Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Ten years ago... Pat Tillman.

I wrote this a decade ago when I heard the first casualty reports of his death.

KJ Hinton on Pat Tillman
Words… are my business. They are my tools…. My levers… My weapons… My bandages. I use them professionally to have an effect. I use them to anger… To inflame… To reach… To mold…. To teach…. To heal.

It’s after midnight just now. My job, where I am fortunate enough to work out of my own home as a political consultant, frequently averages between 12 to 16 hours… research, meetings, phone calls, writing, positions, strategizing…. As the impending political season starts to spool up in earnest (Washington State has one of the latest primary elections in the country… mid-September) and as the issues for those who’ve retained me begin to amp up, I find it sometimes difficult to turn it off enough for sleep to come.... sometimes, anyway.

And sleep has deserted me here once again. But work isn’t the reason. Work, for once, has nothing to do with this.

I am a veteran of over 14 years of service in the Army. One of every 7 days I’ve been alive was spent on one overseas assignment or another while I was in. Most of that was, relatively speaking, down time. Little of that duty, compared to the duty of the Rangers, could be termed “hazardous.”

I enlisted because my stepfather had thrown me out at the ripe old age of 16, and I had nowhere else to go. Leaving my home was basically a cost-free exercise. If one were to look up the word “dysfunctional,” one would find snapshots of my “family” there… in living color.

It was an easy decision to make for one in my position… so I made it. Hell, yes, I want Armor. I want to go out there surrounded by 52 tons of armor-platting with a 105 mm cannon to shoot back with. Give me that damned mobile foxhole. The pay was $288 per month… a fortune to a product of the welfare state like me.

Once I joined the Army, it didn’t take long to discover that it was a “game,” and once you figured out “the rules,” you could go far…

So, playing the game, I went from private to promotable staff sergeant in just over 7 years. I went from high school dropout to missing cum laude’ by .02 of a grade point. And I was given a Regular Army Commission… the same commission West Pointers received. And life was good.

Life continues to be good. My business is booming, I recently bought a really great house… where I’ll be building a roughly 600 square foot shop this summer. A family that has issues, but none in comparison to that of my childhood.

Even the weather’s been pretty good for this time of year.

And then, I heard about Pat Tillman.

And that is when the words stopped working for me.

I never knew Pat Tillman beyond the all-too-few articles written about his amazing, if not stunning, decision to turn his back on millions of dollars so he could become a Ranger and go defend his country.

But when I heard about him, the hook was buried. I talked him up at Legion meetings, Vietnam Veterans of America meetings, meetings at the VFW.

“Man, have you heard about that Tillman kid? Can you believe it? NO ONE turns their back on $9 million dollars to stay with a team paying a third less (just ask Alex Rodriguez) and then NO ONE turns their back on $3.6 million to go chase bad guys in Afghanistan!”

And, no one does. Except… except for Pat Tillman.

I believe I understand something of what he felt when he decided to leave football to be a soldier. The terrible events of 9/11 effected me to some extent the same way they seem to have affected him. I tried to re-enlist… I told the Army I’d even go back in as a Spec 4. I told them I could teach weapons or something at Benning, and free up a young, hard-charging Staff Sergeant to go chasing around the hills of Afghanistan. I took a run at it… an all together too short of a run… but I made the attempt. I even took it to the White House… but to no avail. (“Too old… too broken up… too friggen fat.”) My conscience: assuaged.

But when I look at what Pat Tillman gave up… when I look at the strength of his convictions…. When I see that he was willing to put aside every earthly thing he had, including his brand-new wife… to go fight in a far off foreign land, when he COULD have stayed home and made millions playing a game…. It literally brings tears to my eyes that I am so unworthy in comparison to that.

I never met Ranger Tillman.  I fear I could consider myself lucky to be half the man he was in the 27 all-too-short years of his life. I sit here in the luxury of my office… wired, three computer-networked on broadband air conditioned Cokes or coffee mere feet away my bed just down the hallway past my big screen TV… and tears roll out of my eyes at the thought of what a tremendous loss this Country has sustained with Pat Tillman’s death.

That is not to belittle the deaths or wounds of any of the others. I consider them all my brothers and sisters. But I have already read the remarks from some who simply cannot know, as Pat Tillman knew, exactly what he was giving up, for exactly what he was getting in to.

Pat understood. He understood the debt that we all owe for the fabulous life (compared to 96% of the rest of the people on this planet) we all have here in America. Clearly, he felt compelled to make the effort to repay that debt, by seeking out the most challenging, dangerous duty he could find.

His very success in the Army facilitated his death. Yet, even knowing what little I know about the man… so much younger then I, yet so much more admirable in so many ways, I cannot help but think that even if he knew the outcome… he wouldn’t have changed a thing.

As I close in on the start of my 6th decade of life, I will do everything I can to emulate Pat Tillman in the ways open to me. To be as true to myself as possible. To understand those things that are most important in life. To take a stand… and in the time remaining to me, make a mark.

Suddenly, I feel very tired. I had to get this down… had to make sure it wouldn’t get lost. I got that much done… and I see it as the least I can do.

In closing, Henry V’s words seem startlingly appropriate, so I leave you with them.

"This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember'd;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day."

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