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Tuesday, June 19, 2007 | The month of June, with its many high school graduations, reminds me of a long-time San Diego coach saying that more and more athletes from his campus no longer considered enlisting in the military.

Typically, these were young men and women that were maybe a step slow for college sports, unable to afford college or uninterested in four more years of school.

Dennis Pugh, a former Mission Bay High coach and a Vietnam Purple Heart veteran, said such young high school graduates had previously viewed the all-volunteer military as a start on life in the real world. This was after America had put the quagmire of Vietnam behind it but before today’s graduates have come to understand they could end up in the quagmire of Iraq.

And Pugh told me his observation three years ago — long before the death toll for Americans serving in Iraq climbed past 1,000, then 2,000 and now 3,500 and counting.

Think about that as the debate over military readiness continues, and servicemen and National Guard call-ups are being asked to serve second and third tours of duty in Iraq. The military began missing its recruiting goals two years ago.

Listening to testimony before Congress from the mother and brother of Pat Tillman, the former Arizona Cardinals football star killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan, also reminded me of the military being stretched thin.

After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Tillman and his brother, Kevin, who was playing professional baseball in the Cleveland Indians organization, walked away from their pro-sports contracts to become Army Rangers. In Pat’s case, he left behind millions of dollars as an NFL star.

Army Rangers are a tough breed. University of Minnesota wrestling coach J. Robinson, one of only three San Diegans to ever compete on a USA Olympic wrestling team, was an Army Ranger.

I once made the mistake (since my frame of reference is living in a Navy town) of rhetorically asking Robinson, “Army Ranger — that’s like a Navy Seal, right?” He glared at me and said, “Yeah, but tougher.”

I’m named for my late uncle, a Marine Corps colonel, but I never felt more sheepish about my lack of a military background than when Robinson glared at me. But I was typical of the 1970s; government lies and deception during Vietnam resulted in an end to the draft by the time I finished high school.

Sports are a reflection of society, so when the military attracted Pat Tillman after 9/11, his story was unique only because he was an NFL star. Many other Americans altered life plans after high school or college by enlisting in the military following 9/11.

And in another time, Ted Williams, San Diego’s baseball Hall-of-Famer, served tours of duty in World War II and Korea. He was a Marine combat pilot in Korea who survived an emergency landing when his plane was shot down.

It’s been said Ted Williams was John Wayne. He lived a life that John Wayne played in movies.

Pat Tillman would have been another Ted Williams if it weren’t for the mistakes President George Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have made conducting the war on terrorism. They shifted the focus from Afghanistan and hunting Osama bin Laden to a quagmire in Iraq.

Before Tillman was killed in December 2004, his family and those who served with him said he was disillusioned and called Iraq an illegal war. Had he lived, he would not have allowed the Army to make him a poster boy.

Sen. John McCain, in a Feb. 28 appearance on David Letterman, described the American death toll in Iraq as “lives wasted” because of the mistakes of Bush, Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, the former secretary of defense.

When was I recently on a KPBS “Full Focus” segment, I asked Los Angeles Times reporter Tony Perry, who has been to Iraq several times and is covering the Haditha trial, how long until a Full Metal Jacket- or Platoon-like movie comes out depicting the predicament young men and women have faced in Iraq, where they don’t know friend from foe, comes out.

He said one is already in production.

During the Vietnam quagmire, high school graduates looked for ways to avoid the draft and the military. They no longer wanted to be Ted Williams — living a life that John Wayne played in movies.

Now the Iraq quagmire has led to a repeat of Vietnam. For a brief time, high school graduates wanted to be Pat Tillman — a modern-day Ted Williams living a life that John Wayne and Sylvester Stallone (Rambo) have only played in moves.

But the lives of Tillman and others have been wasted, and the future of military readiness has been greatly damaged by Bush and Cheney. They are two men who found a way to avoid serving in Vietnam but, in another time, have continued to send men and women in harm’s way in Iraq.

It’s an irony that should anger more Americans than it does.

Tom Shanahan is voiceofsandiego.org’s sports columnist. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions. You can e-mail him at toms@sdhoc.com. Or send a letter to the editor.

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