Pat Tillman, a Bridge, and Me

Posted on October 22, 2010

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Mike O'Callaghan – Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge

On October 14th, the Hoover Dam bypass bridge was completed.  It is named after former Nevada Governor Mike O’Callaghan and NFL Arizona Cardinals star – turned Army Special Forces soldier, Pat Tillman.  I don’t know anything about Mike O’Callaghan, but I am familiar with the life of Pat Tillman.  The truth is, most Americans know Pat Tillman’s story, even if they don’t remember his name.  He is the phenomenal professional football player that gave up his NFL contract to enlist in the Army after the September 11th attacks.  On April 22, 2004 he was killed in Afghanistan by friendly fire.

It is incredibly unfortunate that Pat was killed by another American soldier during some confusion in a combat zone.  It is not unheard of, though.  Friendly fire incidents are one of the horrible bi-products of war.  It happens.  There was a lot of controversy after his death because his death was first reported by the Army as an ambush by hostile forces, despite them knowing the facts of the incident.  Author Jon Krakauer wrote a book about Pat Tillman’s life and I recently purchased it, but have not read it.  I suggest you pick it up if you would like to know more about Pat Tillman’s life.

I came across Jon’s book again a few nights ago, but was unable to open it.  It is called Where Men Win Glory – The Odyssey of Pat Tillman.  It is not out of laziness or disinterest.  If anything, I am very interested in knowing more about the man.  At the same time I am afraid of knowing about him.  I have a lot of respect for the man and I am sure that I will admire him even more if I read the book and that will only bring back old feelings of anger and disappointment with military operations in Afghanistan.  I am not a bitter war-hating liberal.  I am a Marine Veteran of the war in Afghanistan and I WAS THERE when Pat Tillman was killed.

Pat Tillman (left) and his brother, Kevin, stand in front of a Chinook helicopter in Saudi Arabia before their tour of duty as Army rangers in Iraq in 2003.

I remember the events very well and I have not shared this story in depth with anyone who was not there as well.  I wasn’t in the field when Pat died.  My job was in aircraft maintenance and mission support.  I worked on base and every once in a while flew missions as a tail-gunner or provided convoy security on trips “outside the wire” and into the local villages and cities.  We flew Special Forces deep into enemy territory and often picked up the dead bodies of important enemy targets.  The Special Forces Marines, Soldiers, and Civilians loved us.  We always got the job done and never backed down from any mission.  Because of that, my unit was familiar with these guys and their missions.

When the news of Pat’s death first hit our camp we were told the same thing everyone was told: Pat Tillman was killed in an ambush by Taliban militants.  I remember even being told that he was killed by a grenade during that ambush.  We were all enraged and wanted nothing more in life than to catch those responsible.  We all respected Pat.  We would see him in the chow hall and took great pride in serving with him.

The night that Pat was to be flown back to the States I was working on the flight-line.  I was night crew, so my shift started in the afternoon and ended the next morning.  Pat’s casket was driven down Disney Road (a road in Bargram Airfield named after a soldier who died there, not Walt Disney) and all the camps came out to pay their respects.  It was a quiet night.  There were a lot of broken wills and not much to say.  The aircraft that was going to fly Pat off base was parked on the flight-line next to my unit’s helicopters.  My Marines and I were standing near it waiting for the casket.  We weren’t able to watch from Disney Road because we were working and couldn’t leave camp.  It just turned out that we were closer to the action that we even expected.

When the hummer with the casket finally drove on to the flight-line we watched them load it inside the aircraft.  Everything was done with a lot of respect.  The soldiers involved in that duty were quiet.  There was no audience on that flight-line.  Just the soldiers in charge of the loading, the aircraft crew, and a few of us Marines.  We all stood there frozen.  We were all familiar with Pat Tillman.  We had seen him on the news, we had seen him in the chow hall, and now we were watching his casket.  It cut me deeply.  The reality of war’s consequences was before me for the first time.  I witnessed a lot of horrible things out there, but Pat Tillman’s death was very personal.  It was an ending that made no sense.  This was not supposed to happen to him…to us.

I did not discover the truth of his death until I was back home.  It broke my heart that he was killed by friendly fire and it enraged me that we were lied to about it.  They lied to all of us overseas and stateside.  Many on base used that rage to focus more resources on capturing those responsible for Pat’s death.  One militant was identified as being the man responsible and he was flown in by our helicopters from the field.  I was told that he was beaten pretty bad by everyone who handled him on the way to the base:  the soldiers involved in his capture, the air crews, and the prison guards.  So, knowing the truth now I often wonder:  WHO WAS THIS MAN?!!! Was he a militant?  Was he an innocent man?  I’ll never know and it eats at me.  I wanted to get a swing at him when they took him out of our helicopter.  A pilot told me not to worry about it because he’s already gotten it pretty bad.  It disgusts me to think that I would have beaten this man if given the chance.  All this because of a lie told to us by the same government we protect.

I am very upset right now.  I am not even going to spell-check this.  Fuck it.  I guess this is why I can’t read the book.  I have issues and I guess I’ll have to let the dust settle inside my heart and mind before I can go back down this road.  WAR IS BULLSHIT.

 

Corporal Alonso, Bagram Airfield - Afghanistan 2004

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Posted in: My Path