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10 years on, Pat Tillman's widow at peace with past

Apr. 20, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Pat Tillman's widow, Marie, visits Pat Tillman Stadium at Leland High School in San Jose, Calif. The two met at Leland and were high-school sweethearts.
Pat Tillman's widow, Marie, visits Pat Tillman Stadium at Leland High School in San Jose, Calif. The two met at Leland and were high-school sweethearts. (Daniel Canepa / KXTV-TV, Sacramento)
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Cpl. Pat Tillman is seen in a this 2003 file photo. (AP)

Former Army Ranger fears he may have shot Pat Tillman

One of Pat Tillman’s platoon-mates believes he might have fired the shots that killed the former NFL player turned Army Ranger in the 2004 friendly-fire incident in Afghanistan.

Steven Elliott, who sat down with ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” in his first interview since that day, has been living with guilt for 10 years.

“It is possible, in my mind, that I hit him,” Elliott said.

After an Army Humvee broke down in the mountainous region of southeast Afghanistan, Tillman’s platoon was ordered to remove it. They were split into two, but had trouble communicating with each other as they dealt with the terrain. One of the groups got caught in an ambush so Tillman’s group, who was up ahead, came back to help.

But a squad leader in the group under attack misidentified Tillman’s group’s vehicle and his Rangers opened fire, killing Tillman.

Per ESPN, the Army has either never determined or never released whose shots hit Tillman, but Elliott thinks it could have come from his weapon — a M240 Bravo machine gun.

“You aim at a point, and you fire a burst. You are holding your trigger for a fraction of a second, but that fraction of a second releases three to five rounds,” he said. “If it looked like you had [three] rounds and very close to one another, well, that was very consistent to how I was firing my weapon at that point. ... It would be disingenuous for me to say there is no way my rounds didn’t kill him, because my rounds very well could have.”

Elliott has been treated for post-traumatic stress disorder, gone through counseling, and reconnected with religion and family, and is in a better place now. But he continues to live with the guilt.

“If I could change what happened, I would change it in a heartbeat,” he said. “Change it in a heartbeat.” — Laken Litman, USA Today


SAN JOSE, CALIF. — Marie Tillman is sitting at her parents’ dining-room table, waiting for a morning-coffee boost to kick in. She’s surprised her baby is still asleep.

It’s early April, still too cold back home in Chicago. Marie and her husband, Joe Shenton, had boarded a plane to Northern California to visit her parents in Almaden, a quiet neighborhood in San Jose.

Here, it’s dripping wet from a recent rain but warm enough for a California girl.

Sitting in the morning light in the neighborhood where she grew up, Marie is at home in a life where the present is inseparable from the past.

From the backyard of the house, she can look down over Leland High School. It’s where she was a cheerleader, class of ‘94, where she was voted “best smile.” It’s where she first fell for a chatty football player, the one who was voted “most masculine.” His name was Pat Tillman.

Their teenage romance would last. Through Pat’s time playing football for Arizona State University, through his budding NFL career with the Cardinals, through his decision to become an Army Ranger, up until the April day 10 years ago when he was killed in Afghanistan, a victim of friendly fire.

In the eyes of the nation, the story of Pat Tillman the hero grew from admirable to epic.

For Marie, it was hard to understand the public mourning at first. Pat wasn’t an icon to her; he was her best friend.

“I struggled in the beginning with ... my feelings about him and other people’s feelings,” she says. Perfect strangers would tell her about how his life had a profound impact on theirs — even though they never knew her Pat.

In time, she says, she came to realize that they knew their own Pat. And she found a place in her life for both.

“I didn’t feel it’s my place to take that away from people,” she says. “That is a wonderful gift that he’s given to so many people.”

A foundation she and family and friends of Pat founded after he died launched a memorial run that has blossomed into a giant annual event. On Saturday, she’ll join her family and about 30,000 strangers in the 10th annual Pat’s Run in Tempe. The proceeds fund a college-scholarship foundation that has now helped put 290 veterans or their spouses through school.

Marie kept Pat Tillman’s last name.But in the 10 years since, she has built a new life.

She fell in love again. She got married again. She wrote a book about living through grief. Though she guarded her family’s privacy, as a new mom she was happy to go public two years ago with the news that she and her husband had had a baby — a boy they named Mac Patrick.

Now, on this early April morning in her hometown, Marie says she has found peace in the parts of the past that mix with the present: her role as the public face of the Pat Tillman Foundation with her private life as a wife and mother. The Pat Tillman she knew with the Pat Tillman the country remembers.

“For me, by being more open, it allowed me to have the freedom to have all of these things now in my life,” she said.

Life and loss

Marie played sports and ran the neighborhood with her brother and sister as a kid, here where wildflowers grow alongside tract homes with two-car garages.

Pat’s childhood was a few miles south and many steps wilder, where the valley floor climbs toward a place steeped in history but called New Almaden. Old wood-plank houses are reminiscent of its days as a mining camp for the mercury ore hidden in the hills.

“We both had sort of idyllic childhoods,” Marie says. “It was a very special place to grow up.”

Pat and Marie met in high school and stayed together even when college took Marie to the University of California-Santa Barbara and a football scholarship took Pat to Tempe.

After graduating, he was drafted by the Arizona Cardinals. A pro contract meant Pat and Marie could finally share a home in Arizona.

Pat drove a beat-up truck and enrolled as a grad student at ASU to study history while he played. He proved himself in the NFL, and the St. Louis Rams offered him a lucrative contract in 2001. Loyal to the Cardinals coaches who had drafted him, Pat turned the offer down. He would stay in Arizona, with Marie. Then came Sept. 11.

Those who knew him, and interviews he did later, pointed to the day of the terrorist attacks as a pivotal moment.

In Marie’s book, “The Letter: My Journey Through Love, Loss & Life,” she wrote that they had already set a wedding date and were planning to start a family when he confided in her that he wanted to join the Army.

Marie wrote that they talked at length. She was scared but proud of the decision they made together.

Pat enlisted, with the intent of becoming a Ranger. His brother Kevin followed.

The country celebrated the story as one of patriotism: the football star who turned down the $3.6 million contract to become a soldier. But Marie knew Pat’s reasoning was more about fulfilling a purpose higher than a football career.

Marie and Pat married two months before he left for basic training in 2002. He went to Iraq, then to Afghanistan. On April 22, 2004, 10 years after they graduated from high school, Pat was killed.

On May 28, 2004, one day before their second wedding anniversary, Marie sat under a cathedral of redwood trees at San Jose’s Municipal Rose Garden, listening to Pat’s life memorialized. There, the story of his death was framed as a heroic battle with the enemy.

The Tillman family and Marie later fought for the release of reports that would uncover the truth.

The Army later revealed that Tillman’s death was the result of fratricide, and later investigations would point to a cover-up through the ranks. To this day, the full details remain unclear.

While the country grappled with Pat’s death, Marie, family and friends weighed his legacy. They created the Pat Tillman Foundation in 2004.

“There was this sort of outpouring of support from across the country and we wanted to channel that in a positive way,” Marie said.

As years passed, Marie says, sharing memories of her past with Pat helped her learn to live without him.

“The impact of his decisions and the way he lived his life and just ...who he was, affected many, many people,” she said. “(But) I can still have my relationship with him and my feelings about the impact that his life had on me and sort of bring all those things together.”

She found that her experience could help others through grief, which led her to write her book.

About the same time, she met Joe. He was an investment banker from Chicago. He had three boys from a previous marriage. She writes about their chance meeting in 2011 at a dinner with foundation supporters in Chicago. They shared an instant connection.

“Somehow I just knew that he got it,” she wrote, “that he saw through the story that surrounded me, and just saw me.”

Marie says Joe is her hero. They married in 2012.

“I give him so much credit for all of that,” she says. “He allows me to have all of these parts of my life out in the open because he wears the (Tillman Team) hat, he comes to the (Pat’s Run) event, he’s as big of a champion for the foundation as anyone.”

Marie says the book chronicles her journey past a time when Pat’s absence had left her empty with grief.

“What worked for me, was to sort of have it all out there,” she says. “I can go with my new family and we can go and participate in the run and the boys can wear their Tillman jerseys.”

Still a presence

In New Almaden, where Pat grew up, American flags and peace signs hang from cottages along the way to Almaden Quicksilver County Park. The community nestled into a wooded canyon was once home to California’s first mining operation. Today it’s a National Historic Landmark district.

The moist grass and wildflowers on the hillsides give up the smell of earth. These are the hills where Pat and his brothers played as children. This is where the people who knew Pat said he found sanctuary, peace and adventure.

Across the street from the park, the creek flows through a green meadow. A a lone picnic bench and a small stone memorial face the road. Carved into a bronze plate is Pat Tillman’s smiling face next to his jersey numbers, 42 with the ASU logo, 40 with the Cardinals. Other symbols mark his elementary, junior high and high schools, as well as the 75th Army Ranger Regiment.

There are three paragraphs. The first reads, “Pat lived in New Alamaden for most of his life. He came to love it for its history and community spirit. He roamed the hills with his brothers as a kid, then hiked and trained in them as an athlete and a soldier.” The bronze glints in the sunlight, hard and permanent.

A blue vase sits at the foot of the memorial, wrapped with a yellow ribbon, filled with a handful of yellow daffodils. The flowers are so fresh, their funnel-shaped petals still hold rainwater captured overnight.

In the moist sand next to them, someone has scratched out a fleeting message: “Hope. Faith. Love.”

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