The Grief of Mary Tillman

Let me begin this post by indulging in cliche: Pat Tillman, to me, is a genuine hero. As we’ve all heard so many times, he walked away from millions in the NFL to volunteer for perilous detail in Afghanistan, which, unlike the current morass in Iraq, was a just and necessary engagement. That’s a level of sacrifice, valor, and personal courage I’ll probably never be able to fathom. He was a hero even before he met his end in April of 2004.

On the subject of Tillman’s service to his country and untimely death, we have Dave Zirin’s engaging interview with Mary Tillman, Pat’s mother. That Tillman was the victim of fratricide and that the Army withheld this knowledge for some time are matters of record. That’s enough to push a grieving family over the edge. Most of us–thankfully–can’t wrap our heads around the idea of what it’s like to bury a child, and that’s why so much of what’s done in the name of grief must be dismissed and forgiven. I don’t like it that Cindy Sheehan cozied up to a despotic loon like Hugo Chavez, but putting myself in her position is beyond the extremities of my imagination. I simply don’t how I’d behave if I lost my son to war. That brings me to this exchange between Zirin and Tillman:

Tillman: … And when the information looks so suspicious and so contradictory–we were concerned that he could have been killed on purpose.

Zirin: Is that something you believe at this point?

Tillman: It’s possible, I suppose, to a tiny degree. But I think we’ve pretty much eliminated that simply because after looking at these documents for four years and being able to talk to more of the soldiers as they gradually get out of the military it’s pretty clear that these soldiers were grossly negligent.

What’s curious about this is that whether Tillman’s death was accidental friendly fire or a sinister incidence of “fragging” (i.e., the murder of a ranking officer) is still an open issue. In July of last year, the AP reported that unnamed Army doctors wanted Tillman’s death investigated as a homicide because, according to forensic evidence, he was shot from a distance of just 10 yards. The Pentagon ultimately ruled that Tillman’s death was accidental, but, let’s face it, the Pentagon isn’t exactly known for rigorous honesty during wartime.

The excerpted portion above, by my reading, suggests that Ms. Tillman is mostly satisfied on this front and that she’s not inclined to believe her son was murdered. Perhaps that’s her genuine conclusion or perhaps that’s what she needs to believe for the sake of her emotional health. Even if it’s the latter case, it would be indecent to judge her for it. Still, it’s odd that Ms. Tillman seems to be more certain in this regard than the public record is.

The unfortunate reality is that we’ll probably never know the truth about Tillman–if there are secrets, then each day that goes by buries them more deeply. My hope is that the Tillman family is comforted by the knowledge that Pat’s heroism had nothing to do with his death, whatever the circumstances and truths of that death might be. It was his life that was heroic.

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