For many years, the basement of the Memorial Union building at Arizona State University’s Tempe campus was where you’d find fast food, a bowling alley and pool tables, the campus bookstore and barber shop.
It was a respite from all the deep thinking that’s done at a major university each day, where you could pick up a burger, some fries and a soda and, despite that menu, veg out for awhile.
Well, now even that basement will be a place to do some thinking.
The Pat Tillman Veterans Center opened there last week; 3,340 square feet of services combined in one spot for the convenience of those who served our nation and who have special needs as they undertake college studies.
So many things in the Valley proudly bear the name of Tillman, the former ASU and Arizona Cardinals football standout who shocked conventional wisdom when he gave up his lucrative NFL contract to enlist in the U.S. Army Rangers. He was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan in 2004.
Yet at the mention of Tillman’s name, there is controversy. As long as there are people who have served in the Middle East during the past decade, two things are certain:
• Debate over how Tillman died, and whether those responsible have been properly dealt with.
• Debate over the honors paid to Tillman himself, from a statue of him in front of the Cardinals’ University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale to the annual Pat’s Run that raises money for charity, and now, this veterans’ center.
I’ll leave the first point to those whose job it is to make sure justice is served. But to the second point:
Many people who otherwise have nothing against Tillman rightfully ask why public institutions, the media, and a large segment of the public spend time and effort to honor his sacrifice while other Americans mostly anonymously join the list of war dead, one by one. According to the Defense Department, as of Thursday 1,633 U.S. servicemen and women have died in the Afghanistan conflict.
There’s credence to that argument. The media go for the unusual, no doubt about it.
The Aug. 6 deaths of 22 Navy SEALS — 30 Americans in all — when the helicopter all were riding in was fired upon were reported on front pages and atop network newscasts.
But when one or two of the troops are killed? Some of the TV people run an honor roll of those who died that week. But generally they’re hardly talked about in any national conversation, even though they leave behind loved ones who grieve as much as any others.
Some resent the respect paid to Tillman’s decision to leave pro football. Others left careers they loved and families they certainly loved even more, goes this line of thinking, which of course is correct.
But Tillman gave up actual millions of dollars and fame to serve, something that a great number of our military personnel certainly would do if they had millions of dollars and fame, but couldn’t only because they didn’t. That’s part of it.
But the bigger part of it is how we identify with those whom we know in common, which like it or not is at the core of celebrity status.
Each of our fallen troops has a circle of friends and family and co-workers who had the privilege of knowing them and the wonderful things about them. But millions of the rest of us did not have that connection. We rationally recognize their sacrifice, but don’t feel it.
Millions of us did not know Pat Tillman personally either, but are able to connect to him anyway via his celebrity. When he enlisted, his story was nationally reported because of his status as wearing a jersey in the National Football League, meaning his name was a household word across the country outside of his military service.
We don’t have a draft any more, which is what makes celebrities in the military an even greater rarity than they were in the time of Elvis Presley, who was drafted. Still, Tillman’s selfless decision mirrored many others recently who had much to give up as well.
From what I have read and seen about Tillman, he’d be among the last to want to have anything named in his honor. Those who know him have been reported to describe him as resolute and determined and certainly not vain.
But if those who find themselves in the Memorial Union basement see the center bearing Tillman’s name and recall all those who have served, perhaps the nameless ones who gave their all will get some of that well-deserved attention at last, because he did.
It’s the kind of thing that’s only possible if somebody does some deep thinking.
• Mark J. Scarp - firstname.lastname@example.org - is a Tribune contributing columnist whose opinions appear here on Sundays.