Operation Tillman: America's Irrepressible Military Families Get a Big Boost

08/20/2010 02:41 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Jeff Norman Founder of Homefront Rising, a cultural revival led by veterans and their allies

Toward the end of The Tillman Story, a riveting new documentary about football/war hero Pat Tillman and his family's reaction to the circumstances of his death in Afghanistan, Vietnam war veteran Stan Goff describes the film as "an opportunity for reality to break through."

Goff is referring to largely unknown reasons why top military officials initially claimed Pat had been killed by enemy forces when actually it was by so-called friendly fire.

But because of the Tillman family's empathy and generosity, the film is also an opportunity for reality to break through concerning the plight of veterans.

As the film makes clear and many already know, the Pat Tillman Foundation has been established to provide academic scholarships to veterans. Mary "Dannie" Tillman (Pat's mother) also serves on the board of the Patrick McCaffrey Foundation, which provides transitional housing and palliative services for veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan. The founder of that organization is Nadia McCaffrey, whose son was killed in Iraq.

Last Monday night Larry King devoted his entire show to the Tillman saga and film (premiering August 20 in New York and Los Angeles before opening wide). It was an extraordinary hour of television as the nation saw Pat's amicably divorced parents appear together for the first time, along with former Army Rangers Russell Baer and Bryan O'Neal (both of whom served with Pat and are featured in the film), Karen Meredith (another Gold Star Mom whose son died in Iraq while engaged in combat) and McCaffrey.

Meredith and McCaffrey were included in the program to explain how -- like the Tillmans -- they were subjected to apparently false military accounts concerning the deaths of their respective sons.

When they finished at CNN, Meredith and McCaffrey dashed over to the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills to attend a fundraiser organized by literary impresario Tyson Cornell for The Veterans Project featuring Rosanne Cash. Although Cash was there ostensibly for a discussion about her life and new memoir, she took great interest in the two Gold Star Moms. At the end of the night, she honored Meredith and McCaffrey when she spontaneously sang a heartfelt version of "Long Black Veil" backed by local favorite Lisa Finnie and her band (John McDuffie, Bob Gothar, John Palmer).

Also on hand at the fundraiser was Marine veteran (OIF/OEF) Rick Reyes and Judith Broder, the founder of a nonprofit group called The Soldiers Project which provides free and confidential mental health counseling to veterans, active duty personnel and their families.

Prior to Cash lending her support to the cause, Bruce Springsteen gave The Veterans Project permission to use his music in a video highlighting the deeply personal stories of three veterans who talk about their struggles with post-traumatic stress and how they were helped by Give an Hour (another nonprofit that provides confidential psychological treatment at no charge).

All of us whose mission it is to make sure veterans get the care they need and deserve, are heartened by the possibilities surrounding The Tillman Story. It makes a big difference when artists such as Springsteen and Cash endorse our efforts. But there's something about a film that can raise awareness and influence public opinion like nothing else, especially when the protagonists are as likable, honest, intelligent and articulate as the Tillmans are. Moreover, Amir Bar-Lev's taut documentary is a very moving human interest story with broad appeal. It's likely to be embraced by hawks as much as doves, because the Tillman family is objecting not to American foreign policy, but to how they weren't told the truth about what happened to Pat.

Thankfully, the film contains several light moments. At the press screening I attended, the audience of critics burst into laughter several times in response to the Tillmans' colorful language. Likewise, I've found no lack of humor among most veterans and Gold Star parents whom I have the pleasure of knowing. If The Tillman Story is a box office hit, the public will become acquainted with even more of these inspiring people. That's reason enough to check out the film. But after you've seen it, the more likely reason you'll rave about it is that you loved it.

This story was also published by The Veterans Project and