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Monday, April 18, 2005

Remember The Heroes

As a long-time diehard football fan, I was very familiar with Pat Tillman long before he became famous for walking away from a fat contract to join the Army Rangers. Tillman was a guy who made the otherwise unwatchable Arizona Cardinals worth watching; a guy with skills and smarts who was a ferocious hitter in the mold of one of my football heroes, Jack Tatum.

What little I had read about Tillman off the field confirmed what I felt about watching him on the field. As much fun as the game and its strategy is to watch and dissect, some of the personalities can grate. Most are egotistical showboats who show up to the opening of a Starbucks in a silk suit or a fur coat, acting like self-important assholes. Tillman seemed the opposite of all that. I do not believe professional athletes should be held up as role models, but despite that, I believe that if one must, Pat Tillman was a good one even before he joined the Rangers. You would not want your son to grow up to be a jerk like Deion Sanders, but you'd be proud to have a kid like Pat Tillman.

Anyway, it turns out that, several months before Tillman was killed in a friendly-fire incident in Afghanistan (which, by the way, took about a year to come out that it was friendly fire) it seems that he had been informed that his tour requirements had been fulfilled, and that several NFL clubs were very interested in him, and that he was eligible to leave and rejoin the league.

That Tillman opted to stay and fulfill his entire commitment seems to be a testament to his character, and he deserves a hell of a lot of respect for it. He could have left to make some money, and no one would have thought any less of him. He could have sat back and let others fight a war that he believed in for him, like George W. Bush and Richard Cheney, yet he did not do that. Whether one agrees with his decision or not, that is what character is.

What happened to Pat Tillman, in the end, was a waste of a good man, and a stark illustration of the needless waste war entails. This is what a lot of the carnage in war stems from -- confusion, chaos, split-second decisions that result in tragic mistakes.

The promoters of war do not have the right to invoke Pat Tillman's name in service to their own cause. Neither do I, for that matter. I respect what he did, and I respect the sacrifice he willingly made in service to his country. What galls me is the reckless, feckless, callow attitude the leaders of his country -- our country -- display toward his sacrifice, and the sacrifice made by all the troops. They have disrespected their families, their spouses and children, with benefit cuts and no financial help from stop-loss orders on Reserve and National Guard troops. They have disrespected parents who have shown up at Republican rallies to attest to their grief and horror at what the wars have wrought on their families and lives.

Hindsight being 20/20, Pat Tillman could have taken the discharge, come back to the league as a hero, put a very public face on any veterans' issue he chose to, and helped a lot of people. He certainly would not have let his platoon down by doing so. He did a very brave thing in passing all of that up. But there is something hard-wired in the military culture, with the whole world watching, that makes it difficult (if not impossible) for people to distinguish between the "right" thing and the sensible thing.

This is a tough one, any way you slice it. You can never knock a guy for dying with his boots on. All you can do is think about what might have been.



The death over the weekend of peace activist/aid worker Marla Ruzicka hits a bit closer to home. My wife, who lived for about ten years in Lakeport, CA, babysat Marla and her twin brother Mark for several summers, when they were very young. She has fond memories of the two of them as little kids, happy and smiling and blissfully unaware of the nasty surprises the world has in store for all of us when we're older. And our own daughter turned four a couple weeks ago, so she's not much younger than Marla was when my wife was babysitting her. So there's a rather depressing synergy right now.

Even worse is that Marla Ruzicka happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time; the suicide bomber that killed her was apparently going after the convoy of reconstruction contractors at the same place. That's the report thus far, anyway; considering what they did to Margaret Hassan and other aid workers, it's hard to take it as complete gospel. Still.

Anyway, you look at Marla Ruzicka and Pat Tillman, at their lives, their ideals and their deaths. Each wanted to help people, in their own way. One died in a friendly fire incident; one as collateral damage. Two young, strong, idealistic lives snuffed out, each in a split-second, each with their whole lives ahead of them.

Think about them when the next "accountability moment" comes your way.

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