Gen. David Petraeus was fielding questions on weapons, strategy and tactics, when teenager Sean Wilson posed a simple question: "Who are your military heroes from history'"

"There are a bunch," responded Petraeus, who was speaking at the American Veterans Center Annual Conference in Washington, D.C., in late 2009. Petraeus, the commander of the United States Central Command, came to public prominence leading the 101st Airborne Division at the time of the drive to Baghdad in 2003.

He then oversaw the Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq, and wrote the Army Field Manual on ounterinsurgency (FM 3-24), before taking command of the Multi-National Force-Iraq, where he oversaw the surge that reduced violence in the country.

Petraeus rattled off five people who have influenced him: a command sergeant major and two lieutenants who are currently serving, a retired general, and a famous Civil War general.

First on Petraeus's list was Command Sgt. Maj. Marvin L. Hill, who served with him in the 101st Airborne Division in Iraq, and serves today with CENTCOM. Petraeus called Hill his "air assault buddy." The two men spent countless hours together in Iraq, in daily meetings and during long trips around the country. Hill spoke to the troops in ways generals could not, and they, in turn, told him the "real deal" on the battlefront, which he reported to Petraeus.

A perfect example of the Hill/Petraeus relationship came in 2003, when the Pentagon lifted stop-loss policy. Air-assault-qualified Soldiers from the 101st rotated out of Iraq, replaced with Soldiers without that specific skill set. When Hill expressed his concern to Petraeus, the general gave him the green light to move the entire air-assault school from Fort Campbell to Iraq. Soon, there were 15 classes in country teaching 150 Soldiers per class.

Hill learned of another problem with the troops: some enlisted Soldiers were serving at levels higher than their pay grade without compensation. Corporals were serving in staff sergeants billets, without points added to their promotion point worksheets. Hill realized they needed to come up with a system to promote these Soldiers, so he presented it to Petraeus, who in turn, sent it to the Pentagon. The result was the enlisted battlefield promotion.

When Petraeus earned his third star, he could have asked any general officer or family member to organize his pinning ceremony. He chose Hill. Petraeus knows that Hill adds energy to his unit and expands Petraeus's impact on the Soldiers, saving him from acting as his own action officer. "I'm going to go to an individual like that," Petraeus stressed.

Second on Petraeus' list was 2nd Lt. Peter Sprenger-although he was not a lieutenant when Petraeus mentioned him. "We're going to commission, I think, the first one-eyed infantry officer," Petraeus explained to the audience, calling him simply, "the great Ranger Sprenger."

Sprenger lost his eye when a car bomb exploded near his command post in Talafar, Iraq. "He convinced a lot of us that he should be allowed to stay in the Army," Petraeus told the crowd, "and the Army enabled that pretty courageous decision-that is not something that we would have typically done." Sprenger went through Ranger school and returned to Iraq as a squad leader. After that, he left the service and went to college, but missed his buddies. "He wants to do it again, and this time he's coming in through the Officer Candidate School," said Petraeus.

Six days after the conference, Petraeus personally went to Fort Benning, Ga., and pinned on Sprenger's new lieutenant bars. "That's a hero," Petraeus told the audience.

The other lieutenant that Petraeus considered a hero was 1st Lt. Brian Brennan, who lost both his legs when an improvised explosive device blew up under his Humvee in Afghanistan. "The first time I met him I wasn't sure he was ever going to talk again, much less be able to stand on two prosthetic legs," Petraeus lamented, "or that he would recover sufficiently from traumatic brain injury to be able to have a coherent conversation."

Petraeus first visited Brennan in the Surgical Intensive Care Unit at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in May 2008, and was told he had been completely unresponsive to any stimulus. Before he left, Petraeus turned around and shouted out the nickname of Brennan's regiment: "Currahee!" Miraculously, Brennan's head moved back and forth and he began beating the stumps of his legs against the bed.

When Petraeus visited him again in March 2009, they ate lunch together, discussing the war and possible graduate schools for Brennan. Petraeus was so impressed with the young man that, three months later, he traveled to East Rutherford, N.J., to induct Brennan into the New Jersey Hall of Fame.

Brennan next visited Petraeus just a week before Petraeus left for the veterans conference, but that meeting was very different. "There we were on the edge of Tampa Bay, working out together, and then we actually went for a run." During the warm-up, they joked about how Brennan didn't have to worry about stretching his calves. They ran about a mile together. Petraeus punctuated his feelings about Brennan, saying: "There are heroes of all types."

Last on the list of living heroes was Petraeus's mentor, retired Gen. John "Jack" Galvin, who retired as the supreme allied commander, Europe in 1992. Petraeus, as a captain, first served Galvin as his aide-de-camp in the 24th Infantry Division. "He ranks at the very top of the list (for) the Soldier-scholar-statesman-diplomat model that so many of our leaders now are probably trying to emulate."

Galvin, considered one of the most intellectual officers of his generation, often discussed decision-making and the problems of command with his young protAfAgAfA. It was Galvin who encouraged Petraeus to attend graduate school. "He told me, 'Maybe you ought to broaden your horizons and extend your vision beyond the max effective range of an M-16 rifle.'"

Petraeus told the audience that he was going to see Galvin later that evening, and was expecting an interesting night: "He will throw a few barbs in my direction, and I'll see if I can respond adequately."

Petraeus rounded off his list with an American icon from the past: Ulysses S. Grant. Before Petraeus left Fort Leavenworth, Kan., to command MNF-I in 2007, historian Glenn Robertson gave him a copy of Bruce Catton's "Grant Takes Command," a book chronicling Grant's Civil War campaigns from Chattanooga to Appomattox. "I threw it in the bag and it ended up on a table by my bunk. I opened it up one night and started going through it, and it's a magnificent story."

In the book, Petraeus found a kindred spirit. "I really found someone who went through something that was extraordinarily tough," he said. "I'm not trying to equate Iraq to the Civil War, or myself to Grant...but what he went through as a commander was pretty extraordinary, and the level of determination that he showed at various times was absolutely inspirational."

Petraeus cited, verbatim, one particular incident from the Battle of Shiloh.

"You know when Sherman stomps out of the dark at Pittsburg (Landing) and says 'Well Grant, we've had the devil's own day, haven't we'' and Grant takes the wet cigar out of his mouth and says, 'Yes, lick 'em tomorrow, though,' that's a pretty inspirational response when you're going through something tough." Petraeus referenced that exchange during a morning update in Iraq after a particularly bad day, "...and loud as hell, I said that was a pretty reasonable example of how we ought to respond."

Recalling Grant's attacks toward Richmond during the summer of 1864, Petraeus delivered another quote that gave him solace during the height of violence in Iraq: "I propose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer," which Grant wired President Abraham Lincoln during the Battle of Spotsylvania.

Grant was true to his word, and kept fighting through the fall, winter and spring. "Those kinds of examples are very relevant when you are going through what we experienced, particularly in the spring and into the fall of 2007, because there were some very, very tough times."

Robertson figured Grant's experience would help Petraeus, so he inscribed the book: "On the days when casualties mount, subordinates fail, politicians waver and victory seems utterly unattainable, it may be of some small comfort to consider how another commander successfully surmounted similar challenges."

Enlisted Soldiers, officers, generals and leaders from history have all inspired, motivated and humbled Petraeus. If the old maxim is true that no Soldier fights alone, the same can be said for a general like Petraeus.

<i>This story is published with permission from Kevin M. Hymel, a freelance writer who focuses on military topics. He is the author of "Patton's Photographs: War As He Saw It."</i>

Page last updated Fri July 22nd, 2011 at 12:16