― Pat Tillman
Memorial Day in America is a very complex holiday. Its intent is to honor those that have fallen in the act of defending our nation. Somber observances are held across the country with wreaths on graves and American flags in full display. Families that have paid the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom weep. It is an activity that is deserving of more than just one day a year, but should be an everyday reflection.
But Memorial Day is also the unofficial start to the summer. The school year is nearly complete and the day off of work for most Americans usually involves grilling, swimming, baseball and usually some drinking. All activities that are undoubtedly American. Activities that we only have the privilege of as Americans like no other country in the world. And perhaps even being so myopic as to forget the reason for the day off is as American activity as I can imagine. And it is in that thought that we remember the story of Pat Tillman.
Pat Tillman was a tough-as-nails safety with a loyalty as intense as his hitting. Tillman played linebacker at Arizona State University and his eye-popping hits despite his somewhat smallish size quickly gained him notoriety. He was drafted by the Arizona Cardinals and converted to safety, where his big hits had him starting before his rookie year was over. He loved playing football and he loved his team. So much so that he actually turned down more money from the St Louis Rams to stay in Arizona. But above all else, he loved his country and the events of September 11th, 2001 would change his life forever.
Like many young men in America following the attacks on September 11th, Pat Tillman felt the pull to serve his country. But unlike most, Tillman and his brother followed through on that feeling with the same intensity he brought to the football field. In May of 2002, Pat Tillman turned down a 3 year contract from the Cardinals worth 3.6 million dollars to enlist in the Army. His brother also gave up a chance to play for the Cleveland Indians. Once they completed basic training, they were off to Ranger school which they soon completed and Pat was shipped off to Afghanistan.
Back home, the NFL and many others ran with the story. The idea of a player turning down what is a dream opportunity and millions of dollars to fight for his country was almost too good to be real. Pro-war and conservative groups used Tillman as the poster child for what the war was about. And it seemed like networks were jumping all over themselves to make this into a movie overnight. But as is so often the case, the realities of war and the Hollywood imagery of it are very, very different. And perhaps no story reflected that more than Pat Tillman's. His story came to an abrupt and unfortunate end on April 22nd, 2004.
Pat Tillman died as a result of friendly-fire when two different allied groups crossed paths and became confused in the fog of war. This was no way for an American hero to die. But, as many veterans will tell you, war is not glamorous or inspiring. It's hellish and those that experience are forever changed for having experienced it. In addition, Pat Tillman was an atheist and did not believe in a higher power or that events happen for a reason. He just died in a sad and tragic accident. Not a great ending for Hollywood's movie or the NFL's PR campaign. But then war almost never has a happy ending. War is more often sad and tragic.
Maybe that's the story to be taken from Pat Tillman's life to this Memorial Day. That all wars have costs and must be entered into with extreme prejudice. For those that we honor on this day who have perished gave of themselves willingly. And those they left behind suffer greatly. The quote that I found of Pat Tillman struck me very curious at first until I realized its intent. That the pride that we feel as Americans for our troops is different than the pride our fighting men and women feel. In the same way the pride a fan feels for his team is different than the pride a star player feels. Because those that are in the fight, be it on the battlefield or on the court, don't have the time to get the big picture. All that matters is that next moment. And winning.
So today, reflect on the ways you can improve yourself and live in the moment. Remember to give thanks to those that give you the opportunity to experience life the way you do and live a life that honors that sacrifice. It's the least you can do and, I believe, the best way to pay your respects.
No one lives on the top of the mountain. It’s fine to go there occasionally —for inspiration, for new perspectives. But you have to come down. Life is lived in the valleys. That’s where the farms and gardens and orchards are, and where the plowing and the work is done. That’s where you apply the visions you may have glimpsed from the peaks.
- Arthur Gordon