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Tillman Embraced Higher Calling

By Dave Kindred

USA Today Tuesday, April 27, 2004 Page 13A


What U.S. Army Rangers do is so physically and psychologically difficult that few men can do it and fewer want to. Of those who become Rangers and search out the enemy in the enemy's house, fewer still live through it.


Taking leave of a professional athlete's life of ease, wealth and celebrity for the peril imminent and inevitable in the life of an Army Ranger has been done by one man, Pat Tillman.


That man, now dead.


Monday afternoon, his brother Kevin, also a Ranger, accompanied Pat Tillman's body home from Afghanistan, another of those sad journeys from the other side of the world, flag-wrapped coffins coming to America.


The flags cover America's sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, brothers, sisters, friends and lovers.


From Iraq and Afghanistan, those soldiers come home loved. They come home respected.


They have names, the dead, the more than 800 dead. And we have read the names, noted the ages and hometowns, and we knew them not. So we moved on, this war somehow apart from us, somehow almost private. Maybe that's because the Pentagon has ordered no media coverage of those arriving coffins, as if the sacrifice in the abstract is OK, but sacrifice seen with our own eyes is too much for us.


Pat Tillman's celebrity changes that. His is a public death. But now we also know how much is asked of U.S. soldiers even as so little is asked of millions of Americans safe at home.


During the National Football League's draft this past weekend, Commissioner Paul Tagliabue wore a black ribbon with Tillman's name on it, and a moment of silence was held.


Nice gestures, but inconsequential, even exploitive when measured against Tillman's life and death. This was no game; this was duty, honor, patriotism.


Tillman was killed in an ambush while on combat patrol Thursday in Afghanistan, 90 miles south of that nation's capital, Kabul. We don't yet know how it happened, but we do know what happens to Rangers.


We know about another ambush in Afghanistan. It happened on March 4, 2002, two months before Tillman enlisted with intentions of becoming a Ranger. At 10,200 feet on the Afghanistan mountain Takur Ghar, 23 Rangers arrived in a MH-47E Chinook helicopter, according to news accounts. Hellfire met them. They rescued a Navy SEALs reconnaissance team trapped by al-Qaeda militia fortified in a mountaintop bunker and armed with machine guns, grenade launchers and small arms. Three Rangers and four other American soldiers were killed.


For that life with the chance of that death, Pat Tillman walked away from a $3.6 million job with the NFL's Arizona Cardinals. He never explained himself. He refused interviews. Word was, he believed he deserved no more attention than any other soldier volunteering to serve America. So we sought clues in the kind of man he'd been — an extraordinary overachiever by any measure — and we listened to his last television interview.


On Sept. 12, 2001, as smoke cast a shadow over New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, the football player said his family had been to war. His great-grandfather, he said, had been at Pearl Harbor.


Then, in a voice that suggested excitement, challenge, even envy, Pat Tillman said he hadn't "done a damn thing as far as laying myself on the line like that. And so I have a great deal of respect for those that have and what the flag stands for."


We didn't know him. Before he enlisted, even football fans would have been hard-pressed to identify the Cardinals' safety. But when a man walks away from a millionaire's life and puts himself in harm's way under our country's flag, we rise and cheer. For he is a better man than most, a man who could be true to himself only by laying himself on the line at its greatest point of peril.


Even as a New York Giants quarterback toyed with blondes on the television show The Bachelor, Tillman shipped out to Afghanistan.


"All deaths are tragic," said John Lock, a military historian and retired Army lieutenant colonel, a Ranger himself. "But some seem more tragic than others: 'An American Warrior, Ranger Pat Tillman, Killed in Action on the Field of Battle, 22 April 2004.' When one dies so tragically young, there is no finer epitaph. And my heart swells with pride knowing that this nation still produces such fine young men."


It's one thing, the old Ranger said, to talk the talk. It's another to walk that walk. And it's yet another to run it, as Pat Tillman did.


John McCain also noticed that. The U.S. senator from Arizona, five years a prisoner of war in Vietnam, called himself "heartbroken" by the Ranger's death. He said he saw in Tillman's choice of duty "an inspiration to all of us to reclaim the essential public-spiritedness of Americans that many of us ... had worried was no longer our common distinguishing trait."


In the senator's pep talk, one hears more hope than reality, for Pat Tillman was the exception, not the rule. Yet it needs to be said that the reality of public spirit exists in thousands of families across America.


There is in Conyers, Ga., the daughter of an Army general, the mother of an Army lieutenant who went through Ranger training, a woman who could be any woman with her heart in this war. For much of the past year, Patty Rasmussen's son was stationed in Iraq. There were nights, she said, when she would wake up thinking she had heard him call out, "Mom!"


Answering into the darkness, she would speak his name. Then, knowing none of it was real, she would pray that it would never be real.


The son is now home, safe.


By year's end, the mother said, her son will again be gone to war.


Dave Kindred is a columnist for The Sporting News. He is also a member of USA TODAY's board of contributors.

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