By Joshua Rojas
For more than 15 years, the jersey of Pat Tillman, former NFL safety and U.S. Army Ranger, hung inside a USO center named after him at Bagram Air Base (BAF) in Afghanistan. Following the withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Afghanistan in 2021, the jersey was returned to the U.S. thanks to the selfless efforts of U.S. Army Garrison (USAG) Ansbach’s USO Center Manager Kimberley “Ley” Steadman.
In November 2022, on Katterbach Kaserne, ESPN interviewed Ley about her part in returning Tillman’s jersey to the U.S. from BAF in a special that tells the story of Pat Tillman’s jersey and its journey back home from Afghanistan.
Today, as a center operations manager in Germany, Ley is responsible for all aspects of operations at the USO Ansbach, including the daily supervision of more than 35 volunteers. She first began working for the USO and supporting troops back in 2018, through which she lived and worked in Afghanistan.
“I was with the United States Peace Corps before working for the USO, and I just knew I wanted to be somewhere where I could work with soldiers,” said Ley. “While that jersey was on display at the Pat Tillman Center you could feel the sense of service and sacrifice that he believed in and was committed to.”
While the U.S. was in the middle of the drawdown of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Ley did everything that she could to make sure the jersey, along with other mementos, were secured and transported back home.
When the opportunity finally came for them to evacuate out of Afghanistan, Ley and other USO staff packed and secured Pat Tillman’s jersey along with other memorabilia in a bag to transport back to the U.S., while also carrying a second bag with all of her personal belongings.
“As we were waiting in line to weigh our bags before the flight one of the officials came over and said that we could not take two bags and that I would have to leave one,” she said. “I didn’t have to think twice about it, I dropped my bag on the curb, called one of our volunteers and asked him to mail it out if he could and if not to leave it.”
“It’s an important story to tell, to showcase what the jersey means to so many people at the USO and so many people in the Armed Forces,“ said Joshua Vorenski, feature producer for ESPN. "When I first heard about the story, I had to find out more and make sure others knew about it.”
“[Pat Tillman] answered his inner calling instead of taking the easy way out,” said Harry Hawkings, associate producer II for ESPN. “For someone to give up millions of dollars and a life in the National Football League (NFL) to serve in the military is beyond comprehension to me.”
How Pat Tillman, the NFL and the USO Answered the Call to Action
Following the September 11 attacks, Tillman left his NFL career to join the Army, where he was later killed in action in 2004. After his death, Tillman’s family and friends founded the Pat Tillman Foundation to continue his legacy and provide military members, veterans and military spouses with the educational tools needed to reach their full potential as leaders – no matter how they choose to serve.
Tillman’s jersey was officially returned from Afghanistan in November 2021 during a presentation that included the Arizona Cardinals Football Club, the Pat Tillman Foundation and the USO as part of the NFL’s Salute to Service Initiative, a year-round commitment to honor, empower and connect with the nation’s service members, veterans and their families.
This isn’t the first time the USO and NFL have joined forces to support military members.
Following the death of Tillman in 2004, the NFL donated $250,000 to open the USO Pat Tillman center, the first and only USO center to ever open in Afghanistan.
“‘What can the NFL do for you?’ is what the NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue asked me,” said, Carly Harris, USO area four director, recounting the story of when the NFL committed $250,000 to the USO Center at Bagram Airbase. “I said ‘what about a USO Center in Afghanistan in honor of Pat Tilman?’”
Tillman’s jersey remained at USO Bagram until May 2021. For 16 years, Tillman’s jersey rested in a place where service members could go for a place of respite as well as a home away from home.
Since joining forces over 50 years ago, the USO and NFL continue to make a difference in the lives of our service members and military families around the world. And that includes making sure the legacy of Pat Tillman lives on.
-This story was originally published on DVIDShub.net. It has been edited for USO.org.
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