Remembering Pat Tillman, killed by ‘friendly fire’

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Arizona Cardinals safety Pat Tillman shocked the sports world in 2002 when he walked away from a $3.6 million NFL contract to join the U.S. Army Rangers.

Tillman, who attended Arizona State University on an athletic scholarship, had been a first-team All-American and Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year in 1997. By 2000, two years after he joined the Cardinals, Sports Illustrated named Tillman to its NFL All-Pro team.

But eight months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Tillman and his brother, Kevin, enlisted in the Army and completed basic training together. Pat then fulfilled the Ranger Assessment & Selection Program requirements and was assigned to the 2nd Ranger Battalion in Ft. Lewis, Washington. Tillman was deployed and participated in the initial invasion of Iraq, what became known as Operation Iraqi Freedom. One year later, Tillman entered Ranger School and, upon finishing his training in November 2003, was shipped to Afghanistan.

On April 22, 2004, Tillman and Afghan allied soldier Sayed Farhad were killed by Afghan enemy combatants in a firefight near the Pakistan border – or so the official and ultimately proven false story went. The Army issued a purposely deceptive statement about the circumstances surrounding Tillman’s death. As Tillman was leading his team to help comrades caught in an ambush, the Army claimed he was fatally shot while fighting “without regard for his personal safety.”

Weeks after Tillman’s burial, the U.S. Army Criminal Investigative Division investigated the incident and concluded Tillman and Farhad were killed by “friendly fire.” The lengthy coverup included the Army’s order to Tillman’s fellow Army soldiers to lie to his peers about the circumstances that led to the two deaths.

Tillman’s mother, Mary, and his father, Patrick, were heartbroken when they heard the truth, something they suspected since the Army had been tight-lipped when they pressed for the details that surrounded their son’s final moments. Tillman’s family and other critics insisted President George W. Bush and his Department of Defense didn’t want negative press with a re-election campaign soon to get underway. In her congressional testimony, Tillman’s mother said: “The deception surrounding this case was an insult to the family, but more importantly, its primary purpose was to deceive a whole nation.”

Ironically, just days before he was killed, Tillman told the Washington Post the U.S.’s invasion and occupation of Iraq was illegal and immoral.

In a 2021 op-ed, Tillman’s brother, Kevin, railed against the government’s craven disinformation campaign waged against Pat’s memory and condemned America’s forever wars. Kevin opined that the Iraq invasion began with a barrage of administration lies about Saddam’s supposed supply of weapons of mass destruction, his reputed links to al-Qaeda, and the idea that American soldiers were liberating the Iraqi people. Some of the troops were assigned to run around Baghdad, “east, west, south, and north somewhat,” looking for nonexistent weapons of mass destruction.

In his column, Kevin wrote that the invasion was “catastrophic,” and resulted in Iraqi society’s destruction, the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and thousands of American soldiers, even Iraq’s leadership was removed and its military disbanded – mission accomplished, in President George W. Bush’s eyes. Neither Bush nor the rest of his top officials were held responsible for what happened.

Tillman was 27 when he was killed in a futile, senseless war. In his wartime journals, he repeatedly wrote of the strength he drew from his family, friendships, and from his high school sweetheart and eventual wife, Marie Ugenti.

Shortly before his deployment to Iraq, Tillman wrote a “just in case” letter to his wife for her to open in the event of his death. The letter sat on their bedroom dresser for months before the fateful day arrived.

Tillman’s final request: “I ask that you live.”

Ugenti wrote a book titled “The Letter: My Journey through Love, Loss and Life.” Ugenti has remarried and, with her new husband, has five children. She also chairs the Pat Tillman Foundation, a non-profit that provides academic scholarships to military service members and their spouses.

Posthumously promoted from specialist to corporal, Tillman was also awarded the Silver Star and the Purple Heart. The accolades are cold comfort to Tillman’s family and friends.

Copyright 2024 Joe Guzzardi, distributed by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.

Joe Guzzardi is a Society for American Baseball Research and Internet Baseball Writers’ Association member. Contact him at [email protected].

Joe Guzzardi writes for the Washington, D.C.-based Progressives for Immigration Reform. A newspaper columnist for 30 years, Joe writes about immigration and related social issues.