The day after the attacks of 9/11, Cardinals safety Pat Tillman put the situation in perspective, remembering those who had fought and died for the country and pointing out, “I really haven’t done a damn thing, as far as laying myself on the line like that.”
So he did something, leaving football to enlist in the military in 2002. On the eve of the 2004 draft came the stunning news: Tillman had died in the line of duty.
The notion of a heroic death while fighting the enemy quickly yielded to a concession that Tillman was killed by friendly fire after his convoy had been split into two groups while going through Taliban territory in Afghanistan. Those who twisted the truth to of the Tillman narrative then tried to cover it up, making the situation worse.
But none of it changes the fact that Tillman served, and Tillman died. Soldiers can die in a wide range of ways. Whether it’s from enemy fire, friendly fire, a plane crash, a helicopter crash, or some other accident away from the battlefield, joining the military means submitting to broad, vague, and ever-present risk of injury and death.
Tillman knew that when he signed up. The details of how he died and how it was concealed, while relevant to improving procedures for owning up to mistakes and not attempting to spin stories for recruiting or P.R. purposes, don’t change the fact that Tillman served, and Tillman died.
His death is no less important than any that have occurred to men and women serving in the armed forces. Regardless of how the ultimate sacrifice is made, it remains the ultimate sacrifice. All are remembered today; Tillman’s decision to serve at a time when he still could have continued to play football at a far lower physical risk and for far more money makes his sacrifice even more remarkable.