Those who see nobility in our Iraq effort were more likely to praise either Pat Tillman, the football-player-turned-soldier, or Jason Dunham, the young marine nominated for the medal of honor who gave up his life to save other soldiers.
We would hope that all of us could see the extraordinary courage in all four of them. Surely war supporters can admire Margaret Hassan for staying in Iraq, at obvious personal risk, to help suffering Iraqis (the point of this war was, after all, to help Iraqis) or understand that one cannot promote a moral war while concealing the immorality of prison torture. Surely even the war's most outspoken opponents can appreciate the sacrifice evident in Pat Tillman's story or the extraordinary courage and valor of Jason Dunham, who flung his helmet and possibly himself on a live grenade to protect the lives of others. Dunham won our "People's Choice" award among Beliefnet users. As one friend of Dunham's wrote, "What he did for his fellow soldiers and for mankind in beyond comprehension. In our small town of Scio he will NEVER be forgotten."
In the end, despite the great physical or moral courage of all four of them--and the incredible stories of the six other most inspiring finalists: Christopher Reeve, Nancy Reagan, Fantasia, Smarty Jones, Mukhtaran Bibi, and Curt Schilling--we choose Pat Tillman as the most inspiring person of the year.
Tillman, who walked away from a multimillion dollar NFL career to volunteer for service after 9/11, was deployed in Afghanistan, where American soldiers successfully overthrew a tyrannical regime that was subjugating its population and harboring Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda. Tillman was killed there in April.
This isn't just about manly virtues. It is also about humility. Tillman was almost defiant in his desire to join the Army Rangers quietly. He didn't give interviews or expect plaudits for his decision.
Speakers at his memorial service told of how he read widely--the Bible, the Qur'an, the Book of Mormon, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau, and would mail highlighted portions to friends. An Emerson quote, apparently found underlined in Tillman's readings, was included in the memorial program: "But the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.''
Some have argued that Tillman shouldn't get points just for giving up a multimillion contract because every person in the military has given up something precious to be there. And that's true. But, for better or worse, it is because Tillman was a celebrity that his decision was so powerful. His actions said that the job U.S. soldiers were doing was just as important--in fact, more important--than what he had been doing as a rich athlete. That was a great gift to the soldiers. And it reminded those who are fortunate enough to achieve fame and fortune that they do so because of the freedoms that have been fought for over the centuries.
Others have said that Tillman's story seems less glorious because of the inglorious nature of his death. The Pentagon initially told the public he was killed by the enemy, but it turned out he was killed in an utterly avoidable case of friendly fire.
The way he died demonstrates why war is so horrible and must be avoided except when absolutely necessary--but we do not think it in any way diminishes Pat Tillman's personal sacrifice. We honor him not for the way he died but for his transcendent determination to keep the important things in life in perspective. Not all will agree that joining the army to fight the Taliban was a noble cause. But what matters is that Tillman sacrificed a life that was the envy of many to help others. For his bravery, his humility, and his principles, we name him Beliefnet's Most Inspiring Person of 2004.