In April 2004, many Americans were shocked and saddened to hear of the heroic death of Pat Tillman, the bracingly handsome Arizona Cardinal who had taken leave from a successful NFL career to enlist in the Army—none more so than his wife, Marie.
But when the story of Tillman’s Silver Star-worthy sacrifice in an ambush in Afghanistan devolved into a high-level cover-up of accidental friendly fire, public outrage and congressional inquiry thrust the Tillman family into the national spotlight as they struggled with all dimensions of the truth behind their loss. With the outpouring of support following her husband’s death, Marie helped found a foundation in his name, which would come to assist military personnel wishing to pursue a college education, but it is in this moving debut memoir, The Letter: My Journey Through Love, Loss, and Life, that she reveals for the first time her side of the story.
Read more of the best new nonfiction this July.
We were fortunate to speak with Marie Tillman, learning more about how the inspirational “just in case” letter that Pat left helped her find the courage and resolve to keep living.
When did you begin to write this account and what prompted it?
I started writing pretty shortly after Pat was killed, but at the time it was more a therapy, a way to work through my feelings and get out what I was struggling with then. Never did I think that would turn into a book.
A couple years ago, I was in a much better place and was thinking of the stories and books I’d read when I was going through my most difficult times and realized when I met people while I was going around doing my work for the foundation that perhaps my story might be helpful to someone else—that I might be able to write about my experiences and how I learned to live again, and maybe someone else going through a difficult time would be able to find some sort of hope in that.
You remark that you knew “exactly” who you were when you were with Pat. Do you think part of that was also you knew who you were because you were with Pat?
Yeah, we were together at such a young age that a lot of my identity was wrapped up in who we were as a couple. As you’re growing up, you’re sort of discovering who you are, and I had him in my life for such a long time that a lot of who I was was tied up in that. Here I was at 27, wondering who am I on my own and what are the things I want for my life now that the person who was in this life that we had dreamed together is gone.
Was it hard for you to accept Pat’s decision to enlist in the Army?
It was difficult for me mostly because I had had this vision of what our life was going to be together, and enlisting was a little bit of a detour from that. But he was one of those people who really looked at life as an adventure, and so pretty quickly and, honestly, in hindsight I realized how naïve we were.
But it was relatively easy to get caught up in the notion of here’s the thing we’re going to do as a team for the next three years and be very taken by the fact that we thought it was the right thing to do at the time. We would move to a new city and have this new experience and adventure and be able to look back on it years later as just part of a long life together. So even though it was difficult and certainly not a decision that was made overnight, I really did get into the spirit of what it was all about.
You imply that you came to terms with what you describe as the “gross negligence” that resulted in Pat’s accidental death. How would you characterize its cover-up? Was that as troubling to you?
Yes, that was definitely something I struggled with for many years, and because of it, and because of our desire to figure out what really happened, it prolonged things for quite some time. I mean several years out we were still dealing with investigations and congressional hearings—all of these things that really made it much more difficult to move forward and not be angry and not become bitter and cynical at what was going on.
But I got to a point where I realized that if I became too wigged out in all of that, it would be impossible for me to get out. Just knowing that I was relatively young and still with a lot of life ahead, and thinking about, as I said in the book, the words that Pat had left for me, I just didn’t feel as if I could live a full, meaningful life if I was stuck in this place where I was so consumed by what happened.
When you wrote about how you learned that Pat hadn’t been killed in an ambush that your mind leapt to the conclusion that maybe they’d gotten the whole thing wrong and he was still alive, I can totally imagine thinking maybe they’d made…
… the whole thing up! Yeah, that’s what I wanted to believe. I think that when it’s a sudden death, it just takes so long for you to come to terms with the fact that this has happened that any sort of disruption in the story makes you think maybe the whole thing is wrong, which is what I wanted to believe.
Did you ever picture you’d become a spokeswoman for military affairs?
[Laughs] No—actually I never thought I’d be a spokesperson for anything! You know, it’s something I’ve certainly tried to grow into because I do deeply believe in what we’re doing as an organization. To have an opportunity to help other people and speak up on their behalf and not to have taken advantage of that was something I realized I would regret later in life, so I knew I had to get over my own fears and inhibitions when it came to filling that role.
Have you remarried?
I did, and actually, I had a baby in January. It’s crazy. Life does keep going, and you can either jump on or just stay in one spot. It has moved forward for me, and I hope that’s encouraging to other people.