Wednesday, August 01, 2007

The complex life and death of Pat Tillman.

Sometimes people say that after someone was born that the mold was broken. And broken molds are what comes to mind as I try to grapple with the issues surrounding the killing of Pat Tillman. In Tillman’s case he was the one who broke the mold. Everything I learn about him defies conventional stereotypes.

First, here was a man who was a football star. The stereotype for that is a dumb jock. But Tillman was nobody’s fool. He read widely and was interested in the world of ideas. He had an academic grade point average of just under 4.0 -- almost perfect. He also challenged others about negative attitudes toward gay people. Again, not the typical sports player.

Tillman played football and played it well. His last season of professional football earned him over $500,000. But the religious fanatics on 9/11 changed the course Tillman would take. Appalled at what he saw that day he decided to enlist in the US military. His country was under attack.

He finished the season as he was obligated to do. He was offered a new contract worth $3.6 million. He told his agent “Don’t worry about me. I’m thinking about doing something else.” He had a higher loyalty. The team understood this since he had shown them the same loyalty. Previously the St. Louis Rams approached Tillman to play for them and had offered him $9 million. He refused the offer to stay with the Phoenix Cardinals instead. But after the attacks he felt his loyalty to country had to come first.

Together, with his brother Kevin, who had turned down a chance to play professional baseball, Pat enlisted. The sport’s network ESPN wanted to give the Arthur Ashe Courage Award to the brothers. Neither of them chose to attend to accept it. Younger brother Richard appeared to tell the audience: “Pat and Kevin don’t think they are better than anyone else.”

Even in death Tillman defied conventional thinking. For decades the believers have comforted themselves with the claim that there are no atheists in foxholes. Tillman died, as he lived, an unbeliever.

A military chaplain spread the story of the last moments of Tillman’s life but he exaggerated the facts to make the atheist look cruel and mean. The chaplain, who was not there, claimed that Tillman insulted a fellow soldier for being religious. According to the chaplain’s story Tillman told a praying soldier to “shut your fucking mouth” and told the man he was “sniveling”. The soldier involved said this is untrue. He says he was praying and Tillman said: “Hey, O’Neal, why are you praying? God can’t help us now.”

The soldier, Bryan O’Neil, says that “more or less put my mind straight about what was going on.” That is nothing like the smear spread by the chaplain. Apparently Tillman’s non theistic beliefs bother the military, as we shall see shortly.

In this attack Tillman was killed. The US military told the world that he died under attack from evil terrorists. It was lie. Worse yet, the military knew it. Tillman was killed by someone in the US military.

But Tillman was the poster boy for the Pentagon. He was the sports player who turned down millions to join the army. He was photogenic, smart and successful. And the military hoped that they could dupe lots of young kids into thinking the same sort of glamour will apply to them if they enlist. And now he was dead. And worse yet he was killed by the US military not by any enemy combatant.

So they invented an attack that didn’t take place. Their goal was to turn the Tillman funeral into a military recruiting bonanza. And these men, including people at the highest levels of the military, lied to the Tillman family about what happened.

But Tillman’s family weren’t buying what the government was selling. And they noticed discrepancies in the official myth invented by the brass. So they asked questions and got more lies in return. The web of deceit woven by the spinmeisters of the government started to unravel bit by bit. So the government went on the offensive. One military investigator started attacking the family.

This vile investigator, Lt. Col Ralph Kauzlarich, didn’t want to do his job and investigate the facts. He wanted to sweep them under the rug. He bitched that investigators would have dropped the case long ago except Tillman was a celebrity and his parents refused to let the matter go. He says the whole incident was “an unfortunate accident” but that the family won’t drop the case “because of their religious beliefs.”

What he means is their non-religious beliefs. Kauzlarich was on the warpath because the Tillman’s weren’t Christians. He discovered that when Tillman’s body was being brought back to the US that Tillman’s brother, and fellow soldier, objected when a chaplain was brought in to pray. That bothered Kauzlarich. And he was now convinced that the Tillman’s were trouble makers merely because they were not Christians. He told ESPN:
When you die, I mean, there is supposedly a better life, right? Well, if you are an atheist and you don't believe in anything, if you die, what is there to go to? Nothing. You are worm dirt. So for their son to die for nothing, and now he is no more — that is pretty hard to get your head around that. So I don't know how an atheist thinks. I can only imagine that that would be pretty tough.
He said the Tillman’s lack faith including “trust in the system” so he didn’t “think anything will make them happy... because they can’t bring their son back.”

Pat’s mother, Mary, was offended. “Oh, it has nothing to do with the facts that this whole thing is shady. But it is because we are not Christians.” She said, “Pat may not have been what you call a Christian. He was about the best person I ever knew. I mean, he was just a good guy. He didn’t lie. He was very honest. He was very generous. He was very humble. I mean, he had an ego, but it was a healthy ego. It is like, everything those (people) are, he wasn’t.”

Kauzlarich basically admitted that he doesn’t want to know who killed Pat Tillman. He said they probably could have discovered who had but he said: “I don’t think it really matters.” He told reporters: “I had no issue on not finding a specific person responsible for doing it.”

Precisely what happened is unclear. There was bad planning, poorly trained soldiers, and mismanagement. There may have been more but we may never know. Certainly Tillman had concluded that the US government had lied about the war. He had become an opponent of the Iraqi invasion.

Here was a man with the integrity to question professional football coaches about whether they harbored any antigay sentiments. He was not afraid to speak out. Did he? Did someone, perhaps offended by his opposition to the war, his atheism, or his social tolerance, decide that the incident was a perfect time to settle a score? Perhaps? But that is only conjecture. We don’t know because men like Kauzlarich decided it was best not to know.

Immediately after the killing, the cover up began. We discovered that someone destroyed Tillman’s personal journal. Why would they do that? Was there something in the journal that they didn’t want out? This would have been a cherished memento for the Tillman family. Instead it was destroyed. His uniform was destroyed as well. Investigations were not done and the military invented a false story to promote the glory of their war.

Three days after the killing, the soldiers who were there had a meeting. Immediately everyone was looking for excuses, not causes. They talked about panic. And many of them immediately tried to blame Tillman for his own death. This only stopped when Bryan O’Neal spoke up. A witness that evening says O’Neal was barely holding back tears and was emotionally shook up. He told the others, “The only reason I am standing here is because Pat Tillman saved my life.”

So far we don’t know exactly what happened. All we know is what didn’t happen and that’s the original, official story released by the US government. The cover up has been shameless and blatant.

Mary Tillman told the media that both the Left and the Right have tried to use Pat Tillman’s death for their own purposes. She dismisses both sides saying Pat’s thoughts were far more complex than either of those movements can understand. She said one couldn’t put his views in a box. Tillman appeared to be a paradox in so many ways. But the more I learn the more I have to admire him. The complexities of life don’t fit the Left-Right mold. Since Pat Tillman didn’t seem to fit anyone’s mould I think we should realize Mary Tillman is correct when she say’s Pat wasn’t someone who couldn't be so easily stereotyped. And I admire that.

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