Pat Tillman, soldier

April 27, 2004

IN DEATH, Pat Tillman is getting the kind of attention he so admirably didn't seek in life. He's being hailed over and over as a remarkable hero. And while we more than agree, the singularity of his death is also a commentary on these times.

Specialist Tillman, who forsook the good life of the National Football League for the hazards of soldiering as an Army Ranger, was killed Thursday during a firefight after his combat patrol was ambushed in southeastern Afghanistan. His body was to arrive yesterday at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, accompanied by his younger brother, who serves in the same elite unit.

First and foremost - at a time when the White House wants to wage war without exposing Americans to even respectful images of flag-draped coffins returning home - Specialist Tillman's death is a reminder of the human cost of the continuing actions in both Iraq and Afghanistan. About 700 U.S. military have died so far in Iraq, and some 110 more in Afghanistan.

Each was a volunteer; each gave up something to fight for his or her country; each was a notable tragedy. But of course Specialist Tillman - who walked away from a three-year, $3.6 million contract to continue playing safety for the NFL's Arizona Cardinals - struck a national chord two years ago when he and his brother, Spc. Kevin Tillman, a minor-league baseball player, both enlisted. More recently, they signed up for second tours of duty.

Not only did both opt for the hardships of Ranger life - in the older Tillman's case, leaving a new bride, football fame and a lifetime of money - both refused to talk about their decision publicly or allow others to make much of it. In a cynical age when almost anything resembling self-sacrifice seems inevitably destined to play out as a some sort of marketable script, that was hard for many to comprehend. Who would give up so much to fight?

But after 9/11, it's said, Pat Tillman concluded the real challenge was not in the NFL, but in making the same choice as thousands of less-famous Americans - to put their lives on the line for their country. And he apparently didn't do so out of macho adventurism, but heartfelt idealism.

Someone, somewhere, probably is already plotting to turn Specialist Tillman's life into a movie. By all accounts, he'd likely suggest the even more remarkable heroism, and tragedy, is that of all his fellow volunteer soldiers risking and giving their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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