Pat Tillman: Portrait of an American Hero

Behold the face of the real Captain America. Pat Tillman was a genuine hero.

Politicians refer to themselves as public servants. Swamp creatures like Joe Biden will extol their many decades of employment in Washington DC as though they had been some kind of galley slave toiling away on an Athenian man o’ war. I have actually met a couple of those guys. Their idea of selfless service does not quite match my own.

I wouldn’t pee on these guys if they were on fire.

American legislators spend money like drunken sailors. Actually, that’s not true. Drunken sailors couldn’t even begin to burn cash in as profligate a manner as might your typical freshman congressman. They’ve raised wasting money to an art form.

Hanging with a group of US Congressmen for a week back in the 1990s soured me on the American political system forever.

You think I’m kidding. Back when I was a soldier I spent a week as a local liaison officer for a group of congressmen on a fact-finding mission after the First Gulf War. It was amazing just watching them eat. They’d go to the nicest restaurant in town and order one of anything they might be curious about. Then they swapped plates around so everybody got a taste. One of my several duties was to scurry back and forth to the Officers’ Club cashing $500 government traveler’s checks to pay for it all. It was surreal.

I willingly voted for both of these people. However, I don’t trust anybody in Washington DC. If you weren’t broken before you got there, you were after you’ve been there a while.

Everybody in DC has sold their soul to somebody. I’ll champion the folks on my side of the aisle in the vain hope that they might someday just leave me the heck alone, but they are all irredeemably corrupt. The system perpetuates itself. It will never get better.

This is Pat and Kevin Tillman. They were both real public servants.

On May 31, 2002, Pat Tillman and his brother Kevin walked into a local recruiting office and enlisted in the US Army. Pat walked away from a $3.6 million professional football contract and Lord knows what else so he could serve his country in the immediate aftermath of 911. Pat Tillman’s story is that of a conflicted man and a horribly flawed system. However, his is a tale of epic sacrifice and genuine selfless service.

Origin Story

Pat Tillman excelled at everything he touched.

Pat Tillman was the eldest of three sons born to Patrick and Mary Tillman in Fremont, California. By NFL standards, Tillman was not a terribly big man. He stood 5’11” and weighed 202 pounds when dressed out as a safety for the Arizona Cardinals. Pat personified the axiom, “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog.”

That is one seriously intense guidon bearer.

In high school Tillman preferred baseball, but he failed to make the team as a freshman. At that point, he turned his attention to the gridiron. Throughout his childhood and adolescence, Pat was powerfully close to his friends and family. He married his childhood sweetheart just before he enlisted in the Army. He and his brother Kevin enlisted together, trained together, and were eventually both assigned to the 2d Ranger Battalion based at Fort Lewis, Washington.

Pat Tillman really came into his own as a college football player.

Pat Tillman attended Arizona State University on a football scholarship and excelled as a linebacker. An exceptionally deep young man, Tillman was well read and made good grades. He maintained a 3.85 GPA in marketing and graduated in 3.5 years despite the rigors of starting on his college football team.

Pat Tillman had everything the world could offer, yet he gave it all up to serve his country.

Pat thrived in the NFL. Sports Illustrated writer Paul Zimmerman named Tillman to the 2000 NFL All-Pro team based upon his stellar performance as a defensive player. He turned down a $9 million offer to move to the St. Louis Rams out of loyalty to his Arizona team.

Once he completed his 2001 NFL contract Pat Tillman enlisted in the US Army.

Eight months after the 911 attacks and with the remainder of his 15 games completed from his 2001 contract, Pat Tillman left $3.6 million on the table to go to Army basic training alongside his brother. Pat’s brother Kevin gave up a burgeoning career in minor league baseball for the same path. These two men put their love of country ahead of the sorts of things the rest of us would just about kill for.

There’s really no telling how far Pat Tillman might have gone in life.

Appreciate the details here. I’m a happily married hetero man, and even I admit that Pat Tillman was an exceptionally good-looking guy. Intelligent, articulate, and well-educated, Tillman had the world by the tail. Once his time in the NFL was complete Pat Tillman could have easily parlayed his gifts and experiences into a career on television or in Hollywood. Instead, he opted for the Ranger Regiment.

The Rangers have an undeniably sexy cool mission. However, life in a Ranger Battalion is unimaginably grueling. The Ranger Regiment is the only unit in the Army to have been deployed continuously throughout the Global War on Terror.

I was an Army aviator, but I worked with those guys on occasion. Theirs was an absolutely miserable life. Junior enlisted soldiers don’t get paid beans, and the optempo in the Ranger Battalions is utterly grueling. In less than two years on active duty, Pat Tillman completed basic training and AIT as well as the Ranger Assessment and Selection Program. He was deployed to Iraq as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom in September of 2003 after which he attended Ranger School at Fort Benning. Once a fully tabbed Ranger, he returned to Second Bat at Lewis and deployed to Afghanistan where he was based at FOB Salerno.

It’s easy to sit back in the comfort of our living rooms and lose track of exactly what this stuff costs.

Up until this point, Pat Tillman was the US Army’s poster child. An American superhero with a face right out of central casting, Tillman’s story could not have been any more compelling had it been drafted by an action novelist. Then Something Truly Horrible happened.

The Incident

Combat is not the clean sanitary thing Call of Duty might have us believe. The reality is vicious, messy, and sad.

Combat is an ugly, filthy, chaotic thing. It is seldom as tidy or predictable as the movies and sand table exercises depict it to be. On April 22, 2004, the fog of war claimed a genuine American hero.

Even today nobody really knows exactly what happened to Pat Tillman’s mounted patrol.

On a forgotten road leading from the Afghan village of Sperah about 40 klicks outside of Khost, Pat Tillman’s small HUMVEE-mounted patrol ran into trouble. Their mission that day was to retrieve a disabled HUMVEE. This tale is made all the more tragic in that we abandoned tens of thousands of these vehicles when we fled Afghanistan recently. The details are fiercely debated to this day, but here is the official description.

Pat and his fellow Rangers moved on foot to support the element they thought was in contact.

Tillman was in the lead vehicle designated Serial 1. Serial 1 passed through a mountainous pass and was roughly one kilometer ahead of Serial 2, the following HUMVEE. At that point, Serial 2 was purportedly engaged by hostile forces.

It was chaotic, and the situation was confusing. The end result was a tragedy.

Upon hearing of the ambush, the Rangers in Serial 1 dismounted and made their way on foot back toward an overwatch position where they could provide supporting fires for Serial 2. In the resulting chaos, the Rangers of Serial 2 lost touch with the specific location of the lead Rangers. In the violent exchange of fire that followed Tillman’s Platoon Leader and his RTO (Radio Telephone Operator) were wounded. An allied member of the Afghan Militia Force was killed. Pat Tillman caught three 5.56mm rounds from an M249 SAW to the face from a range of 10 meters and died instantly.

The Weapon

The original FN Minimi was a fairly revolutionary weapon.

First introduced in 1984, the Belgian-designed M249 Squad Automatic Weapon was an Americanized version of the FN Minimi. An open-bolt, gas-operated design, the M249 was conceived to provide the Infantry squad with a portable source of high-volume, belt-fed automatic fire. The M249 has seen action in every major military engagement since the US invasion of Panama in 1989.

In its most evolved state, the M249 is a mature and effective combat weapon.

The M249 weighs 17 pounds empty and 22 pounds with a basic load of 200 linked rounds. The weapon fires from an open bolt and features a quick-change barrel system. The gun will feed on either disintegrating linked belts or standard STANAG M4 magazines. In my experience, the magazine feed system was never terribly reliable.

This Ranger is wielding a Mk 46 in an overwatch position.

USSOCOM adopted a lighter, more streamlined version of the M249 titled the Mk46 for use with special operations forces. The M4 magazine well, vehicle mounting lugs, and barrel change handle were all removed on the Mk 46 to save weight. The USMC has aggressively supplemented their rifle squads with the HK M27 Infantry Automatic Rifle in lieu of many of their SAWs. These weapons are currently issued at a ratio of 27 IARs and 6 SAWs per rifle company. The Next Generation Squad Weapon-Automatic Rifle program is tasked with finding a suitable replacement for the aging M249’s in the Army inventory.

The Rest of the Story

The sordid circumstances surrounding his death sullied the story that the Army wanted told.

What happened next was a blight on the US Army. To have Pat Tillman, the real live Captain America killed due to friendly fire in a botched combat operation was not the story the Army wanted pushed. As a result, several senior Army officers moved to massage the narrative and outright suppress the story to both the media and the Tillman family. The end result was an absolutely ghastly mess.

Pat Tillman earned a posthumous Silver Star for his actions in Afghanistan. He has been rightfully revered as an American hero.

There were allegations that Tillman, by now disillusioned with the war in Iraq, was about to offer an interview with controversial activist Noam Chomsky upon his return from his Afghanistan deployment that would be critical of the Bush Administration. As Tillman’s death occurred in a crucial time leading up to the 2004 Presidential elections conspiracy theorists even proposed that he had been intentionally murdered. However, interviews with his fellow Rangers verified that Tillman was a popular and selfless member of the team. In the final analysis, it all seems to have been a truly horrible mistake. After several investigations undertaken by the military, three mid-level Army leaders purportedly received administrative punishment as a result.

The bond among these guys in combat is as strong as it gets.

A word on the conspiracies. Soldiers don’t fight for mom, apple pie, and America. They fight for each other. There’s just no way you could get a Ranger to intentionally shoot another Ranger to protect the reputation of a sitting President. This was simply a horrible accident.

Pat Tillman gave his life for his country at age 27.

The sordid circumstances surrounding the death of Pat Tillman in no way diminish the truly breathtaking scope of the man’s patriotism and sacrifice. Tillman was an avowed atheist throughout his life. After his funeral, his youngest brother Richard asserted, “Just make no mistake, he’d want me to say this: He’s not with God, he’s f&%ing dead, he’s not religious.” Richard added, “Thanks for your thoughts, but he’s f&%in’ dead.” It was an undeniably strange end for a genuine American hero.

Marie Tillman has gone on to a remarkable life of service after the death of her husband.

Soldiers in combat will often pen a “just in case” letter to be opened in the event of their death. Pat’s note to his wife Marie said, “Through the years I’ve asked a great deal of you, therefore it should surprise you little that I have another favor to ask. I ask that you live.”

Marie Tillman has ably continued her husband’s legacy of selflessness.

And live she did. Marie Tillman today is Chairman and Co-Founder of The Pat Tillman Foundation. This non-profit works to “unite and empower remarkable military service members, veterans, and spouses as the next generation of public and private sector leaders committed to service beyond self.” The Foundation has sponsored 635 Tillman Scholars and invested some $18 million in philanthropy. Marie has since remarried and is the mother of five children.

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About the author: Will Dabbs A native of the Mississippi Delta, Will is a mechanical engineer who flew UH1H, OH58A/C, CH47D, and AH1S aircraft as an Army Aviator. He has parachuted out of perfectly good airplanes at 3 o’clock in the morning and summited Mount McKinley, Alaska, six times…always at the controls of an Army helicopter, which is the only way sensible folk climb mountains. Major Dabbs eventually resigned his commission in favor of medical school where he delivered 60 babies and occasionally wrung human blood out of his socks. Will works in his own urgent care clinic, shares a business build-ing precision rifles and sound suppressors, and has written for the gun press since 1989. He is married to his high school sweetheart, has three awesome adult children, and teaches Sunday School. Turn-ons include vintage German machineguns, flying his sexy-cool RV6A airplane, Count Chocula cereal, and the movie “Aliens.”

{ 11 comments… add one }
  • Kc Jailer April 17, 2022, 5:34 pm

    I’ve known a few drunken sailors. The difference between them and politicians is drunken sailors spend their own money and quit when they run out.

  • Frank Staples April 12, 2022, 12:09 am

    And Pat Tillman’s name is on part of the bridge at Hoover Dam. He was a hero, no doubt. As to the other parts of the argument…biden is absolute trash and not fit to be a floor sweeper at our White House. Never forget the thirteen that died expressly from biden’s incompetence and ignorance.

  • Ron Pritchett April 11, 2022, 5:10 pm

    Sir, I completely agree that Pat Tillman is a true American hero. His loss no matter the circumstances is terribly sad.
    But the reason I am commenting is to state my shock and regret that a obviously educated, skilled writer who has served our country has such a damaged view of our government and would actually call our president a swamp creature. Sir, we get the government we deserve and all the faults are because we allow them. I believe my political values are directly opposite of yours. I have worked since I was 10 years old delivering newspapers through high school and college as a union grocery clerk and then a union firefighter until retirement . While I would never compare what I did with military service, I do know the cold fear, chaos, and unpredictability of a working fire scene. I know what it is like to kick in a door of a burning building and lead an attack or search team into what seems to be hell. I also know that at times the only thing that keeps you from running screaming from the scene is the refusal to let your team down. And my whole life I’ve been told by members of your party that I’m overpaid, have way too many benefits and don’t pay nearly enough for my health insurance. They say I’m the product of a bloated inefficient government and a symptom of what’s wrong with our country. Well sir, thank you for your service, and please pardon me if I spend the rest of my life supporting poor and working folks.
    Ron Pritchett
    Fire Lieutenant (rtd)

    • Will Dabbs April 11, 2022, 10:39 pm

      Ron, brother, I don’t know where to start. I don’t personally care much for Trump as a person, never did. However, he had the best policies of any President in my lifetime. The raw rabid vitriol spewed by the Left towards Trump makes anything “members of my party” might have to say about Biden seem like Sunday school fodder by comparison. Given Biden’s complete abdication of his responsibilities as leader of the free world I think the swamp creature appellation is fairly tame. Biden has held public office since 1971. Sorry, bro, he’s the swamp creature archetype.

      I’ve never, not once, written, spoken, or thought that our police or fire fighters were overpaid. Not sure where that comes from. If we paid our government employees what they were worth our cops, firemen, soldiers, and teachers would be living in the big houses and driving the fancy cars while our politicians would be paying us for the privilege of working.

      I’m sick of being spuriously accused of hating people because I’m not on the side of drive-through abortion kiosks and sex education for kindergarteners. Don’t think you have a corner on the market of supporting poor and working folks. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more loving and generous mob than Southern church-going folk and they/we are overwhelmingly conservative. I’m not talking about writing a check at some posh fund-raiser. I’m talking about getting dirty and meeting needs where people live.

  • Robert April 11, 2022, 1:34 pm

    During my combat jump, I exited on a red light, landed roughly 2-3 miles past my DZ…shooting my friends was one of my biggest fears. It’s pretty scary to be 19yrs old,alone in the pitch dark with no NVG’s. Hard to tell who’s even shooting at me.

  • Edgar Taylor April 11, 2022, 10:56 am

    Men like Will Dabbs and Pat Tillman insure that United States of America will persist as the bed Rock of a destination for the world’s population. Their love of country and family shines as that beacon for all to see. I know there are millions of Americans standing up for the reality of a UNITED States of America.

  • Frank April 11, 2022, 10:26 am

    Another great read, Will. This young man may not have lived long enough to share your sentiment towards our “elected” “representatives” (some were certainly NOT elected, and few, if any, are truly our representatives). Many of your readers, especially those of us who swore to defend the Constitution, do indeed view those privileged bureaucrats with utter disgust. Originally, our system was designed to operate with citizen representatives, whose livelihoods did not depend on government salaries and perks. Many, in fact, volunteered their services for a limited time and then returned to their previous occupations. I wonder how many of today’s ruling class would serve if the paycheck, special interest contributions, and limitless other benefits were removed.

    There’s a tiny chance that the Convention of States movement might slow our demise, if they are successful at passing the items no “Washingtonian” would even consider… such as term limits, a balanced budget amendment, etc. I encourage everyone to research for themselves what a Convention of States is, and is not. As usual, much misinformation abounds. If something like a CoS doesn’t happen, it puts us all the more close to relying on those ammo reserves.

  • J. Smith April 11, 2022, 8:41 am

    From the mouth of a green team operator, it wasnt Ranger friendly fire it was green team, and not an accident. This isnt new. Its not a government of the people anymore, remove your consent, leave your fed gov or contracting job, and quit participating because of pay and pension. Im sure thats just conspiracy stuff again.

    • Robert April 11, 2022, 7:13 pm

      What was the motive? Why in the world was Tillman murdered as you claim?

      • J. Smith April 13, 2022, 2:38 am

        You must have missed the part about his letters questioning what we were doing there guarding poppy fields and worse. Motive?

  • Daniel April 11, 2022, 6:20 am

    This was an awful tragedy. I remember watching him play football in college and the NFL. I’m a skins fan, so the Cardinals were a rival at that time, but Tillman was a hard worker that wasn’t a loud mouth. He would make tackles all over the field. A great all around guy from the way it sounds and it’s a shame what happened the following cover up that ensued. May his memory and ideals live on

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