Posted: Jun 25, 2012 7:00 AM
Marie Tillman was still a newlywed when her husband Pat enlisted in the U.S. Army in July of 2002. What started as an adventure for the young couple ended in tragedy when Pat was killed in Afghanistan in April of 2004. Pat left behind a “just in case” letter for Marie to read in case he never returned -- and his message is the basis for her new book, The Letter.

Love of a lifetime

Pat and Marie met as young kids, growing up in the same small community. Their paths crossed through mutual friends and shared activities, but it wasn't until later in high school that they started dating. They shared an intense connection that carried their relationship through college and beyond. When they married in 2002, the future looked full of hope and adventure for the couple. They were keeping a big secret from their families and friends -- Pat planned to enlist in the Army after they returned from their honeymoon.

Pat and his brother Kevin Tillman joined the U.S. Army together, committing to a three-year enlistment. They served tours in Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 and in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom in 2004, where Pat was killed.

Marie and Pat TillmanThe letter he left

Pat had hastily written a "just in case" letter to Marie, which he had placed on top of their bedroom dresser. Both acknowledged the presence of the letter and hoped that the sealed envelope would never need to be opened. It sat there for months, until that horrible day in April 2004 when uniformed soldiers came to Marie's workplace to break the news that Pat had been killed. In her overwhelming grief that night, she opened the letter and finally read the words she hoped never to read. In the weeks and months that followed, Marie was continually drawn to the letter with Pat's final message to her and found comfort in his words.

Her journey

Marie kept herself out of the public spotlight as much as possible in the beginning, choosing to keep private details of her life with Pat to herself. Because Pat had been a very high-profile figure when he enlisted -- he was an NFL player who turned down a new contract in order to serve his country -- his death catapulted his image to the front page of every newspaper and the top news story each evening. The public image of Pat took on iconic proportions, and was nothing like the man Marie considered her soul mate. Wrestling with this disparity was difficult.

As she made her way through her journey of healing there were experiences that helped and some that didn't. She found comfort in reading personal accounts of loss and grief, and eventually decided that by sharing her story honestly and openly she might be able to help others. In The Letter, Marie shares personal accounts of how she moved through her loss and on to find a sense of purpose and meaning in her life going forward.

The LetterA mother's perspective

It has been eight years since Pat was killed. Marie is remarried to a wonderful man who brought his three young sons into her life -- and she recently gave birth to their first baby together, a boy. Becoming a mother has been a significant milestone, and one she doesn't take lightly. "I think that in some ways it's symbolic of how far I've come," she says when asked about the impact being a mother has had on her life. "I think with kids in general you kind of want to slow things down and appreciate all the tiny little things that happen in a day. Every first thing they do is the most amazing thing ever."

The Letter is a story of hope that will speak to anyone who has faced unexpected change or loss in their lives.

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