What is honor? The story of Pat Tillman

What is honor? The story of Pat Tillman

What is honor? Honor is respect that is given to someone who is admired for their actions. We often see, hear and read stories honoring those who sacrificed for others. A life of honor is living the values of duty, selfless service, loyalty, personal courage, respect, and integrity. People who make honor a part of how they live daily inspire others to live with honor. They solidify that habit with every choice they make. Honor is a matter of carrying out, through action, values in everything we do.

Pat Tillman

Pat Tillman June 2003 Photo by U.S. Army

Honor Success

Former NFL football player Pat Tillman is a man who lived a life of honor. Pat Tillman was a professional American football player in the National Football League (NFL) who left his sports career in the NFL and enlisted in the United States Army following the attacks on September 11. His service in Iraq and in Afghanistan was the subject of much media attention. The media attention is not what matters. What matters is Tillman’s actions leading up to his decision to enlist in the Army that deserves attention, recognition, and honor.

The Arizona Cardinals selected Tillman as the 226th pick in the 1998 NFL draft. Not great, but his NFL dream became a reality. Tillman started ten of sixteen games in his rookie season. Other teams noticed Tillman’s play after several seasons and tendered offers. Tillman turned down a five-year, $9 million contract offer from the St. Louis Rams out of loyalty to the Arizona Cardinals. Not a common value of NFL players. This was not the first of many decisions throughout his life that he made based on the values he held.

Following the attacks of September 11, 2001, Tillman told a reporter, “At times like this you stop and think about just how good we have it, what kind of system we live in, and the freedoms we are allowed. A lot of my family has gone and fought in wars, and I really haven’t done a damn thing.” After completing the fifteen remaining games of the 2001 season which followed the attacks, Tillman turned down a contract offer of $3.6 million over three years from the Cardinals to enlist in the U.S. Army in May 2002.

Honor Friends and Family

Tillman’s success in the NFL did not inflate his ego nor did it change what he valued. Pat did not drive a flashy car or frequent the bars and clubs like many NFL players. He chose to read voraciously and discuss his ideas with family and friends. He made your passion his passion. While in the off-season, he challenged himself physically with marathons and triathlons all while pursuing a Master’s degree in history. He volunteered with Boys and Girls Clubs, the March of Dimes and engaged in his local community. Tillman was very close to his family and high school friends. He repeatedly mentioned in his personal journals that he drew strength from and deeply valued his closest friendships, parents, his wife, and family.

Honor Duty

Pat married his high school sweetheart, Marie, in 2002. Upon returning from their honeymoon, Pat announced to the Arizona Cardinals he had decided to place his NFL career on hold. He joined the U.S. Army with his brother, Kevin. The decision garnered media attention. Yet, Tillman chose to honor humility by refusing to speak publicly about the decision. Pat and Kevin committed to a three-year term as Army Airborne Rangers. Instead of entering service in a role that did not involve direct combat, Pat chose one of the most demanding and dangerous jobs in the Army.

After basic training, the Army assigned Pat and Kevin to A Company, 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment in Fort Lewis, Washington. They completed the rigorous Ranger and Airborne courses before going on to their first deployment to Iraq to support Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. Pat’s unit flew to a small airfield in Saudi Arabia 50 miles from the Iraqi border at the beginning of March 2003.

Tillman’s Commander assigned Pat’s platoon as a quick reaction force (QRF). They would remain on standby prepared to board helicopters to be in the air within 90 minutes to come to the aid of other units that might require a rescue or additional firepower. His platoon was part of the force that rescued Private Jessica Lynch whose convoy was ambushed by Iraqi forces early in the war. The rescue received considerable media coverage since it was the first successful rescue of an American prisoner of war since Vietnam and the first ever of a female service member.

Honor Selfless Service

What many people may not know is that Tillman was more than just a football player or an Army Ranger. He was a curious intellectual and highly intelligent. Tillman had a deep appreciation for the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson and finished reading his essay on “Self-Reliance” in his tent on the eve of battle in Iraq.

Jon Krakauer captured the essence of Tillman in his book “Where Men Win Glory.” Krakauer gained access to Pat’s personal journals in which he wrote, “My honor will not allow me to create a life of beauty and peace but sees me off to order and conformity…I love my wife more than myself yet drag her through the same puddle. Who do I love? Where is my passion directed? Best I can tell, it’s to those who could care less: the general masses. I follow some philosophy I barely understand…My direction is selfish, my telos destructive…Sometimes my need to love hurts–myself, my family my cause. Is there a cure? Of course. But I refuse. Refuse to stop loving, to stop caring. To avoid those tears, that pain…To err on the side of passion is human and right and the only way I’ll live.” Pat’s decision to leave fame, money, the love of his wife, friends, and family to live a life of honor is remarkable. The day after he wrote these words, the air campaign over Iraq started and coined the term “shock and awe.”

Honor Personal Courage

After Pat and Kevin’s first deployment and a short respite home, they returned to battle. This time it was to Afghanistan to support Operation Enduring Freedom in 2004. His platoon of Rangers was part of Operation Mountain Storm to clear villages of threats near Khost, the eastern part of the country. On the evening of April 22, 2004, Pat’s unit was ambushed as it traveled through the rugged, canyon terrain. Pat took immediate action to provide covering fire for fellow soldiers as they escaped from the canyon. The ambush led to the tragic death via fratricide– Pat Tillman was killed by fellow Rangers.

4-Brigade-25th-Infantry-Airborne-Kushamond, Afghanistan, July-09-2004

Soldiers of 4th Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division, Afghanistan, July 2004. Photo by PFC Andrya Hill, U.S. Army

Honor the Fallen

I was in Afghanistan for four months when I learned of Pat Tillman’s death. As part of the same operation, my unit was responsible for securing the gains from the kinetic fight with the expansion of the Provincial Reconstruction Team program throughout the country. We just got back from a reconnaissance mission in Helmand province to prepare for a base of operations there for stabilization and reconstruction. I remember reading the significant activity (SIGACT) report at Bagram Airfield the morning following the ambush of Pat’s unit. We learned that Tillman was killed shortly after reading the report. I was heartbroken. Many followed Pat’s story, and I deeply respected his choice to serve. I know many of us felt the same way.

When we lost a soldier in Afghanistan, we would line up along both sides of the road at Bagram Airfield leading up to the flight line. With silent grace, each of us comes to attention and renders a salute as the army chaplain, color guard and a HUMVEE with a flag-draped casket drove by and came to a stop on the flight line. Each soldier is carried into the hold of the waiting aircraft and placed feet first in the direction of travel, for this is the tradition and honor of the Fallen Comrade Ceremony. Tragically, Pat Tillman was not the first one I observed since I arrived in the country. He was not to be the last for this tour and my subsequent combat tours.


Mitch Schmidtke Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan January 2004 Photo by Mitch Schmidtke (C) 2004

Habit of Honor

Pat Tillman lived a life of honor. He made it a matter of daily habit of being honorable. He inspired others to live with honor. Marcus Aurelius was an Emperor of the Roman Empire. He is one of the more important Stoic philosophers. His two decades as emperor were marked by near continual warfare. He was faced with a series of invasions, conflicts and internal revolts. Marcus Aurelius wrote “Meditations” while on campaign between the years 170 and 180. It is a literary monument to a government of service and duty. In the book, Aurelius wrote, “Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.” Pat Tillman did just that.


What does it take to live a life of honor? Here are some thoughts to consider:

Know your values.

Your actions reflect your values.

The difference between who you are and who you want to be is what you do.

Consider every act of your life as though it were the very last act of your life.

Over to you,

What do you value and do your actions support what you value?

If you want to learn more, please check out the link and books (affiliate links):

Where Men Win Glory by Jon Krakauer

Meditations  by Marcus Aurelius

Pat Tillman Foundation

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