Ever since Pat Tillman was killed in a friendly-fire incident in Afghanistan in 2004, the people closest to the NFL-star-turned U.S. Army Ranger had to fight to stop the government from using his death as propaganda.
In 2010, Tillman’s mother told CNN that the Bush administration exploited her son’s death to bolster public opinion for Iraq War during the Abu Ghraib torture scandal. “It was a terrible time for the military and for that administration,” she said, “and Pat’s death was an opportunity for them.”
In fact, as The Intercept’s Ryan Devereaux wrote last week, the military hijacked Tillman’s story and covered up the circumstances of his death in order to create a hero worthy of worship. President Donald Trump is the latest to invoke that false image, in his obsessive quest to to punish NFL players for kneeling during the national anthem. Trump retweeted a message from one of his supporters that said, “NFLplayer PatTillman joined U.S. Army in 2002. He was killed in action 2004. He fought 4our country/freedom. #StandForOurAnthem #BoycottNFL” Included in the tweet is a photo of Tillman in his military uniform.
Trump seemed unaware of the irony of invoking Tillman’s memory, that behind the image of the uniformed soldier was a character who likely had more in common with the kneeling football players than with those objecting to the protest. As a critical thinker and a student of history, Tillman became deeply opposed to the Iraq War, confessing to his brother that he thought the war was “fucking illegal.” What’s more, the initial story the Pentagon told about Tillman’s death – that he died heroically in combat – was a lie, and the election-year cover-up involved senior military leaders in the Bush administration.
Before enlisting in the military, Tillman was an unlikely NFL star. Standing only 5 feet and 11 inches tall, and drafted by the Arizona Cardinals in the seventh round, Tillman was an underdog. But his toughness on the field made him a standout and fan favorite. By his third season, he was named an all-pro by a number of prominent sports writers, and when Tillman joined the Army in 2002, he did so at the expense of a $3.6 million contract.
Tillman made the decision quietly and never gave a media interview about leaving football to go overseas. But the Bush administration lost no time in promoting his choice as an example of patriotic, wartime sacrifice. And the NFL held him up as a symbol of its military-supporting, all-American culture. Ever since his death, people have been pushing back.
This week, The Intercept’s Jeremy Scahill spoke with ex-Army Ranger Rory Fanning, who met Tillman at Ranger school. The two served together in the 2nd Ranger Battalion in Afghanistan, and they grew close after Fanning decided to become a conscientious objector.
Fanning said that after he decided to become a war resister, his entire battalion turned their backs on him. “I was washing dishes, absorbing the general ridicule the chain of command, and expecting to go to jail at any time,” Fanning said. “There was two people that weren’t afraid to talk to me during that time, and it was Pat Tillman and his brother Kevin. These guys were amazing people.”
In 2008, Fanning embarked on a mission to honor Tillman’s legacy. He walked across the United States and raised funds for the Pat Tillman Foundation, which provides academic scholarships to military veteran and their spouses.
The former Ranger blasted Trump for invoking Tillman’s memory to attack NFL players who took a knee during the national anthem to protest police violence. “I think it’s disgraceful. Pat’s memory should not be politicized, particularly in this way. You know, Pat was from a different era, so to say what would Pat have done, I think it is kind of hard to do and not necessarily worth doing,” said Fanning.
He continued: “Pat stood for the exploited and the oppressed. You know, he stood up, you know for people who stood up for themselves. And I think he would have a lot more in common with someone like Colin Kaepernick and Michael Bennett, than he would those who jeer and try to repress dissent from the sidelines.”
Listen to the full interview here: