May 2, 2004: To My Grandsons: Never Forget Our Heroes

To Zachary and Nicholas Wansley; Brian and Thomas Yarbrough:

I have been sharing some thoughts with you at the beginning of each year in the hope that some of my reflections might prove helpful as you grow to adulthood. I will continue to do so as long as I have something meaningful to say, and you show some interest in wanting to hear it.

So why am I writing you in the middle of the year? I have a story to tell you that is too important to wait. It is the story of Pat Tillman, a man who made the ultimate sacrifice for his country — an inspiring story that reminds us there are still some heroes around these days.

Mr. Tillman was a very good football player for the Arizona Cardinals. I didn’t know a lot about him because I don’t pay much attention to professional sports anymore, particularly pro football. I got tired of watching overpaid and narcissistic clowns acting like idiots after catching a pass or making a tackle. Pat Tillman was not like that. He was a tough competitor who did his job quietly and effectively. Then suddenly and without notice, he walked away from a career paying $3.6 million a year to join the U.S. Rangers and help in his country’s ongoing battle with Muslim terrorists. That is called patriotism, and it is in very short supply these days. He loved his country so much he was willing to die for it, and he did. Pat Tillman was killed in Afghanistan last month at the age of 27. The world is poorer for his absence.

There are many heroes in Iraq and Afghanistan who have not achieved the fame of Pat Tillman, ordinary American citizen-soldiers who happen to believe the United States is a nation worth defending. What are they defending? They are defending a bunch of self-absorbed and complacent people living off the sacrifices of generations before them. A nation that no longer acts like it is indivisible; that no longer believes it is one nation under God. They are defending people who love their country less than they love criticizing it and who don’t seem to care that it sends a signal of weakness to those who have hurt us and intend to hurt us again. They are defending a nation that rails incessantly about individual freedoms but where less than half of us exercise perhaps our most sacred freedom — the freedom to vote. Sometimes, I wonder if we are worth saving. Fortunately for us, Pat Tillman thought we were. So do his colleagues in our Armed Forces.

What makes Pat Tillman a hero is that he was true to his convictions. He didn’t compromise or rationalize his beliefs like many of us do. He didn’t sit on the sidelines and whine, in football or in life. He exhibited a courage that most of us don’t have. He cared more about his country than he cared about himself. These are rare traits in today’s me-first world. You would be amazed and perhaps saddened to know how many of us don’t really care about anything but ourselves.

One day, you may face the kind of decision that Pat Tillman faced. I pray you never have to go to war, because I cannot bear the thought of you in harm’s way. If I could, I would give my life ten times over to save yours. At the same time, I want you to stand for something. I want you to believe in something. And I want you to be true to those beliefs.

Most of all, love your country. Don’t obsess on its shortcomings. You live in the greatest nation on earth. We aren’t perfect, but neither are our critics. My generation seems uncomfortable with our success because we paid such a small price for it. Pat Tillman and the other heroes gave their lives for their country and have put its future in your hands. Handle with care. You can start by never forgetting what these brave people have done for you. And don’t worry about the naysayers and critics. They come with the territory.