Losing a husband is tragic. Becoming one of America’s highest-profile widows before the age of 30, learning that the Army lied about his death, and enduring congressional hearings to unearth the truth all while fighting to mourn and move forward is a grim test of the human spirit.
In her new book, The Letter: My Journey Through Love, Loss, and Life, Marie Tillman, widow of Pat Tillman, who left behind a multimillion-dollar NFL career to join the Army after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, shares her very personal passage through grief and despair to peace and acceptance. An introvert who has “always been more comfortable in the background,” Tillman says she decided to go public with her private story after realizing the good that might come of it.
“It took me time to be more comfortable with what all of this meant in my life,” says Tillman, now 35, in an interview from her Chicago home. “The more I met people who had similar experiences or who had lost someone and was really able to connect with them, the more I realized I had the opportunity to use this experience to help others. I am a bit nervous that by having this book out there I am definitely exposing myself a bit more to some of the things I was trying to avoid at the beginning, but in a lot of ways I feel much more prepared for that now than I did eight years ago, when it was thrust on me.”
In 2004 Tillman sat talking about accounts with colleagues in her downtown Seattle consulting office when a chaplain and three Army soldiers arrived to tell her that her husband had been killed in Afghanistan. Nearly overnight she saw her life and her marriage thrust into the public spotlight, as the military lionized her husband while hiding the circumstances surrounding his death. More than a month passed before the truth emerged—that her high-school sweetheart had been killed not by insurgents but by friendly fire.
Reeling from the lies and the truth and suffering from unrelenting grief, Tillman turned to her husband’s last gift to her: a “just in case” goodbye letter he left on their dresser “without ceremony” nearly a year earlier between deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.
As Tillman tells it, her husband’s letter began:
“It’s difficult to summarize 10 years together, my love for you, my hopes for your future, and pretend to be dead all at the same time...I simply cannot put all this into words. I’m not ready, willing or able.”
Then came the words that crushed Tillman when she first read them but which continue to guide her today:
“Through the years I have asked a great deal of you, therefore it should surprise you little that I have another favor to ask. I ask that you live.”
“I realized that if I stayed focused on the anger ... there was no way that I could move forward in my life in a way that I felt was truly honoring Pat’s life and the life we had together.”
It was not easy to follow her husband’s request, Tillman says. Not only were there countless memorial services and ceremonies to sit through, in which her beloved husband became less a human being and more “an icon, a cultural symbol” whose “life and death meant different things to different people,” but in 2007 came painful congressional testimony in which a fellow Army Ranger who was with Pat Tillman when he was killed said his commanding officer had ordered him to stay quiet about the facts behind Tillman’s death. Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and three military generals testified at the hearings, with no one accepting blame, leaving Rep. Henry Waxman to note, “You’ve all admitted that the system failed; none of you feel personally responsible.”
“The hearings were a low point—that feeling of being powerless over the situation and that there were forces at work that were just out of reach for us,” says Marie Tillman. “To sit in the hearings and see it all unfold in a way that we still weren’t able to get any sense of the truth or accountability for what had happened. There was definitely this huge sense of frustration and a feeling that there were forces at work that were much greater than we were equipped to fight.”
Eventually, Tillman says, her letters from her husband, along with time and essays from Ralph Waldo Emerson, helped her move beyond her fury. She also tells of meeting the soldier who gave the order to “fire” that eventually killed Pat.
“I really got to a point where I realized that if I stayed focused on the anger and the frustration and all of the negative emotions, that there was no way that I could move forward in my life in a way that I felt was truly honoring Pat’s life and the life we had together,” Tillman says. She ultimately decided to leave her job planning events for the cable sports network ESPN to head the Pat Tillman Foundation, which offers scholarships to veterans and their spouses.
Tillman acknowledges that some have wondered about her focus on supporting the military when her husband had come to question America’s involvement in the Iraq war and her mother-in-law spent years battling the Pentagon to uncover the truth behind Pat’s death.
“I have realized that the individuals that make up the military are not where my anger and frustration were directed. So some people find it a little bit interesting that I have chosen to do the work that I do, but it was also the young men and women that served and that I had a chance to get to know when Pat enlisted that are what makes our servicemen and women so great,” says Tillman. “I had to get to a point where I could distinguish between those things and be able to give back to a community that had given so much to me. To be able to help them is something that has been gratifying for me, to see the impact we can have on individual lives.”
Giving back is the focus of Tillman’s book and her work, as she begins the next chapter of her life with her new husband, Joe Shenton. Earlier this year she gave birth to their son, Mac Patrick, whom she calls a “daily reminder of how far I have come, because there were so many years that I thought that I would never be able to move forward and to have a life outside of all that had happened.”
“I hope that my story gives some sense to people that we have all gone through struggles and that it is a part of living, and yet we can choose how those things shape our lives,” says Tillman. “I hope that the message is that you can move forward and you can still put things back together in a way that feels good for you.”
Would Pat approve, does she think?
“I hope that he would be proud of the things that I have done and the way that I have tried to keep the spirit of how he lived his life alive,” she says.