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PETERSON: Generations must remember Pat Tillman — the ultimate patriot

Published: Friday, April 25, 2014 2:15 a.m. CDT • Updated: Tuesday, April 29, 2014 12:20 p.m. CDT
Pat Tillman

Nearly 30,000 people will assemble in Tempe, Ariz., this weekend for the 10th annual Pat’s Run, a benefit for the foundation overseen by Pat Tillman’s widow, Marie.

There are at least 32 other similar “shadow” runs celebrating Tillman’s spirit in cities throughout the country.

Tillman’s death by friendly fire on a remote mountain ridge in Afghanistan was on April 22, 2004. My oldest son Brett was a senior in high school. He turned 29 earlier this month.

It dawned on me this week there is a whole new generation of students today who don’t know directly of that tragic event in our nation’s history. Maybe only a passing glance at an ESPN mention on the anniversary, or perhaps something they’ve read.

Two things should not be forgotten about Pat Tillman — 1) What he did for himself, and for this country, in paying the ultimate sacrifice; and 2) How the military brass mishandled the cover-up of what really happened.

I remember sitting in my living room, watching the emotional memorial service on TV, under the impression he had been killed by enemy fire in combat while serving with the Army Rangers on the hunt for Osama bin Laden in the remote areas of Afghanistan.

The military was painting him as the ultimate hero, choosing to face the enemy in a war he didn’t have to join. He could have accepted a $3.6 million contract to continue playing safety for the Arizona Cardinals.

Basically, the initial news of his death was trumpted in a way that might stir many others to enlist. So, it was kind of a bitter pill to swallow later, when the “real” version started reaching the public.

A report this week by ESPN by investigative reporter Mike Fish shed some light on the event, as Fish got fellow platoon member Steven Elliott on record saying what happened that evening in the dark shadows of a narrow mountain road. Also speaking on camera was Bryan O’Neal, who was then a 19-year-old member of the same platoon, standing right next to Tillman when the former football star was shot in the forehead by members of his own unit.

O’Neal, Tillman and Sayed Farhad, an allied Afghan soldier, had quickly climbed the ridge on Tillman’s order, to provide cover fire for the convoy below, which was under attack.

Unfortunately, they were mistaken for the enemy. Communication was difficult in the steep mountainous terrain and those in the vehicle below did not know of Tillman’s plan to help from above.

Tillman tried to shout to them below to stop shooting, and even tossed up a smoke bomb as a signal to stop shooting. The next instant, he was down with three fatal gunshot wounds. O’Neal, to this day, can’t walk by a water fountain, because the sound of the water gurgling is so similar to Tillman’s rapid blood loss.

Somehow, O’Neal was the only of the three to walk down from that ridge, having found cover behind a boulder. The guilt he felt turned him into an alcoholic for a time. He got help from counseling, and now trains Army Rangers.

Elliott, one of those firing at the men above, also developed a drinking problem and required extensive counseling. Both he an O’Neal married, divorced and remarried in the 10 years since.

The only sanctions against the shooters was to be removed from the Ranger unit and moved into the general Army corps.

It was a horrific screw-up, and worse yet was how it was concealed from the Tillman family. Kevin, Pat’s brother, was several hundred yards away as a member of the same Ranger unit, and did not know the full story until weeks later.

This was tragic on so many levels.

Youngsters today probably couldn’t even imagine a Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year at Arizona State, NFL starting safety for the Cardinals, leaving millions of dollars on the table and a comfortable home with his wife to join the U.S. Army. But that’s what he did in June 2002 in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Pro athletes just don’t do that, at least not since the World War II days of Bob Feller and Ted Williams.

The legacy, now, is how Pat Tillman lived. Not how he died. The more you read about the man, the more inspired you become to do something meaningful with your life.

O’Neal, for example, called him a “big brother influence.” Tillman, 27 at the time, taught him the self-confidence, thirst for knowledge and love of books that he’d developed. Tillman questioned authority, delved deeply into the meaning of various religions. Yet, he was one of the hardest hitters in a violent sport. A complicated man.

The foundation involved in Saturday’s 4.2-mile run (Tillman’s number was 42 and the race ends at the 42-yard-line of Sun Devil Stadium) has handed out 290 scholarships to military veterans and their families worth nearly $5 million.

Now, that’s meaningful. I have a hunch it’s the one positive development Tillman would have seen come from all of this. The secrecy and cover-ups in the aftermath would have sickened him. He was a no-BS guy.

Perhaps, through these scholarships, other soldiers will find the success that was his destiny before his life was tragically cut short.

And to today’s students, try to remember, in this age when so many big-time athletes go astray, this was a rock-solid guy who was a true hero/role model.

And frankly, I don’t see how you don’t find a place for Pat Tillman in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Heck, he’s in the Life Hall of Fame.

Contact the writer:

Twitter: @larrypeterson

Email: lpeterson@crestonnews.com

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