Posted: Tuesday September 5, 2006 11:37AM; Updated: Tuesday September 5, 2006 5:54PM
By Gary Smith
Pat tested himself constantly, and often recklessly, in cars, in trees and even on the roof of his childhood home.
Courtesy of the Tillman family
So here it was at last, the specter of death, the dry mouth, the beginning of the self-discoveries Russ had signed on for. Discovery 1: He wasn't ready. As the grim news crackled, he grabbed a mate's Maxim magazine, fixed his eyes on a naked woman, nudged his neighbor and said, "Hey, look at this chick."
It was as if Pat saw right through the surface -- the callous perv -- to the core: a kid walling off his fear. Pat reached over, took hold of Russ's hands and said softly, "Can you please put that away? Some of our guys are getting hurt right now. We need to focus on them." Russ nodded, grateful to be called back to his better side without being shamed.
It began that day for Russ, the long raggedy curve that it takes to turn a life around. A man could be strong and soft at the same time, he realized. He could manage fear by looking straight at it, could take charge of a moment in the most unmilitary of ways, without bristling or bellowing.
The Black Sheep followed the invasion into Baghdad, spent their days pulling perimeter security around the airport and going house to house in search of the Iraqi leaders pictured on the infamous 52 playing cards, and their nights flinching from the pigeon crap raining through the shrapnel-shredded hangar where they slept. Pat was so inclusive, so interested even in the screwiest private, that any pettiness in the platoon began evaporating; the Black Sheep became tight. Trouble was, Russ so treasured his time with Pat that he couldn't bear to share it with some of the knuckleheads gathered around him. He'd wait until they'd fallen asleep or flaked away to their video games and skin magazines, then beeline toward Pat and Kevin. One would glance at the other two and say, Let's have a coffee and -- bingo -- the Baghdad Book Club was in session, three men talking literature and ideas to the far side of midnight, Pat's eyes glittering just as they did during all-night conversations around a fire in the front yard of his childhood home whenever he returned there.
That's how they found themselves atop a bunker south of Baghdad late one night in March 2003, on the eve of the rescue of Army Pfc. Jessica Lynch, knowing a bloodbath might await them the following night, when they would encircle the hospital in Nasiriyah where she lay wounded. They sat there, perched above their sleeping mates, watching the Marines bombard a town five miles away, drinking in the beauty of a desert sky strobe-lit by the explosion of 155-mm shells.
Russ didn't know yet that Pat had written to his mom, delighting in the serendipity of having found a little brother in his platoon named Baer. "Bear" was what Pat and Kevin had grown up calling their youngest brother, Richard. But Russ felt so much brotherly trust and caring that night in Iraq that he offered to read to Pat and Kevin from his own notebooks, his Latrine Letters. They loved Baer's seething snapshots of life as a Ranger in a savage place.
Let's all just f------ scream and attempt to stretch our already shrunken hearts. We've all got cruel intentions climbing up our throats, ready to spit into the eyes of any savior that's already 15 minutes too late.
You didn't talk politics over there, not while you were still in the sandbox. But that night, as Pat watched another orange and white flash-bang shudder the distant town, he shook his head and said, "This war is so f------ illegal." Russ, for the first time, realized how wobbly a tightrope Pat was walking between his integrity and his duty. Even later in their 3 1/2-month deployment in Iraq, as it began to appear that they'd been sent on a nukes-and-biochemical-weapons wild-goose chase, Russ never heard Pat go further than, "This is all bulls---." But surely Pat's fame and fierce independence had unsettled higher-ups from the day he enlisted. They had tried to persuade him to be a recruiting poster boy in Washington rather than a Ranger. Surely, one family member was convinced, once the Army got its first glimpse of Pat's psychological profile -- he was the one who stood outside the Cardinals' team prayer circle, the one who couldn't wait to have a mutual friend arrange a meeting with renowned anti-war leftist Noam Chomsky after his discharge -- it never would have allowed him to become a Ranger if it hadn't had to because he was Pat Tillman. Hell, at the Army recruiting office the day he enlisted, before he'd even signed his papers, one of those jalapeño drill sergeants lined up Pat, Kevin and a gaggle of other recruits and started fire-breathing contradictory orders. "Look, you're confusing everybody and being unreasonable," Pat told the astonished sergeant. "You're treating us like ass----s, and we haven't even signed up to be treated like ass----s yet." At first it was a curiosity to Pat, then an irritation, when he kept receiving orders to undergo additional psychological evaluations.
Everybody who thought he'd enlisted purely out of patriotism, they missed reality by a half mile. Sure, he loved America and felt compelled to fight for it after more than 2,600 people at the World Trade Center were turned to dust. But his decision sprang from soil so much richer than that. The foisting of all the dirty work onto people less fortunate than an NFL safety clawed at his ethics. He had uncles and grandfathers on both sides who'd fought in World War II and the Korean War, one who'd taken a bullet in his chest, another who'd lost a finger and one who'd been the last to leap out of a plane shot from the sky. On a level deeper than almost any other American, he'd reaped the reward of those sacrifices: the chance his country afforded him to be himself, all of himself.
He yearned to have a voice one day that would carry, possibly in politics, and he was far from the sort of man who could send others into a fire that he had skirted. His relentless curiosity, his determination to live his life as if it were a book that would hold its reader to the last word, pushed him into the flames as well. The history of man is war, he told a family member, so how, without sampling it, could he ever know man or himself completely?