Lessons I Learned from Pat Tillman’s Story

After reading Jon Krakauer’s Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman, I couldn’t help but compare the story of the NFL player killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan to what happened to my cousin Nicky Venditti in Vietnam 35 years earlier.

– Tillman was a famous athlete. Nicky was athletic, too, but hardly known outside his hometown of Malvern, Pennsylvania. Still, they both felt a duty to serve their country in wartime, and both enlisted in the Army – Tillman to be an elite Ranger, Nicky to become a helicopter pilot.

– The military clearly knew how Tillman died in 2004; the evidence all pointed to gunfire coming from his own platoon, near the Pakistan border.

In Nicky’s case, the Army couldn’t determine how an instructor at the Americal Division base at Chu Lai happened to toss a live grenade in his classroom. For lack of evidence, the brass ended up calling the 1969 explosion that killed Nicky, Billy Vachon and Tim Williams an accident. But it might not have been friendly fire. It might have been the work of a Viet Cong saboteur, as the instructor himself now suggests. We will never know.

– There were cries of cover-up in both cases. Ranger leaders stupidly withheld the details of Tillman’s death, leading his family and the American public to believe he was gunned down by the enemy.

After the deaths of Nicky, Billy and Tim at Chu Lai, some soldiers complained that the truth of what happened wouldn’t come out. There was an investigation, but in years of searching I’ve never been able to find any paperwork on it. In the immediate aftermath, the families were told little more than that a grenade had gone off by accident in a classroom.

– A big difference between the two incidents was how Tillman’s family responded to the news of his death. They would not rest until they learned the details surrounding his fatal shooting. Ultimately, after pressing the government relentlessly to come clean, they got some satisfaction.

Nicky’s parents and those of Billy Vachon and Tim Williams did not seek the details of what happened to their boys or question the Army at all about it. They accepted the word that was handed down to them.

Perhaps that has something to do with who they were: the generation that fought World War II — and still did not doubt the military, even during the unpopular war in Vietnam.

But it was something else, too, that was more basic: To Nicky’s parents, it didn’t matter how he died, only that he was gone.

What happened to Tillman and Nicky didn’t diminish their sacrifice, no matter how you classify their deaths. They both stood up for their country in its time of need, and died for it.

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