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, the one so
upset when Kevin began talking of enlistment that he'd hurled a 24-pack of beer
against a wall behind Pat's house near Phoenix and began running, only to trip
and fall flat on his face. 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
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 31/2-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 jalape�o 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.
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
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 his distraught brother Richard, so
how, without sampling it, could he ever know man or himself completely?
"Are you f------ crazy?" was all Richard could splutter.
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
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."