Review: The Letter by Marie Tillman

Review of The Letter, My Journey Through Love, Loss, and Life by Marie Tillman, published in 2012
All references are taken from the iPhone eBook version. This version has 557 pages in its vertical orientation. Converting from 557 pages to the number in your version should allow for cross-referencing.

 “I ask that you live.”

In a letter labeled, “Just in Case”, Pat said the words he wouldn’t be able to say if he never returned. Pat Tillman made one last expression of love and encouragement. The Letter is the story of Marie’s heroic attempt to live up to Pat’s last request for her to live her life without him.

Pat Tillman was a professional football star who enlisted in the elite Army Rangers to serve the nation following the 9-11 terrorist attacks. Much of the popular story of Pat Tillman is about Pat’s opposition to the Iraq war (59, 212, 276) and the cover-up surrounding his death. This book does not focus on those issues, but readers may refer to the documentary The Tillman Story –

This story is about Marie, the Pat that she knew, and how she dealt with that loss. The family, his military colleagues, and his public statements always presented Pat as a scholar warrior and atheist. Marie and the family have always seemed to resist and resent public attention. Marie called the attention “a violation” and explained, “I realized that Pat was no longer ours… Pat had become an icon, a cultural symbol”  

It’s true. The primary purpose of this review is to recognize the reality that our community, atheists in foxholes, as well as the United States as a whole has adopted Pat Tillman as an icon of patriotism and service. It seems impossible to simply forget as the family seems to want. The only way to honor this hero is to take advantage of these few times when the family does open up. This is the way not just to honor a fictional, two-dimensional character, but to better understand the people behind the media images and sound bites.

The book itself is not about Pat, but rather about Marie. She recounts her struggle to handle the loss of her husband.  She sought out routine and avoided pity. Primarily, she avoided contact, especially with the public. From 2004-2010 she changed cities and jobs in an attempt to avoid constant reminders of her loss and to establish new meaning in her life. She seeks support from family, work, new cities, old friends, and new friends. She tells the story of a trip to Afghanistan and of meeting the man who presumably fired the bullet that killed Pat. The sharing of these stories are easily worth the price of the book.

“The chaplain pressed forward and took my hand. He started to pray but I cut him off. I needed to think, not pray.” (21/557)

In this quote, Marie is responding upon hearing news of Pat’s death. Many readers will be curious about the religious sentiment expressed in the book. Marie commented on Pat’s interest in religious and philosophical discussions. She emphasizes Pat’s curiosity (431) and his study of philosophy (124). Marie was particularly comforted by Pat’s favorite book of Ralph Waldo Emerson philosophy. She quotes extensively from Emerson’s teachings of self-reliance, hearing in her head Emerson’s philosophy in Pat’s voice.

Marie talks about many attempts to comfort herself. She states at one point that soon after his death, she imagined Pat had “evolved off the Earth.” (465) After a few years, she was still feeling stressed and unhealthy. She spent several thousand dollars on a spa treatment and became an “instant” eastern medicine convert (296). Over time, she drew more comfort from humanitarian activities. In doing work with the Pat Tillman Foundation, she said, “If I’d ever felt a connection to someone greater than me, it was an embrace of a world where people don’t just sit around … but instead take an active role in making things better.” (467)

The Letter is not just a story of reaction to tragedy, but also a love story of a cheerleader and football player growing up together. Marie provides her perspective of living apart during college and coming together after graduation. They planned for children and put off those plans as Pat was deployed to war. Marie talks of her close bond with Pat’s family and the support she drew from her own family. Reading The Letter provides some expression of the love lost and Marie’s struggle with grief. Marie eventually finds solace in the meaningful work of the Pat Tillman foundation. But Marie tells her readers that grief is part of her life, not something to be forgotten.

“I hadn’t done anything, and yet everyone was applauding … Pat used to talk about … something you worked for and being rewarded for something that came easily” (457)

More than any other quote in the book, this one struck me as representative of the honorable modesty of the Tillmans. At a presentation for Pat at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, she gave a short speech and was abashed by the outpouring of support from the crowd, prompting her to have that thought above, that she hadn’t done anything. The book itself and public statements from Marie and the Tillman family, as well as from Pat before his death, continually emphasized their desire for simple, quiet service. Marie’s accomplishment is not unique, because she, like too many others, have managed through the grief of a lost loved-one. To move through that loss is no small accomplishment. To rise up from it to create a successful Foundation to give back to the military community is another great accomplishment.

Read The Letter to better understand and honor one family whose service and sacrifice exemplify the highest ideals of America. Take time to view Marie’s site at and view her video to introduce the book.

Other Selected Quotes

“I stood among people … focused on making the world a better place, I saw the embodiment of Pat’s world vision.” (515)

“I told her I thought grieving was an individual experience, without one remedy… but that she would know what was best for her” (512)

“The trip to Afghanistan did not deliver closure. When it comes to grief, there’s no such thing… I knew I would miss Pat every day of my life.” (535)

Note: At Pat’s official public funeral, his brother Richard said in no uncertain terms that Pat was nonreligious. Marie did not mention the incident in the book.