served as an infantryman during the Civil War and described war as an “incommunicable experience . . . He has also noted elsewhere that “detached reflection cannot be demanded in the face of an uplifted knife.”
I think a lot is illuminated in this letter.
Steven Elliot, one of the young Rangers that fired upon Pat Tillman’s position, gave an interview to NPR 10 years after the incident. In it, it’s clear he’s still haunted by events that took place. Struggling with alcoholism, PTSD, and strained relationships, he continues to push forward all these years later. “And he’s [Elliot] talked with others who have been in friendly-fire incidents, mostly soldiers who served in Vietnam. “In some of those conversations, I felt like I was looking in a mirror,” he says, choking up. “I saw the 1,000-yard stare in their eyes, and just the unresolved emptiness and hurt that that brings.”
Over 18 years after his death, Pat’s legacy continues. The choices he made in the pursuit of his personal vision, untainted by greed, still resonate with the American people. The 18th Pat’s Run (4.2 miles) held in Tempe, Arizona boasted more than 35,000 participants. Yearly leadership summits are held. There are 754 Tillman Scholars spread across 166 universities. Each of these scholars creates their own sphere of influence. Their actions and attitudes help shape a better future for so many.
Outside of the Pat Tillman Foundation pipeline, my boss in Okinawa has been incredibly supportive in my venture to become an attorney. He has selflessly provided mentorship and resources for every step of the journey. Whenever I thank him, his common response is, “Pay it forward—your success is the world’s success.” Amid media hysteria and cynicism in the world, it’s this type of person and attitude that instills hope. I don’t credit the Pat Tillman Foundation for his altruistic behavior—those values run deeper—but it helped support him in his journey and connected him with a network of like-minded individuals. The Foundation put him in a position to help me carve out a better life for myself, which in turn I hope to do for others.
At the time of writing, I don’t know if I’ll be selected to be a Pat Tillman scholar. In the big scheme of things, I recognize the decision going either way is okay. We choose how to live. We choose whether to stand up or not. An organization, a degree, or an NFL contract merely serves as a dressing layer for the heart. We have to follow our passions and strive to lift up others in the process. We’re all in it together.
Thank you for reminding me, Pat.
"To err on the side of passion is human and right and the only way I'll live."