King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Pat Tillman: Hero, victim or mere disposable celebrity? The readers write.

By Salon Staff

Published May 13, 2004 7:00PM (EDT)

The e-mails poured in last week after the televised memorial service for Pat Tillman, the Arizona Cardinals safety who left the NFL to join the Army Rangers and was killed in Afghanistan. Perhaps the world has already moved on and Tillman is fading from memory, but I want to publish a selection of the letters anyway because so many of them were so thoughtful and interesting.

I've edited some of them slightly for length and clarity, and I trust I haven't changed anyone's meaning in doing so.

Freddie deBoer: To me, the question about the media frenzy surrounding Pat Tillman's death shouldn't be whether he deserved the attention. The question should be whether he wanted the attention. And the answer is no -- in the few interviews he granted following his retirement announcement, he made it very clear that he wanted to be treated as a regular soldier. Having his face plastered on the cover of every magazine with the word "hero" is precisely what he seemed to want to avoid.

It just seems like another example of how the American people and our media just don't get it. To truly honor him would be to respect his wishes and give him the quiet, dignified memorial of a soldier.

Name withheld: Yes, Tillman was heroic. But shouldn't some journalist point out that no one can properly convey exactly why he and so many other young men and women are getting shot up [overseas]? Apparently, only the Bush administration knows why he's now dead ... and they're not inclined to clarify. Tillman was a brave, idealistic victim. That's what he was. And all Americans have been victimized by the passing of another fine young man.

Jon Simmons: I think it's pretty clear why most people were struck harder by Tillman's death than others. He gave up a dream (pro athlete) many of us share to put himself directly in the path of some of the most dangerous bullets currently being aimed at his fellow citizens. When a country fights two wars simultaneously and yet average citizens are not asked to give up anything materially consequential, and our government doesn't even want us to see flag-draped caskets, the sudden reminder of sacrifice hits hard.

Bill Ward: I am very glad that you didn't use the word "selfless" to describe Tillman. Here's why: Tillman had a wife, who I believe is entitled to a $100,000 life-insurance payout. I sure hope he took out additional life insurance, because if not, what he did was, indeed, pretty doggone selfish. I'm not a hidebound traditionalist, far from it in fact, but when a man marries, he has at least some obligation to provide as best he can for his wife. Tillman certainly appears not to have done that. We don't know all the details, of course, but now Marie Tillman is without a husband and the millions he would have made if he had stayed in football.

I'm a veteran, by the way, and I actually support the war in Afghanistan and the troops everywhere. And I have no problem with Pat Tillman getting a hero's mantle -- to a point. But no matter whether, or how much, his wife might have supported the decision to forgo the money and fight for his country, I cringe when I see it portrayed as a "selfless" act.

Alton Roberson: I read your column on Tillman and I'm still not convinced that he should be called a hero as you and others suggest. I don't find his decision to serve necessarily brave or heroic, nor do I find his death more tragic than another soldier's. I find this overwhelming pack mentality with the coverage of his death to be unfair and unbalanced to the others serving overseas.

Tillman is elevated (more like exploited) as what is right about sports and American society. Pat Tillman as everyman, just like you and me. A panacea for the greed exhibited by Eli Manning and the shameful behavior of Kobe Bryant if you will. Ready for our consumption in the next People magazine and Sports Illustrated. Well, it's not that simple, nor as black and white as it appears. The military isn't made up of men and women similar to Tillman. It never has been that way. I'm sure most serving overseas never had the opportunity to turn down a million-dollar contract as Tillman did. And when they enlisted most weren't bargaining on a trip to fight in a war.

C.R.: My problem with all this hero-worshipping is not so much that he wasn't a hero, or jealousy that he's getting this attention just because he was a semi-famous athlete. Most of us don't lose anything now that he's dead, but we get a communal and vicarious thrill to finally put a face to a casualty. That's just cheap. And the worst part is, of course, that all this was supposed to have been unnecessary. Why are Americans still dying in Afghanistan, years later? Why do we think it's a good thing that a man died in this way?

David E. Romm: Pat Tillman was a special case because more of us had seen him and interacted with him, however vicariously, than anyone else who died in Iraq [or Afghanistan] so far. He put a human face on battle deaths the cowardly chicken hawks are desperate not to make public. One more coverup unraveling by events out of control. It's to his credit that he didn't believe his own NFL hype, but he didn't brag because he had nothing to brag about -- until he died a hero. Then, and only then, did his post-NFL life have a greater meaning than his football career.

Joseph Stone: I am uncomfortable with the Tillman "hero" worship. It glosses over the true nature of war -- death for thousands and physical maiming for life for many more. We don't even allow these images on our TV screens. Maybe if we saw fewer images of "heroes" in their football uniforms and military dress uniforms, and more images reflecting the reality of war, we might come closer to finding a solution to our problems without the need for military conflict or war.

Note: This letter, like all of those reproduced here, arrived after the first images of prisoner abuse in Iraq appeared on "60 Minutes II."

Sgt. Tim Walker: I am a sergeant serving a nine-month mission in Kabul, Afghanistan, as an intelligence analyst. Our unit (Task Force Phoenix) has the vital mission of training the new Afghan army to be able to make this country a safe place to live. I did not give up multi-million-$$, but I did leave my three kids, wife and $150K job as an engineering manager at Seagate (the hard-drive maker) for $20K as a sergeant. Also, I missed my youngest son's high school graduation and I turned 45 here.

We had a lot of discussion over the relative sacrifices made by us and Mr. Tillman. Some of us said we would never be here if we had a $4 million contract at home but others of us pointed out that as far as giving up things that mattered, many of us had given up more. Of course, Pat gave the ultimate sacrifice, willingly, and most of us have not had to do that. But I think many of us would if the situation arose.

I was not offended by the hoopla surrounding Pat Tillman's killing. I watched the memorial on TV from our chow hall and the guests were all careful not to single Pat out as a special soldier, which he was, and a special person, which he was, and certainly a hero; but not as a unique soldier, person, or hero, which he wasn't. There's a lot more over here and in Iraq where he came from!

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