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A face to the war in Iraq and Afghanistan

Patrick Tillman's death brings home the sacrifice in war.

Once, in America, the news of an athlete dying in some distant place was both sad and all too common. There were 5800 professional baseball players in this country on the day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. By January 1st, 1945, of those 5,800, 5,400 were serving in the United States military.

Today, it is enough to merit comment from the White House.

Patrick Tillman Jr. was 27 years old of the  U.S. Army Rangers, 2nd Battalion, 75th Regiment, and was killed in action last night, 25 miles southwest of the military base at Khost, Afghanistan.

Patrick Tillman, Jr., better known in the National Football League as Pat Tillman, safety of the Arizona Cardinals, had turned down a new 3 year-$3.6 million contract from that team to instead enlist in the army nearly two years ago.

Pat Tillman shipped out to Iraq in March of last year, and his 75th Rangers were later transferred to Afghanistan for “Operation Mountain Storm,” the effort to stem the backlash from what’s left of the Taliban. And now, he is believed to be the first recently-active professional athlete to be killed in battle since Bob Kalsu of football’s Buffalo Bills was killed in Vietnam in July of 1970.

Tillman’s death will bring the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan not just to the front pages, but to the sports pages. It will put a face on the sacrifice of the troops and how its singularity contrasts to a time when “93 percent of baseball” went to war.

Military service by athletes, professional and amateur, was once barely newsworthy. Neither, of course, was it always voluntary.  But it says something about both the American conflicts of the last 100 years.

Among the fatalities of wars have been arguably the greatest baseball pitcher of all-time, the winner of the award honoring the top collegian in football, and the man for whom the award for the top collegian in hockey is named. Each war has claimed at least American professional athlete:

  • Christy Mathewson of the New York Giants, as popular in his time as any other athlete of any other time, was poisoned by mustard gas while on active service in France in World War One. Never again healthy, he died of tuberculosis seven years later.
  • Nile Kinnick, the star in whose memory, the University of Iowa re-named its football stadium, was a Heisman Trophy winner in 1939. He was a 24-year old U.S. navy ensign when his fighter crashed in 1943.
  • Hobey Baker is another magical name in sports. He single-handedly put college hockey on the map while at Princeton, whose award honors the game’s best each year. He never played professionally. He instead went to France, as a flier with the famed Lafayette Escadrille. He was killed when his plane crashed shortly after the Armistice in 1918.
  • Bob Kalsu was an All-America at Oklahoma and a field artillery commander in Vietnam who died in July, 1970.
  • Bob Neighbors, a shortstop with the 1939 Washington Senators was a veteran flier of World War II. He was shot down over North Korea in August, 1952, among 16 baseball professionals killed in that conflict.
  • Baseball’s Elmer Gedeon was shot down over France in the Second World War.
  • Harry O’Neill died at Iwo Jima, and at least 55 minor league players died in that war.
  • Eddie Grant, captain of the Harvard baseball team and third baseman of the New York Giants, killed in the Argonne Forest during World War One... and Troy Bunn and Alex Burr of the Yankees, and Bunn Troy of the Tigers, killed in the final month of that war.

We think of soldiers as one group, and athletes as another. These men, and hundreds of others, merged the two groups, and gave the military losses indelibly recognizable faces.

This was the fifth story on Friday's 'Countdown with Keith Olbermann.'