Andy Hatcher was a military brat. His dad, an Army Ranger, served in Vietnam.
He grew up on the Army base in Fort Bragg, N.C.
He watched John Wayne and Clint Eastwood movies as a kid and wanted to be just like his heroes on the big screen.
So, at the age of 17, with his parents’ written permission, he joined the Marines.
“It seemed like the natural thing to do,” Hatcher said.
Hatcher enlisted five days before Sept. 11. Eight months later, Pat Tillman ditched his shoulder pads for an Army pack and became a Ranger.
The two men never met. But Hatcher feels as if he knew Tillman, nonetheless.
“He was a real man,” Hatcher said. “Football is great and it makes money and it gets you lots of girls and you drive nice cars, but it’s a very selfish lifestyle. What Pat Tillman wanted to do was make a positive contribution and change lives forever.”
When Hatcher heard about Pat’s Run — taking place Saturday in Tempe — he knew he had to take part.
“I was like, 'Dude, sign me up,’ ” he said. “I had a bunch of buddies who passed away, some in similar circumstances (Tillman was killed by friendly fire). I know what it’s like to lose friends. There needs to be things like this to show there are people who still care.”
Hatcher won’t be too difficult to spot Saturday, even with more than 12,000 runners expected to show.
He’ll be the one with the prosthetic leg below his right knee.
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Hatcher, 23, remembers the day in 2004 vividly.
It was Thanksgiving, after all.
His Marine reconnaissance platoon — comparable to the Army Ranger unit — was on its way back to the base to eat a turkey dinner after doing a sweep of Fallejuah, Iraq.
Hatcher recalls thinking it was odd the unit hadn’t encountered any enemy fire.
That’s when the roadside bomb went off, striking the right front tire. Hatcher, who was riding shotgun, was thrown to the side of the road. The Humvee driver was killed.
“I was sitting between him and the bomb,” Hatcher said. “I was the one who should have died. I was lucky.”
Lucky was losing his right leg below his knee. Lucky was going permanently deaf in his right ear, breaking his nose and both orbital eye sockets. Lucky was blindness in his right eye, except for peripheral vision “the slice of a pizza.”
Lucky was slipping into a coma, having his rescue convoy hit twice by roadside bombs, waking up two weeks later in Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland, and spending nearly a year in a hospital bed.
But he was alive.
The emotional devastation of becoming an amputee or a paraplegic can be as devastating as the injury itself. But Hatcher would not allow himself to stagger into misery or self-pity. That’s not how he was raised, and that’s not how he would live his life.
“You just drive on,” he said. “You don’t really have a choice in the matter. You either give up and wallow in depression or bounce back as best you can. That’s what my unit was known for.”
A year ago, Hatcher hooked up with Challenged Athletes Foundation, a nonprofit group that raises money to help the disabled pursue an active lifestyle through physical fitness and athletics.
He is now a sponsored triathlete, competing in events throughout the U.S. He also works for the immigration arm of the Department of Homeland Security and takes a full load of classes as a freshman at Northern Virginia Community College. He’s considering a future in politics or government work.
“I’m pretty busy,” Hatcher said. “But it’s better than the alternative.”
Hatcher would have loved to have had the opportunity to get to know Tillman. He figures the two of them would have talked for hours and become friends for life.
The two men didn’t need words to form a bond, though. Serving their country did that.
“We were brothers,” Hatcher said. “We’ll always be brothers.”
Listen to Scott Bordow every Monday at 1:05 p.m. on The Fan AM 1060 with Bob Kemp.
When: 8 a.m. Saturday
Where: Sun Devil Stadium
Who: More than 10,000 participants expected