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The legendary Gen. George S. Patton once spoke glowingly of war, saying: "It brings out all that is best; it removes all that is base."
Patton, who fought in three wars and boasted the proud lineage of a Confederate colonel for his grandfather, represents what many think of when they hear the word "soldier." Yet, most who serve are not bred to fight, like Patton. Those who answer the call for their country are often extraordinarily common. They are fathers and mothers; tradesmen and farmers; students and doctors. Some are polished. Others are entirely unrefined and immature. But I would count even the least of these as the greatest our country has to offer.
When I first enlisted in the Army with goals of earning college benefits and saving money I anticipated having little in common with other soldiers, whom I expected to be the gung-ho heirs to Audie Murphy. I would quickly find, though, that the military is more "Stripes" than "Rambo": filled with aimless kids, pranksters and barracks lawyers. While some had the same goals I did, many had no goals at all, except to make their beds real neat and stand up straight (to paraphrase Forrest Gump). Certainly, none of us resembled Patton.
Military service, though, even in the course of a few small years, has the tendency to alter your outlook on life. Where once you viewed a man as completely alien to you set apart by differences of culture and belief you come to think of him as family.
Of course, "family" is a term easily sentimentalized, but those who serve together are indeed bonded in a special way. This is not to say they get along at all times. After all, many families are dysfunctional. Still, family is family.
What has amazed me most in my time in the Army is how quickly differences shrink away in suffering. It is easy to argue over pettiness when you live leisurely. But listen to the men freezing together in a guard tower, sweating in a hostile desert or trying to keep sane on the long hours of deployment. Their differences in those moments are but a memory; all that matters is what unites them. And time and time again, they carry each other through.
In the end, perhaps Patton was right. War can bring out the best in us, and not just for those rare heroes of legend. War brings out America's best by challenging ordinary, common men and women to step forward and answer the call, often without any knowledge of what that choice entails. No books will be written about these few, and their names will not appear in the footnotes of history.
Even so, the one half of one percent that chooses the path of military service makes sacrifices and endures hardships above and beyond what the average citizen can imagine. They are, without question, the greatest among us, and I will forever be proud to call them my family.