Since November’s election, I’ve thought often of my late husband Pat Tillman, who in an act of patriotism walked away from an NFL contract to join the Army after September 11. Pat’s loyalty to American ideals did not mean that he was unquestioning of his country, and his willingness to challenge the status quo makes me wonder what he’d say about it and its leaders today. What would he make of the political divisions splitting Americans apart, and what would he say could mend them?
While I can’t speak for Pat or how exactly he’d feel, I can speak to the life I lived alongside him. It was in the quiet night hours of the attacks’ aftermath in 2001 that Pat initially mentioned joining the military. At the time, we were young and in love, and we had an idyllic life. It would have been easy to keep on a path of sunshine, roaring stadium crowds, family, and beach vacations. Or to be complacent and cynical about how he could help, or let the fear of harm win and do nothing.
But Pat made a different choice. He was about action and service, and not letting fear get in the way of either; and he was young, healthy, and strong. For those reasons, he couldn’t sit on the sidelines when he felt his country was in need. Pat’s decision had everything to do with the principles the United States stands for: freedom, justice, and democracy. He went to war even though he disagreed personally with the campaign in Iraq, and made clear that he didn’t want his celebrity to make him a poster boy for the conflict. Pat once explained that because he loved his country, he felt he must question it.