Politicians refer to themselves as public servants. Swamp creatures like Joe Biden will extol their many decades of employment in Washington DC as though they had been some kind of galley slave toiling away on an Athenian man o’ war. I have actually met a couple of those guys. Their idea of selfless service does not quite match my own.
American legislators spend money like drunken sailors. Actually, that’s not true. Drunken sailors couldn’t even begin to burn cash in as profligate a manner as might your typical freshman congressman. They’ve raised wasting money to an art form.
You think I’m kidding. Back when I was a soldier I spent a week as a local liaison officer for a group of congressmen on a fact-finding mission after the First Gulf War. It was amazing just watching them eat. They’d go to the nicest restaurant in town and order one of anything they might be curious about. Then they swapped plates around so everybody got a taste. One of my several duties was to scurry back and forth to the Officers’ Club cashing $500 government traveler’s checks to pay for it all. It was surreal.
Everybody in DC has sold their soul to somebody. I’ll champion the folks on my side of the aisle in the vain hope that they might someday just leave me the heck alone, but they are all irredeemably corrupt. The system perpetuates itself. It will never get better.
On May 31, 2002, Pat Tillman and his brother Kevin walked into a local recruiting office and enlisted in the US Army. Pat walked away from a $3.6 million professional football contract and Lord knows what else so he could serve his country in the immediate aftermath of 911. Pat Tillman’s story is that of a conflicted man and a horribly flawed system. However, his is a tale of epic sacrifice and genuine selfless service.
Pat Tillman was the eldest of three sons born to Patrick and Mary Tillman in Fremont, California. By NFL standards, Tillman was not a terribly big man. He stood 5’11” and weighed 202 pounds when dressed out as a safety for the Arizona Cardinals. Pat personified the axiom, “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog.”
In high school Tillman preferred baseball, but he failed to make the team as a freshman. At that point, he turned his attention to the gridiron. Throughout his childhood and adolescence, Pat was powerfully close to his friends and family. He married his childhood sweetheart just before he enlisted in the Army. He and his brother Kevin enlisted together, trained together, and were eventually both assigned to the 2d Ranger Battalion based at Fort Lewis, Washington.
Pat Tillman attended Arizona State University on a football scholarship and excelled as a linebacker. An exceptionally deep young man, Tillman was well read and made good grades. He maintained a 3.85 GPA in marketing and graduated in 3.5 years despite the rigors of starting on his college football team.
Pat thrived in the NFL. Sports Illustrated writer Paul Zimmerman named Tillman to the 2000 NFL All-Pro team based upon his stellar performance as a defensive player. He turned down a $9 million offer to move to the St. Louis Rams out of loyalty to his Arizona team.
Eight months after the 911 attacks and with the remainder of his 15 games completed from his 2001 contract, Pat Tillman left $3.6 million on the table to go to Army basic training alongside his brother. Pat’s brother Kevin gave up a burgeoning career in minor league baseball for the same path. These two men put their love of country ahead of the sorts of things the rest of us would just about kill for.
Appreciate the details here. I’m a happily married hetero man, and even I admit that Pat Tillman was an exceptionally good-looking guy. Intelligent, articulate, and well-educated, Tillman had the world by the tail. Once his time in the NFL was complete Pat Tillman could have easily parlayed his gifts and experiences into a career on television or in Hollywood. Instead, he opted for the Ranger Regiment.
I was an Army aviator, but I worked with those guys on occasion. Theirs was an absolutely miserable life. Junior enlisted soldiers don’t get paid beans, and the optempo in the Ranger Battalions is utterly grueling. In less than two years on active duty, Pat Tillman completed basic training and AIT as well as the Ranger Assessment and Selection Program. He was deployed to Iraq as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom in September of 2003 after which he attended Ranger School at Fort Benning. Once a fully tabbed Ranger, he returned to Second Bat at Lewis and deployed to Afghanistan where he was based at FOB Salerno.
Up until this point, Pat Tillman was the US Army’s poster child. An American superhero with a face right out of central casting, Tillman’s story could not have been any more compelling had it been drafted by an action novelist. Then Something Truly Horrible happened.
Combat is an ugly, filthy, chaotic thing. It is seldom as tidy or predictable as the movies and sand table exercises depict it to be. On April 22, 2004, the fog of war claimed a genuine American hero.
On a forgotten road leading from the Afghan village of Sperah about 40 klicks outside of Khost, Pat Tillman’s small HUMVEE-mounted patrol ran into trouble. Their mission that day was to retrieve a disabled HUMVEE. This tale is made all the more tragic in that we abandoned tens of thousands of these vehicles when we fled Afghanistan recently. The details are fiercely debated to this day, but here is the official description.
Tillman was in the lead vehicle designated Serial 1. Serial 1 passed through a mountainous pass and was roughly one kilometer ahead of Serial 2, the following HUMVEE. At that point, Serial 2 was purportedly engaged by hostile forces.
Upon hearing of the ambush, the Rangers in Serial 1 dismounted and made their way on foot back toward an overwatch position where they could provide supporting fires for Serial 2. In the resulting chaos, the Rangers of Serial 2 lost touch with the specific location of the lead Rangers. In the violent exchange of fire that followed Tillman’s Platoon Leader and his RTO (Radio Telephone Operator) were wounded. An allied member of the Afghan Militia Force was killed. Pat Tillman caught three 5.56mm rounds from an M249 SAW to the face from a range of 10 meters and died instantly.
First introduced in 1984, the Belgian-designed M249 Squad Automatic Weapon was an Americanized version of the FN Minimi. An open-bolt, gas-operated design, the M249 was conceived to provide the Infantry squad with a portable source of high-volume, belt-fed automatic fire. The M249 has seen action in every major military engagement since the US invasion of Panama in 1989.
The M249 weighs 17 pounds empty and 22 pounds with a basic load of 200 linked rounds. The weapon fires from an open bolt and features a quick-change barrel system. The gun will feed on either disintegrating linked belts or standard STANAG M4 magazines. In my experience, the magazine feed system was never terribly reliable.
USSOCOM adopted a lighter, more streamlined version of the M249 titled the Mk46 for use with special operations forces. The M4 magazine well, vehicle mounting lugs, and barrel change handle were all removed on the Mk 46 to save weight. The USMC has aggressively supplemented their rifle squads with the HK M27 Infantry Automatic Rifle in lieu of many of their SAWs. These weapons are currently issued at a ratio of 27 IARs and 6 SAWs per rifle company. The Next Generation Squad Weapon-Automatic Rifle program is tasked with finding a suitable replacement for the aging M249’s in the Army inventory.
The Rest of the Story
What happened next was a blight on the US Army. To have Pat Tillman, the real live Captain America killed due to friendly fire in a botched combat operation was not the story the Army wanted pushed. As a result, several senior Army officers moved to massage the narrative and outright suppress the story to both the media and the Tillman family. The end result was an absolutely ghastly mess.
There were allegations that Tillman, by now disillusioned with the war in Iraq, was about to offer an interview with controversial activist Noam Chomsky upon his return from his Afghanistan deployment that would be critical of the Bush Administration. As Tillman’s death occurred in a crucial time leading up to the 2004 Presidential elections conspiracy theorists even proposed that he had been intentionally murdered. However, interviews with his fellow Rangers verified that Tillman was a popular and selfless member of the team. In the final analysis, it all seems to have been a truly horrible mistake. After several investigations undertaken by the military, three mid-level Army leaders purportedly received administrative punishment as a result.
A word on the conspiracies. Soldiers don’t fight for mom, apple pie, and America. They fight for each other. There’s just no way you could get a Ranger to intentionally shoot another Ranger to protect the reputation of a sitting President. This was simply a horrible accident.
The sordid circumstances surrounding the death of Pat Tillman in no way diminish the truly breathtaking scope of the man’s patriotism and sacrifice. Tillman was an avowed atheist throughout his life. After his funeral, his youngest brother Richard asserted, “Just make no mistake, he’d want me to say this: He’s not with God, he’s f&%ing dead, he’s not religious.” Richard added, “Thanks for your thoughts, but he’s f&%in’ dead.” It was an undeniably strange end for a genuine American hero.
Soldiers in combat will often pen a “just in case” letter to be opened in the event of their death. Pat’s note to his wife Marie said, “Through the years I’ve asked a great deal of you, therefore it should surprise you little that I have another favor to ask. I ask that you live.”
And live she did. Marie Tillman today is Chairman and Co-Founder of The Pat Tillman Foundation. This non-profit works to “unite and empower remarkable military service members, veterans, and spouses as the next generation of public and private sector leaders committed to service beyond self.” The Foundation has sponsored 635 Tillman Scholars and invested some $18 million in philanthropy. Marie has since remarried and is the mother of five children.