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Dread began to boil inside Russ. In a few days he'd be representing the U.S. Army at Pat's memorial service, the lone Ranger there who'd been anywhere near Pat when he was killed, facing Pat's family and friends ... under a gag order. He was willing to defy that order, to clean latrines for the rest of his life for the sake of Pat's family, but he knew bullets were hissing everywhere that day ... what if the conclusions he'd drawn were somehow wrong? What if he told Pat's mom that her son had been blown away by his own men and suddenly found himself in a media firestorm, only for Army investigators to uncover evidence proving otherwise? On the saddest day of his life, he was going to have to squirm and evade the people who loved Pat most.
All he wanted to do, in those few days at his grandmother's house before Pat's service, was sleep, find the bottom of a few beer bottles and stare into space, but his cousin yanked him out of bed and dragged him to--of all places--the Sunshine Saloon Sports Bar in Pleasanton, Calif. A young woman named Tammy Wright happened to be sitting at a table there, and though in a mood to meet no one, Russ met the love of his life on a night when he would've been 7,500 miles away if Pat hadn't died. Funny, Pat had told Russ that his old girlfriend was all wrong for him.
The Army, already confused by Kevin's insistence that there be no minister or prayers at the repatriation ceremony for Pat's body, was bewildered to learn that Pat hadn't wanted a military funeral or 21-gun salute--that it was enough to just go out as a human. His widow, Marie, had those wishes on paper, signed by Pat, to prove it. Instead Pat was cremated, his ashes scattered in the Pacific Ocean and his memorial service held at the park in San Jose where he had stood 10 years earlier at his high school graduation.
When the nationally televised memorial service was held, 11 days after Pat's death, the Army's top commanders in the U.S. had already been informed that it was a potential fratricide. They kept that news to themselves, and the hero drum kept pounding. Richard Tillman, trying his best to keep faith with his brother, walked to the microphone and said "He's not with God. He's f------ dead."
Russ nearly disintegrated when the bagpipers blew Amazing Grace as he delivered the folded Stars and Stripes to Pat's parents and opened his mouth to say, "On behalf of a grateful nation...." The touch of Mary Tillman's hand kept him from breaking down. Then, for two days, he joined the two-week wake held by Pat's friends and family in the Tillmans' front yard, all-nighters spent drinking beer and swapping every Pat story they could muster to keep him alive. One by one or in little groups off to the side they'd ask Russ to tell them whatever he knew about how Pat had left this world. The hardest--it killed him--was when Kevin asked. Russ kept telling them he saw Pat charging up that hill and going over it, with bullets flying everywhere, bullets from both sides ... and then lapsing into silence, choking on what he couldn't say.
Then it was time for Russ to report back to the men he once trusted more than any on earth, to the organization that he once counted on to make him a man. Russ went AWOL.
Here's the�thing about integrity: it's so easy to stretch, a limp rubber band. How were men who made their living in a bureaucracy-- say, the military or the government--to understand the forces at work here? How were people who are accustomed, as most of us are, to giving truth a little pull here, another tug there, for the sake of the institution or their careers, to foresee the tension that would be created when they began stretching the story of the death of a man who put so little stock in institutions or careers, and so much in living an honest life?
How could they know the dynamic they were trifling with as they crafted official statements describing the heroic death of a prize soldier, as they ordered a second investigation when the first one produced such awkward word couplings as "gross" and "negligence"? How could politicians, so determined to couple "honor" and "freedom," so familiar with limp rubber bands, anticipate the recoil?
Ordinary people feeling pressured--or could it be reflexive now?--to cast the best possible light, to spin anything that happened in life . . . even death. Ordinary people, never pausing to consider DNA, unaware of how out of the ordinary were the blood relatives of the dead man. A brother who was in that canyon, who knew all the soldiers involved and who'd be rejoining them upon their return from Afghanistan, a philosophy major who'd be waiting with big questions now that his head was beginning to clear. A father who made a living from confrontation, a lawyer equally ready to hurl legalese or obscenities at generals or the Secretary of Defense once the Army admitted, five weeks after Pat's death, that fratricide had occurred and began disbursing information that raised as many questions as it answered. And a mother. . . .
Oh, that mother. A woman with no TV, no closet in her bedroom, no need for cosmetics or fashionable clothes, none of the usual numbing agents or distractions. A woman who'd grown up in a family of soldiers, vacationing at Fort Ticonderoga and West Point, eating up military history during monthly family picnics on Gettysburg's Little Round Top as her father and an uncle walked her through tactical masterstrokes and turning-point blunders, then coming back for second and third helpings as a history major at San Jose State. She'd both admired and protested war-makers, joining demonstrators in Chicago to shout Hell, no! to Vietnam. Intimidated by the glare of four-star generals wielding 1,800-page reports? Hah. As a special-ed teacher, she'd stared down trailers full of emotionally disturbed teenagers from whom colleagues fled, shrieking.