I've been struck in the week and a half since Pat Tillman's death by how often people want to point out that the NFL player-turned-Army Ranger wasn't some kind of special hero. He was a hero, sure, but there are plenty of others too, and we shouldn't forget them.
It's an admirable sentiment, one expressed nicely at Monday's televised memorial service in San Jose by Maria Shriver, California's first lady, who spoke directly to Tillman.
"Your mom," she said, "wanted to make sure that we knew that there are so many other young Americans like you that should not be forgotten. Heroes like the people teaching school right here in San Jose. They're fighting fires in Los Angeles, walking a beat in Oakland, working in a soup kitchen in Sacramento, and serving this country in the military all over the world."
I wonder why we find it so hard to admit that Pat Tillman was special, that he was a hero not quite like the others who are fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan, where he died April 22 leading his patrol to try to rescue an ambushed convoy, the Army said in announcing the award of a Silver Star and a posthumous promotion to corporal.
I wonder why it's so hard to say that as vital and, yes, heroic as those Oakland cops and L.A. firefighters and all the others who serve their community and their nation are, they don't speak to us the way Pat Tillman did in life and, even more, the way he does in death.
The things and people that speak to us as a nation, as a culture, for whatever reason, are important.
We're hearing almost daily reports now of soldiers dying in Iraq, and as tragic and awful as those deaths are, they don't hit us the same way as the report of Tillman's death did. Three thousand people aren't showing up for memorial services for each of these heroic Americans, and those services aren't being carried live on TV. Maybe they should be. Maybe we should all get to as many of these things as we can. But we don't.
I don't mean to say that Pat Tillman was a more important person than the next soldier over, and certainly not because he used to play in the NFL or that he had a lot of money and turned down a lot more to join the Army. I don't mean one life is more valuable than another in some measurable, abstract, objective way. I just mean it's a matter of perspective. Consider any one of those soldiers whose death we've heard about recently. Are his life and death more valuable and important to his family and friends than Pat Tillman's? Of course they are.
Pat Tillman's life and death tell us a compelling story, one that touches us. He hit a nerve in people not just because he put a face on the war effort, which he did, but also because his story had so many compelling elements, not the least of which was his refusal to do interviews, to participate in his own mythmaking. Giving up a glamorous, million-dollar career to join the Army during wartime is one thing, but shunning the spotlight? In 21st century America, that really made him stand out.
But as unusual as it was, as unusual as he was, Tillman's story was just so damn easy to identify with. Who among us, upon hearing about him leaving the NFL and joining up, didn't put ourselves in his shoes and think, Would I have done that? It's all the more compelling that in the vast majority of cases, the answer must have been "No." It certainly was for me.
We ascribe different levels of meaning and importance to all sorts of objectively similar things all the time because of the way they speak to us. There's nothing wrong with that. It might feel a little weird to shortchange the cop on the beat or the firefighter rushing into a burning building or even Tillman's comrades in arms, but it's not. For any one of us, no two lives -- and no two deaths -- are equal.
"I'm flattered you would come out here and cook like this," Pat Tillman Sr. said by way of thanks to the family, friends, co-workers and strangers who had baked in the sunshine for two hours Monday. "I'm sure Pat would be flattered too. He'd be kind of wondering why you were doing it, but he would always appreciate a compliment."
Good, because he earned it.
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