Posted: Tuesday September 5, 2006 11:37AM; Updated: Tuesday September 5, 2006 5:54PM
By Gary Smith
Tillman happily accepted watermelon from an Afghan two days before his death.
Courtesy of Tillman Family
A week later Pat and Russ started bantering at the shooting range, and Pat laughed that unforgettable laugh -- his head jolting back, his eyes disappearing into that crinkly face, his hands clapping his thighs, a high-pitched hoo-hoo-hoo-hooooooo howling from his throat until his lungs gasped for air -- the laugh of a man who didn't give a rat's ass what you thought of him or the carnival.
Damn, Russ could talk Allen Ginsberg and Ralph Waldo Emerson with a big-time jock Army Ranger. He could let loose a side of himself that he'd bottled up the day two years earlier when he signed his enlistment papers, the Russell Baer who holed up in the latrine with his journal, or on an off day hunched over a coffee and a book and a notepad among strangers in a Seattle café. Pat loved oddballs -- writers, hippies, hermits, weed-smoking ballplayers -- who weren't afraid to show their asses, loved reading their quotes and anecdotes aloud and declaring, "Now that's something to live by," then scrawling a salty retort in the margin. At first it jarred Russ, whose reverence for literature didn't let him lay ballpoint to book page, but then he began to do likewise.
Pat just had that way, with colonels and coaches and Nobel Prize winners, too, of slicing through rank and reputation, of turning every encounter into nothing more or less than two human beings talking. Hell, the guy introduced himself to strangers simply as "Pat," and if they asked what he did before strapping it on for Uncle Sam, he'd say he studied some back at Arizona State and quickly ask about them, never mentioning the summa cum laude or the Pac-10 defensive player of the year award, and certainly not the NFL. And still, something about him made you walk away wanting to learn more, laugh more, run more, give more.
Who else showed up in a college assistant coach's office at 1 a.m., asking what he thought of Mormonism with such zest that both ended up reading the Book of Mormon so they could discuss it in detail? Who else in the NFL or the U.S. Army took a book everywhere, even on 10-minute errands, read The Communist Manifesto, Mein Kampf, the Bible and the Koran, so he could carve out his own convictions ... then bought you the book and picked a philosophical fight just to flush out some viewpoint that might push him to revise his, push him to evolve? Gays, for instance. By the last few years of his life, his narrow view of them as an adolescent had so altered that he would argue they were the most evolved form of man.
Most people, Russ felt, are just pieces of everybody else, off on some mimic's mission all their lives. It's as if there's a padlock on who they really are and just a few figure out the combination and then the whole damn thing pops open, the treasure of possibility becomes theirs. That was Pat, so ... so ... hell, even his mom, Mary, when she tried to get her arms around him, would just end up throwing them in the air. He was the most respectful gutter mouth you ever met, the politest man ever to reach across a restaurant table and dunk his sticky hands into your glass of water. So playful and so serious, so transparent and so mysterious, so kind and so frightening, so loud and so silent ... so juxtaposed, Mary would say. So at ease with himself that he could meet you wherever you were.
Where Russ was, just one week before the Black Sheep shipped out for the Iraq invasion, was on his belly in the rain on the shooting range, up to his elbows in mud and frustration, unable to dial in the optics on his SAW gun and hit the damn target for his weapons qualification even though he'd been handling that machine gun with ease for more than a year. Then Pat dropped to his knees and began encouraging him. Russ had spent most of his first 22 years marinating in negativity. His mother had cleared out five months after his birth, and his father, a 14-year Army man, had remarried eight years later to a career military woman with a short fuse. Russ had swallowed her anger, turned numb, then begun turning that anger outward, getting into fights and blaming others for his troubles, drifting from one school to another until age 16 ... then dropping out of school and home as well, moving to his grandparents' house, working three jobs and homeschooling himself, searching for some model of the man he ached to be.
Maybe he'd finally found that man. Russ relaxed as Pat knelt beside him, then realized that a loose screw on his sight was causing his misfires and began banging bull's-eyes. Their unit packed up a few days later, removed its mascot from the wall -- the mountain sheep's head that accompanied 2nd Platoon, Alpha Company, 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment everywhere it went -- chucked it into a parachute bag and flew to Saudi Arabia. Pat, Kevin, Russ and the Black Sheep were going after Saddam Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction.
No, Russ isn't proud of this part, but it's too important to skip past. It happened in a tent in Saudi Arabia on the day the Black Sheep took perhaps the war's first casualty, just before the invasion began. Russ and Pat, monitoring radio reports from buddies who'd slipped into Iraq by helicopter, listened as the chopper crew chief was shot and one of their platoon mates took a bullet that ricocheted off his sternum and exploded out of his shoulder.