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Remembering Pat Tillman, looking for more like him

Story Lt. Col. Michael Kifer
51st Security Forces Squadron commander

OSAN AB, KOREA. -- Thinking about him a few days before the announcement of his death in the wee hours of Saturday morning, I considered sending an e-mail to Bill O'Reilly asking him to do a follow-up. His story played around on the edges of my memory and I wondered what happened to him. We all recollect the tale of the professional football player who walked away from a multimillion dollar contract to become a US Army Ranger in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001.

He left a job he loved, fiscal security and a beautiful new wife to try out for a different team; one where the consequences of winning and losing were far more significant than those of a football game. I contrasted his effort in my mind with that of a former heavyweight boxing champion a few years back, who decided he wanted to be a Marine and lasted less then a week in boot camp before being discharged. Being a Ranger is never easy and leaving behind what he did, I wondered if he stuck it out. Then word came that Pat Tillman had died in service of his country in the field in Afghanistan.

The last six years of my life I've spent as a Security Forces commander in assignments ranging from Mississippi to Kuwait, to Hawaii and now Korea, and I'm never able to sleep in. As I sat drinking my coffee and watching the news at 3:45 a.m. Saturday morning, I began to choke up. I realize those who know me may find this difficult to fathom. The death of this young man at age 27, someone I'd never met and now never would, saddened me incredibly and yet made me think. We are so lucky to be able to call ourselves Americans and to live in a country that produces such people.

His loss made me recall the words of an author named Fehrenbach.

"Americans fully understand the requirement of the football field or the baseball diamond. They discipline themselves and suffer by the thousands to prepare for these rigors. A coach or manager who is too permissive soon seeks a new job; his team will fail against those who are tougher and harder," he said. "Yet undoubtedly any American officer, in peacetime, who works his men as hard, or ruled them as severely as a college football coach does, would be removed.

"But the shocks of the battlefield are a hundred times those of the playing field, and the outcome infinitely more important to the nation. The problem is to understand the battlefield as well as the game of football. The problem is to see not what is desirable, or nice or politically feasible, but what is necessary."

The shock of this particular death became national news in short order but in learning what we've come to about Pat Tillman, he would not want to be considered different. There have been others in this war and there will continue to be so. Whenever things get difficult for me since Sept. 11, I think of the "Falling Man." You remember the photo of the man who along with many others, when faced with being burned alive in the Trade Center tower, chose to leap to his death. He's never been identified by name. I think of him and the horrific choice with which he was faced and think, "How bad can it really be?" Now I shall have the memories of two men with me to help keep things in perspective.

There are a few times in life when one is tested; where you may be called upon to do something so difficult, so dangerous, as to seem impossible. And yet someone like Pat Tillman always seems to step forward and say "send me." One hopes when that time comes in a military career, as it inevitably will, we can follow his example. Like many things, we never fully realize the magnificence of life or of the freedoms we enjoy until faced with their loss.

All who read this and wear the uniform of our country in whatever service, in whatever theatre, in whatever conflict past or present, you are heroes deserving of praise and admiration. Especially those who gave their lives in the service of our Nation, this is my salute to you.

 

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