Posted: Tuesday September 5, 2006 11:37AM; Updated: Tuesday September 5, 2006 5:54PM
By Gary Smith
Rangers Pat (left) and his brother Kevin were deployed to Saudi Arabia for the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003.
Courtesy of the Tillman family
Some people, only a few, decide early in their lives that the world will remember their names. Some people -- fewer still -- understand that the cleanest and most powerful way to do that is by never asking the world to remember their names, by letting their lives do that. "Let people find things out about you," Pat told B.J. Alford, his roommate and teammate at Arizona State. "Don't tell them." In Pat's first journal, at age 16, in one of his first entries -- 11 years to the day before he died -- he wrote, I consider myself an atheist, however, in the back of my mind, I wonder if there is something greater. I feel as though I am destined for something "gothic" or the elite. Some state in which I have achieved all that can be achieved. Glory, prestige, peace of mind. Nirvana. Obviously I won't know if my intuition is worth a s--- until I'm dead. Therefore I do not believe in preaching. I do not know the answer so I cannot state my hypothesis as truth. My hypothesis isn't even educated. It's more like a stab.
Only a few times in his life did he let it slip out. Drinking beer on a cliff one day in Santa Barbara, just after the Arizona Cardinals picked him from the dregs of the 1998 draft, he stared off at the Pacific and told Alford, "People are going to know who I am."
"Relax, Pat, you're a seventh-rounder," said Alford.
Pat fixed him with a look, but said nothing. He wasn't talking football.
Something else he figured out early: Fear was what stood between a man and an extraordinary life, and the surest way through it was to stare it down over and over, until that gaze became habit. As a teenager, Pat was swinging one day from branch to branch, 20 feet up, through the trees outside his house, when neighbor Peggy Melbourne heard a thud. She ran outside and found him lying on the ground, groaning. He dusted himself off, then ratcheted up the risk, more than once turning to a pal in the passenger seat as he drove 75 mph on the freeway, asking him to hold the wheel, then shimmying out the window and draping himself over the roof, only to reappear a few minutes later through the opposite window.
Sure, he could be an idiot. He could tie one on at a buddy's wedding and then decide that the best way to celebrate was to scale the outside of his seven-story hotel. Marie Ugenti, his high school sweetheart and future wife, knew better than to waste her breath. The one time he let friends talk him out of taking a risk -- a 60-foot cliff dive at Lake Tahoe with a menacing outcropping of rock -- it ate him up so much that he returned two weeks later and did a swan dive, backward.
But the wildest one of all was the leap at Sedona, the wonderland an hour-and-a-half's drive from Phoenix where he'd test himself during college against the river and the crazed jumble of red rocks. There he discovered a cliff with a 40-foot drop to the boulders below. Nearly 20 feet away was the top of a tree, 10 feet below the cliff. Pat fell silent, calculating. He retreated 20 yards, all the space he had, and began to run. If he didn't reach that tree, death, paralysis or a bundle of broken bones waited below. Even if he did reach it, the tree appeared to be dead, most of its branches snapped off -- would it hold his weight? At full speed he flung himself across the breach, struck the tree trunk so hard that it crushed the wind from his lungs as he wrapped his arms around it and hugged for dear life ... then gathered himself, too dazed and too wise for a whoop, but not for a smirky little smile.
Braveheart. That's who he wanted to be, said a friend who saw the glow in Pat's eyes as he watched the movie about the Scottish warrior. Trouble was, Pat's wisdom quest was too honest, had carried him clean past that plane where good and evil are fixed and far-flung from one another, to a higher ledge up in the swirling fog where a man could see how right and wrong might rotate and trade places. It just became harder and harder to be Braveheart.
Until 9/11, when for a moment there was moral clarity, a clarion call to arms, a chance to be that man. Sitting atop that bunker, 11 days into the invasion of a country that had hatched none of the 9/11 terrorists, it was dawning on Pat with each blast-wave lighting up the desert: That moment already was gone. Dawning on him that he'd flung himself into thin air on faith, in search of his highest self, toward a hollow tree that might not hold his weight.
What bloodbath the Black Sheep anticipated the next night, when they took part in Saving Private Lynch? It never happened. The "blaze of gunfire" that an early news report described as having occurred when Special Ops forces swooped in to rescue her from a Nasiriyah hospital and Pat's platoon provided perimeter security? It never happened either: Iraqi forces had fled the day before, and Iraqi doctors were waiting to hand her over. Private Lynch hadn't been stabbed or shot by the Iraqis, as intelligence reports and then news accounts had indicated, nor had she emptied her rifle "fighting to the death" before her capture; her rifle had jammed and she never fired a shot.
One thing really did happen, though: Pat, who'd been a business-marketing major at Arizona State, discovered firsthand how wars and soldiers get marketed by government and media alike, and how you can find yourself cast in the commercial whether you auditioned for it or not.
A little over a month later, in May 2003, the Black Sheep went home to Fort Lewis, shook the sand from their underwear and started letting off steam. Forty of the boys poured into their saloon, the Steilacoom Deli & Pub, six miles from the base, to throw a farewell party for a departing officer, only to discover that the bar had been taken over in their absence by another Army platoon. One of the interlopers unloaded a "F--- you!" on the Black Sheep's company commander, and before you knew it, chairs and bodies were flying, one of those barroom brawls that usually only happen in bad movies.
Russ tried to play peacemaker, but the meathead he was mediating with suddenly grabbed his throat. While Russ was deciding whether to have at him, a big screaming blur grabbed the meathead and tossed him aside like a pencil. That blur was Pat, but his goal, it became clear, was to prevent harm, not inflict it. Turning, he saw a clot of a half-dozen combatants lurching toward a soldier from the other platoon who had passed out on the floor, with a little help from a Black Sheep's choke hold. Pat blitzed that way, spread his arms and drove the whole crew, his guys and their guys, across the pub so they wouldn't trample that sorry customer on the floor.