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"There are no heroes in sports. Athletes today are often referred to as heroes or warriors, when in reality, they're neither." These are the opening remarks of a speech given in memory of Pat Tillman, a professional football player who gave up his career to join the United States Army shortly after September 11, 2001.
With the 2008 Olympics underway, these words undoubtedly challenge much of the fervor pervading the media coverage of the games. Boots on the Ground by Dusk: My Tribute to Pat Tillman, a memoir by the late football pro's mother Mary Tillman with editor Narda Zacchino is a poignant account of what the Tillman family, including Pat's brother Kevin who was in the same unit, endured in the wake of his death, and the family's quest to discover the truth behind Pat's death.
Pat Tillman's death created media frenzy but it was the fact that Pat was a professional football star that originally got caused the media to take note of him in the first place. If not for his status as a professional athlete it is doubtful that Pat Tillman's death would have received any national attention.
When Pat was killed on April 22, 2004 his family was told enemy forces killed him during an ambush. However, months later the Army informed Pat's family that his own men killed Pat in a friendly-fire incident. Mary and others in Pat's family questioned and couldn't ignore the contradictions in Army's accounts of Pat's death. Their questions drove them to push for answers and resulted in seven investigations, several inquiries, and two congressional hearings over three and a half years. Yet even today, the Tillman family still doesn't have answers. What they uncovered instead was a series of lies and a public relations campaign that had perverted the truth about Pat Tillman's death to foster support for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan while also preserving the Army's image.
Mary Tillman narrates Boots on the Ground by Dusk, interweaving stories of Pat's life through much of the book. It's a heart-felt tribute to her son in which readers come to learn about his compassionate spirit and love for life that touched all of those around him. The book powerfully expresses the emotion and pain that thousands of families have endured when their loved ones have died in Iraq or Afghanistan. As Mary pushes forward in her quest for answers, she connects with many other families with similar experiences after trying to learn the truth behind the events that lead to their loved ones' deaths. Like the Tillmans, these families have been stonewalled and led in circles by the military as they search for answers.
In their efforts to find the truth about the events and actions that caused Pat's death, the Tillman family uncovered the reckless and grossly negligent actions of some soldiers in Pat's unit, and the disturbing actions taken by some of the unit's commanders to ensure the actions that caused Pat's death wouldn't come to light. The book chronicles how many of the army officials involved in the case repeatedly broke protocol, destroyed evidence, lost documents, and changed testimony taken from soldiers in Pat's unit. As the book recounts, "he [Specialist O'Neal, the soldier closest to Pat when he was killed] tells the committee the statement [he gave] was changed without his consent ... the inspector general's investigation uncovered that Staff Sergeant Matt Weeks' statement was also altered."
And although the army knew within hours that Pat Tillman's death was most likely the result of fratricide, they didn't inform the Tillman family. Instead they presented the false narrative of Pat being killed by enemy fire. "Pat wanted to leave a positive legacy, and he did," said Pat's brother Kevin "For the government to hijack his virtue and legacy is horrific."
During a congressional hearing held by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reforms investigating Pat's death, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld testified, along with three retired generals on what they knew about Pat's death. The group exhibited the "collective amnesia" that's now all too common with Bush administration officials who testify before Congress. In the end, the exact events that killed Pat Tillman are shrouded in a haze, but as Rep. Tom Davis (R-VA) stated after the investigations, inquires, and hearings, "the tragic truth can only fall somewhere between screw-up and cover-up, between rampant incompetence and elaborate conspiracy."
The story of Pat Tillman's life and death, and the details about the ensuing battle to learn the truth about his death recounted in Boots on the Ground by Dusk offer an inspiring tribute to a man who so obviously inspired those around him. The well-written book stands as a blistering indictment of how the military and the Bush administration responded to the death of the nation's most famous soldier. At times, unfortunately, the book comes off sounding more like a conspiracy story than it should. Like the Tillman family, the reader is left with numerous unanswered questions due to a lack of evidence and the contradictory conclusions presented by both the military and the authors. Still, it's a recommended read for anyone, not just avid sports fans and peace movement activists.
Devin West, "An Athlete at War" (Washington, DC: Foreign Policy In Focus, August 21, 2008)