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I met Pat Tillman only a few weeks ago. I read his biography.

Pat Tillman played football for the Arizona Cardinals and was a good enough player to be offered a $3 million contract with the Cardinals for the 2002 season. But Tillman had other ideas. He believed in something called “duty” and decided that, if the United States was at war, it was his “duty” to join the fight. So he decided not to sign the rich contract he had been offered. Instead, he signed up with the US military. Pat joined the army to fight for America!

On the one hand, Pat wasn’t the only American who went to Iraq and then Afghanistan. Since 2001, close to 2 million Americans have fought in those two countries. Many have been killed; many have been wounded. If you speak to our congregant, Steve Kessler who is a psychiatrist at the Northampton VA Medical Center, he can tell you about the servicemen and women who have returned to this country carrying savage emotional and psychological wounds. They are perhaps the quietest, most enduring casualties of this longest war in our history.

But back to Pat. His story is simpler and tragic nonetheless. In April 2004, Pat was part of an Army Rangers brigade assigned to root out Taliban supporters in a remote part of Afghanistan. Pat’s platoon had been on duty for close to a week and had had only minor success in locating the “enemy.” Late on April 22, 2004, for administrative reasons the group split in two and, because of the terrain and the confusions of battle, the two parts of the platoon lost contact with each other. The first group came under attack, the second group came to the defense of the first, shots were exchanged, the first group did not realize that they were actually being helped by their comrades. In a combination of panic and frenzy, soldiers in the first group fired at their own platoon. They killed Pat Tillman.

It was a straightforward case of friendly fire. It was a huge error. But it became tragic when the army covered up the truth. Rather than admit that Pat’s fellow soldiers had made a massive mistake, the army lied. First, they lionized Pat as a war hero. They claimed he had died a valiant death in the midst of a fight with the enemy. Finally – after years of pressure on the part of Pat’s friends and family – the government admitted its lies. Pat was killed by US soldiers. Pat was killed in a senseless and quite unnecessary skirmish at the edge of Afghanistan.

Why does this matter?

Tillman’s story matters because what happened to him was so wrong. His story matters too because it is a cautionary tale about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The story also matters because Tillman was no ordinary man. He was thoughtful, creative, and loving. He was focused and ferocious in achieving the goals he set for himself. He was, above all else, principled. “He walked the walk; he didn’t only talk the walk.”

Of course, Pat Tillman isn’t the only man or woman of substance who has died in Iraq and Afghanistan. Much can be said about every one of those who has died. Their families are forever bereaved because each person was a unique and indispensable part of the family he or she came from. So maybe the upshot of Pat’s story for me is a reminder of the toll being taken almost every single day that our country is at war. Most of us are blessed to carry on with life as it safely comes our way every day. Others who wear the uniform for us risk everything. We owe them a debt of gratitude. They do us proud.

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