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‘He would be the first to kneel’: Pat Tillman exploited to attack Kaepernick, biographer says

Pat Tillman at Arizona State University. (Pat Tillman Foundation)

Pat Tillman was an NFL star. Pat Tillman turned down millions and enlisted in the Army after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Pat Tillman died in combat.

That is enough for some people to again use Tillman's death to make political arguments, this time to bludgeon Nike and its campaign with former National Football League quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who has knelt during the national anthem to protest police brutality.

"Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything,” a new ad says, with Kaepernick's face in stark black and white.

For example, Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.), an Army reservist, said Tillman “died for our flag and national anthem.” The congressman has joined conservatives who mischaracterize the protests as disrespectful to troops and veterans.

Nike chose Colin Kaepernick as one of the faces for a new ad campaign marking the 30th anniversary of its “Just Do It” slogan. (Video: Taylor Turner, Patrick Martin/The Washington Post)

Lost in the political posturing is Tillman himself and the complexities of the sandals-wearing, long-haired kid from the San Francisco Bay area.

He was an idealistic, voracious reader who often struggled with the meaning of military service and considered moral conviction a high virtue, said Jon Krakauer, the author of “Where Men Win Glory,” a biography of Tillman.

"Pat would have found Kaepernick an extremely admirable person for what he believed in,” Krakauer told The Washington Post. “I have no doubt if he was in the NFL today, he would be the first to kneel. So there is irony about what is going on.”

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Tillman walked away from a $3.6 million contract with the Arizona Cardinals and enlisted nine months after the 9/11 attacks. He deployed to Iraq in 2003.

He was killed in Afghanistan in 2004 in what the military initially described to his family and the public as a heroic death at the hands of the enemy. The Pentagon later acknowledged Tillman was killed accidentally by a fellow soldier during an ambush.

His death arrived amid politically fraught times for President George W. Bush as his reelection neared. The First Battle of Fallujah had underscored the sophistication of the Iraqi insurgency, foretelling a long U.S. presence there, and six days after Tillman's death, some of the first photos of torture at the Abu Ghraib prison surfaced in reporting by "60 Minutes."

The administration needed a symbol to change the discussion. It found one in Tillman, Krakauer said. Tillman himself understood his story — a talented NFL star shedding riches to go to war as an elite soldier — was primed for exploitation by Pentagon public affairs officers.

He even had something of a premonition.

A fellow soldier in the Ranger Regiment told Krakauer about a conversation he had with Tillman in 2003. “[Tillman] said, 'If get killed, I don’t want Bush to parade me through the streets to use as a political tool,’ ” Krakauer said. “And of course, that’s what Bush did.”

Twisting Tillman's death into political messaging occurred immediately after he died, Krakauer said.

Last fall, Trump invoked Tillman's death to criticize Kaepernick for kneeling.

Soon after, Tillman's widow, Marie, asked people not to use her husband's service to silence others.

"The very action of self expression and the freedom to speak from one’s heart — no matter those views — is what Pat and so many other Americans have given their lives for,” she said in a statement.

Her organization granting scholarships to troops, veterans and military spouses, the Pat Tillman Foundation, declined to comment further Tuesday. Zeldin's office did not return a request for comment.

People are destroying their Nike gear to protest Colin Kaepernick’s ‘Just Do It’ campaign

But the messages from Zeldin and commentators such as occasional Fox News columnist Stephen Miller unspooled across social media, demonstrating that Tillman's legacy continues to be malleable and convenient. Even a police union in New Jersey used Tillman's image to score points.

Krakauer said he hopes the Pat Tillman Foundation and its growing stable of accomplished scholars can reverse the appropriation of Tillman's legacy.

He has sat on selection committees for the scholars and said applicants who are chosen demonstrate Tillman's ideals — curiosity, intellectual rigor and service to others.

A Navy pilot heading to medical school. A Marine recruiter bound to be a lawyer. An Army intelligence soldier turned urban planner.

There are hundreds of others. They contain multitudes, Krakauer said, underneath the uniform.

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