Soldiering On: Pat Tillman's Widow Turns the Page on Tragedy
Marie and Pat in 2001 on a break from Cardinals training camp in Flagstaff, Ariz. [Courtesy of Marie Tillman]
Say the name Pat Tillman and most people know his story: A star with the Arizona Cardinals, Tillman put his NFL career on hold to fight for his country after 9/11, losing his life in Afghanistan in 2004. But not many know the story of his widow, Marie, who was just 27 when Pat died as a result of friendly fire, a fact the Army initially covered up. Marie spent the next few years struggling to make sense of it all and trying to do as Pat urged in a letter he gave her to open in the event of his death: go on with her life. In her new book, The Letter: My Journey Through Love, Loss & Life, Marie tells how she coped, eventually taking on a bigger role at the Pat Tillman Foundation, a nonprofit that serves veterans, active service members, and their spouses. We recently spoke to Marie about the book, her new family, and her work for the foundation.
PARADE: Why did you decide to tell such a personal story?
I started writing without the intention of turning it into a book, but more as a means of therapy, really. Once I could put some time and distance between me and what happened, though, I was able to get out there and talk to people. And the more I did, the more I heard stories of loss. When I was going through really difficult times, those were the people I connected with. At some point, I realized that in the same way other people’s stories helped me heal, maybe mine would be helpful for someone else.
You recount meeting the soldier who issued the “fire” order that resulted in Pat’s death. You’ve forgiven him, but have you forgiven the military?
That’s such a tricky question. I look at what happened and know that fingers can be pointed in a variety of directions. But the military is made up of individuals, the majority of whom are amazing, wonderful, hardworking, ethical people. I see that in the work I do every day with the foundation.
Pat wanted you to move on with your life. How did you do that?
It took a long time, and it was not easy, certainly. I just decided I wouldn’t let the experience shape my life in a negative way—that I would live as Pat had asked me to in his final letter and stay open to life. Going about things with that attitude allowed all these wonderful things to come into my life.
And now you are married [to Joe Shenton, an investment bank director] and have a new baby [Mac Patrick] and three stepsons [ages 10, 9, and 7]. How did that come about?
Joe and I just had this connection from the very beginning. [With other men I dated] there always seemed to be something uncomfortable about my past.
How old is Mac Patrick now?
He’s 6 months. It’s an amazing experience to be a mother. He’s a reminder of how far I’ve come.
Tell us a little about the foundation you run.
We provide scholarships for veterans and their spouses, who are often the sole breadwinners when their soldier is killed or comes back wounded. We have 231 scholars we support across the country; our goal is to keep growing.
Do you think Pat would be proud of the work ?
I hope that he would. I feel so grateful that I have the opportunity to do the work I do in his memory. To be able to do such great things for people—it’s an honor.
Click here to learn more about the Pat Tillman Foundation