“Pat Tillman Cross” comes down

A Memorial Day story on the local news station channel 14 caught my eye. Pat Tillman’s name was prominently featured on a cross on church grounds.


*Please don’t call the phone number – it’s handled.*

I called the news station, and I called the church – no response. So I grabbed the megaphone. Thank you to all who helped to rapidly fix the situation. Within an hour of my post, the news station edited it out of the story, and the reported called me and apologized. The church also promised to take down the cross.

The next day, I spoke to Barbara, who created the memorial. The conversation went extremely well. I could hear in her voice a recurring “What have I done?… What would Pat’s mother say if she saw this!?” She was genuinely apologetic and even receptive to hearing my concerns about the rest of the displays. I asked some tough questions (in very polite and civil tone).

How many other non-Christians are being dishonored by your memorial?

At first she said “I don’t know how to find this out, do you know?” I told her that statistically, roughly 20% identify as specifically non-Christian according to ADHOC query data that a chaplain provided me. I recommended she ask Fort Bragg’s Garrison Chaplain, CH (Colonel) Hillis.

I drove home the point that 20% of her crosses were ‘just like Pat Tillman’. One out of five. Then I suggested a secular alternate design, saying that it would be much easier than the research necessary for accuracy and more universal. She promised to have it fixed next year.

Would you consider changing your display to a universally acceptable symbol? (perhaps bags of sand with a candle, or US flags, or dogtag-boot-combo?)

Yes, but she seemed to want to treat this as ‘plan B’.

Would you make a SGT Justin Griffith Cross if I was killed in action?

No, because now she is aware of the problem. She thanked me for serving – and it was clearly not lip service. Although, if we hadn’t have had this conversation, my name likely would have been co-opted too.

Why did you make a cross for Pat Tillman even though he wasn’t stationed at Fort Bragg?

This was really important to me. The news story said that she was honoring troops stationed at Fort Bragg – and she confirmed this to me as well. I thought that she had purposely co-opted a ‘famous dead guy’ – this conclusion seemed inescapable.

I’m so glad I asked her this because the explanation is understandable. She had gotten his name off of a Special Forces unit’s memorial. To an outsider, this seems like a memorial with names of people stationed at Fort Bragg, who worked in the buildings nearby. However, these big displays are usually at a ‘headquarters unit’ which may have dozens of ‘downtrace units’ that the top unit controls.

Depending on the unit, perhaps most of the names would indeed be ‘local’. I’d imagine 82nd memorials would have a high ratio of local names. On the contrary, I’d imagine the USASOC (a Special Forces ‘headquarters unit’) memorial would likely have more names from downtrace units. The unit I’m in has a memorial featuring names that nearly all were not stationed at Fort Bragg.

“Tell Pat’s mom that I am very sorry.”

Now at this point I thanked her very much and told her that the atheist community really appreciates her swift action. She thanked me for bringing it to her attention and reiterated her apology. Then we thanked each other back and forth and shared the sentiment that we would be fast friends in any other context.

She was so sweet that she even asked me to tell Pat’s mom that she was very sorry. She was emphatic about this, it clearly tore her up inside. I’ll try to pass this on, but I’m not currently in contact with the Tillman family (I assumed he wouldn’t want to be co-opted by our movement either.)

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  • grumpyoldfart

    A Christian apologising for offending an atheist!? I don’t believe it. She probably had her fingers crossed when she said it.

    After you left she probably consoled herself by reading Psalm 14:1

    • Kent Perry

      I have never heard an atheist apologize to a Christian. But then again,, atheists are never wrong.

      Just ask them.

      • Justin Griffith

        I love being wrong about stuff. It’s the only way to learn. I just require evidence, facts, etc.

  • Metaphysical Ham Sandwich

    Well that’s not fair. Some people are decent human beings in spite of being Christian.

    • Kent Perry

      such a nice way to put it eh atheist. I just wonder, was it necessary to put it that way, or you can’t help it because you’re an atheist.

  • soul_biscuit

    This is excellent news. Good for Ms. Morris.

    Grumpyoldfart, posts like that look an awful lot like bigotry.

    (Note: I posted as Christopher Petroni in the last thread on this topic, before I figured out how to change my pseudonym)

  • I find that many Christians are not necessarily malevolent in their attirudes towards non-believers, but simply clueless. Many have never met anyone who does not hold their beliefs, and cannot imagine someone being offended by a cross. They do things because they truly care and believe in what they are doing.

    When I was young (in the late 60s an early 70s) and still considered myself a christian, I used to attendd ‘interfaith’ services. Interfaith meant Catholic and protestants, not because we were being exclusive, but because in our small rural community, there just wasn’t anyone else. Ove the years, as the world intruded, many became truly inclusive and many did not.

    Anyway, good for both you and her for handling the whole ting like reasonable adults.

  • Kristy

    Thank you Barbara!

  • beerslayer

    I’m inclined to trust Justin’s instincts on this one. The woman obviously did not intend to cause offense – it’s apparent that she only intended to honor the fallen in the only way she knew how (*). Once she was informed of her error, she vowed to do the right thing next time around.

    There are good people out there who just happen to be Christian. Her heart is clearly in the right place and I’m inclined to cut her some slack.

    Perceiving bigotry where none exists does not help anyone’s cause.


    * – which, of course, is part of the problem, to which the solution is education such as Justin provided

  • Gregory in Seattle

    This seems like this was a situation of priviledge rather than malice: it just never occured to her that crosses might be inappropriate. That sort of thinking is correctable, and exactly why we it is good to start off civil and polite. Justin’s actions were spot on, and Barbara’s apology seems to have been sincere. We will see next year.

  • Bruce Gorton

    She’s a good person, and an illustration why anger helps.

    She didn’t realise anything was wrong until someone told her. We need to recognise that if we don’t speak up, people don’t always know there is something to speak up about.

    Ignorance isn’t malice, but it can do just as much harm if left unchallenged.

  • Daron

    This shows how education and handling something calmly shows better results than immediately assuming that something is done maliciously. No reason to go straight after someone and acting like an a$$ from the start.

  • This shows how education and handling something calmly shows better results than immediately assuming that something is done maliciously. No reason to go straight after someone and acting like an a$$ from the start.


    Read the original story. I tried the ‘smooth operator’ approach first (I always do before I pick up my megaphone). This was rational anger with direction.

  • Daron

    Justin, I read your original story. You came off as an asshole in it. You had already formed an opinion and were on the attack based on your writings. You did not advocate education, but rather your written assumptions indicated that you assumed that the person did this to achieve something by co-opting a famous person. Perhaps you actually came across differently, but that is NOT the way you put it.

  • The reporter DID co-opt a famous person for his closeup shot. That’s 100% fact. He told me that she pointed that cross out to him mentioning his background (misinformed as she was) – and he got a closeup. Only after I “acted like an asshole” he apologized, did the right thing, and removed it.

    There is a huge difference when writing on an atheist blog to an atheist audience. I tried all reasonable manners of handling this first, and the story aired 5 more times before I gave up. This is a 24 hour regional news network, set on auto-repeat. I grabbed the megaphone and typed exactly what was necessary to A) express my thoughts (on a BLOG) and B) fix the situation immediately (Light-hearted sarcastic alternate version: “pretty please guys, express mild concern giving the full benefit of all doubts to the reporter and church. Tell them that you really want to talk about it a respectful dialog. Perhaps in time we’ll come to a mutual understanding. So if you could, pretty please call this phone number.” – imagine saying that through a megaphone.)

    It is undeniable that the strategy worked, and prompted them to actually call me back so we could have the rational discussion. Barbara would have been able to easily dismiss a single email / phone call as a statistical outlier (all humans do this). She absolutely understood the anger and apologized for it. I parlayed this new understanding for a permanent solution that addresses the 20% of the rest of her memorial.

    Your problem seems to be that you don’t understand the pluralistic approach to atheist activism. You’re saying “no we should be more like this!!! (perhaps accommodation… benefit of the doubt)” instead of the ‘hammer approach’. This is by far the most common source of infighting at local atheist activist groups. The national groups, and local groups that survive these fights have learned something important: Our movement takes all approaches, hammer AND bridge-builder. You’ll hear national secular leaders driving this point home over and over.

    Personally, I refuse to check just one box – I pick what strategy I deem to be the correct tool for the situation. If you didn’t like my approach – try your approach. Mine is effective, and has undeniably good long term implications. Your approach may have been just as effective, and I would have commended you.

    I’d also like to point out that I’ve developed a sense of how to do this sort of thing, this is far from my first rodeo. For me, my strategy comes from ‘winning’ much bigger (and smaller) battles on a weekly basis. I’d love to encourage you to develop an alternate strategy with similar efficacy – Frankly, I’d just start using your strategy too. It takes all kinds.

  • Daron

    Justin, you stated that this was intentionally done, meaning that the originator knew that Tillman was an atheist and chose to use them anyway. Yet you own postings indicate that this woman apologized for putting it up and creating a sense of disrespect for him and his family. The calm approach would have succeeded in getting the cross removed, again based on the woman’s apparent apology.

    Did you try any other tactics? If so, why not post the other attempts so that people will see the calm approach first. Then with the follow-up using other tactics if the initial attempt was unsuccessful. How do you think a few people at the site with signs proclaiming the truth? With the TV station notified, this could have also resulted in attention being brought to the situation, and corrected without possibly needing to result to other methods. If calmer techniques were attempted, at least then people will know and understand the rationale for then resorting to more aggressive techniques. When this information is not posted, it appears that the attack mode is engaged without other attempts at correction first.

    You are right, there is a difference between writing styles. Yet you seem to forget that your writings can, and are, read by many others, including those individuals/groups that will use your profanity laden posts against the atheist movement. The rants that induce a hateful response will only serve to further the opposition cause against this movement. That is not beneficial. It is better to use a calm demeanor in the approach, in public at least, losing the profanity which indicates a poorly thought out response. Yes, you may be mad when posting items for members of the cause. But remember the bigger audience, and who will view it. Take time to calm down before posting, gather your thoughts and then place the thoughts into a well-thought out response to the situation.

    Part of the problem I see with your seemingly first line of approach is that it is alienating many of those it supposes to represent. It does not help if you draw one or two people to the cause, while distancing people because of antagonistic actions being used first, or when attacking supporters for having different ideas/methods. Yes, there are times that the “in-your-face” tactic is appropriate, but not typically as a first line approach. Plus do not forget that your own posting can, and will be used against this movement by others. All it takes is someone going to this website and others to pull those statements for use.

    How do you think these statement help the cause when used by someone showing the “hatred” for religion by some people, which will be portrayed as being by all atheists.


    [i] “Cornerstone United Methodist Church not only got Pat Tillman’s rank wrong, but they put his fucking name on a fucking cross. But then some asshole at Channel 14 recognized Pat Tillman’s name, and did an extreme closeup.”

    “Pat Tillman was never stationed at Fort Bragg. He was included because she simply wanted a soldier who was a famous dead hero to parade around.”

    “Good luck Channel 14. I hope you enjoy exploding phones, you sick fucks.”

    “Use your phone NOW. I don’t care if you’re drunk or busy or whatever… call that number. Pat Tillman deserved better.

    Blow that phone up. There’s a link to the church phone numbers in the article too, btw. But the media is the real target.”

    “It’s hard not to use violent trigger words in my comments right now. Part of me wants to drive down to that church and fix it my goddamn self. But I refuse to give in to that urge.”

    “I’m about to start pounding facebook. Be sure to upvote on reddit and/or tweet this too. Fuck ‘don’t beg for upvotes’ etiquette – Pat Tillman deserves NOT to be propaganda.”[/i]

    You were definitely not attempting education in the quotes above. This was pure attack mode, which provides ammunition for those opposing the movement. Remember it is best to think before posting rhetoric such as this.

    I definitely understand a pluralistic approach however; I also see that not everything should be attacked as a first line approach. I have used my method very successfully in the past, and continue to do so. When people are approached in a calm manner, and informed of why some things are offensive many people correct the issue. It is only when those few demonstrate the hostile or antagonistic behavior have I ever needed to go beyond the initial method. This has been relatively rare, as a calm approach has created the common ground of understanding, eliminating misunderstandings.

  • Thank you for the conversation. You’d be fast friends with me as well. I told you repeatedly that I tried the calm approach first – that ‘daylight was burning’… that there was a now or never aspect to this. I grabbed my megaphone. It worked AMAZINGLY well.

    Two people told me that my approach was too harsh. The other one said “Fuck you… and fuck all the foxhole atheists”. Not a single Christian connected to this story told me that my response was out of line. They all understood whole-heartedly and profusely. Really – think about it. Nothing BUT GOOD SHIT happened.

    We can just agree to agree, I guess. Please do keep grilling me – (seriously) – I tend to ignore the me-too’s.

  • I know I’m a little late to the party here but what bugs me is less the vehemence of the response but the fact that you wrote off the woman who created the memorial immediately. You accused her of deliberately co-opting the name of a famous dead (atheist, but that’s less widely known) soldier:

    “He was included because she simply wanted a soldier who was a famous dead hero to parade around.””

    When there was, in fact, a very reasonable explanation. I agree with slamming the news station the close-up, though I confess I would have gotten the same shot in the same situation because “name of a football star who gave up his career to help his country in it’s time of need” is more compelling to the person on the street than “name of a person you’ve never met or heard of whose story you don’t know”, but attributing malice to the creator of the memorial before getting all of the proverbial facts bothers me.

  • Justin Griffith

    Whoa whoa… She created a memorial specifically for FORT BRAGG KIA. Pat Tillman was not ever stationed at Fort Bragg.

    This woman did know that he was famous, and she did co-opt his name. She is the one who pointed out his cross to the reporter (he told me this during his apology.)

    She’s a lot less culpable for one specific detail: how she got his name as a Fort Bragg soldier. This does nothing to excuse her from co-opting his death. She totally did that – was called out – and apologized.

    She also co-opted the deaths of 20% of the rest of the heroes in her memorial. She was called out, and she apologized, and promised to implement a solution for next year.

  • Brian Bennett

    So if Tillman was an atheist, why use a cross?