REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. -- One of the Army's most influential leaders during Operation Iraqi Freedom has a lot of gratitude for the lessons he learned while attending the University of Southern Mississippi.

"Everything good in life started at Southern Miss," retired Maj. Gen. Jeff Hammond told members of the Southern Miss North Alabama Alumni Chapter at a Nov. 15 luncheon at the Officers and Civilians Club.

In the Army, Hammond is best known for his command of the 28,000 troops of the 4th Infantry Division and the Multi-National Division while on a 15-month deployment to Iraq in 2007 that brought discipline and structure to Baghdad. Under Hammond's leadership, the division worked to double the size of the Iraqi Security Forces; build more than 200 schools, medical clinics and support facilities; create more than 500 jobs; decrease violence by more than 80 percent; and conduct the first-ever violence-free democratic election.

But the retired major general can't comment on his service in 2007 without mentioning the 94 Soldiers killed and the 3,000 Soldiers wounded under his command. Calling them "beautiful kids," the Legion of Merit and three-time Bronze Star recipient said "in combat when you lose someone wounded or killed you have to move on. But at home it is a tragedy that never goes away."

The Army's Soldiers "continue to serve this great nation of ours. … I followed Soldiers. I worked for Soldiers. The Soldiers won the fight," he said.

With 32 years of Army service and three combat tours now behind him, Hammond said he begins every day with the same mission -- to make a difference. At the end of the day, he asks the same question -- Did I make a difference?

He told his audience about a game changing situation in Iraq where one Soldier under his command dared to make a difference. He talked about Sadr City, a suburb city of Baghdad that is home to nearly 3 million Shiite Muslims who were not allowed to leave the area during the reign of Saddam Hussein.

"Other than Somalia, it was the worst place on Earth," he said.

Soldiers of the 4th Infantry Division were not allowed inside Sadr City for political reasons. And yet, every night, terrorists from within Sadr City would leave its confines, and attack and kill American Soldiers.

"The key to Baghdad, the key to the country was taking down Sadr City. … But we were not allowed to go in (Sadr City). We couldn't afford to upset the diplomatic apple cart," Hammond explained. "One night, I lost seven Soldiers (because of Sadr City). I called my wife, crying, and I told her 'I'm going to get relieved. We're going into Sadr City.' I was not going to let policy and politics get in the way of protecting these kids."

At first, the siege into Sadr City seemed to make a difference. U.S. Soldiers fought hard and made progress.

"But then we lost the initiative. We lost momentum and the fight came to a halt," Hammond said.

In a meeting with Iraqi military leaders, the country's soldiers expressed their refusal to fight against the terrorists of Sadr City for fear their own families would be killed. The situation was at a standstill until a Soldier in Hammond's command volunteered, insisting he could make a difference, he could turn the battle. Hammond gave the Soldier 48 hours.

"They went in and in 48 hours they completely secured Sadr City. … I watched from unmanned vehicles and I saw fantastic leadership," Hammond said, adding that terrorists ran from the city and escaped through the desert and out of Iraq.

"That kid placed himself in harm's way," he said. Unfortunately, on the way out of Sadr City, the Soldier's armored Humvee was attacked and he was killed.

"He chose to make a difference. Those were his words, not mine, at the cost of his life," Hammond said.

Since then, Hammond has visited the Soldier's wife and children. His widow takes comfort in knowing her husband did indeed make a difference.

After his command in Iraq, Hammond went on to serve as the chief of staff of the Forces Command at Fort Bragg, N.C. Then Southern Miss called.

"We said our prayers," Hammond said referring to himself and his wife Diane. "We asked 'Should we make a change?' Doors opened. The university called us and asked 'Would you like to come home and be involved in athletics again?'"

From 1976-78, while earning degrees in special education, Hammond was the quarterback and team captain of the Southern Miss Golden Eagles football team. Upon graduation, he commissioned in the Army as a second lieutenant. Among his many honors, Hammond is a member of the Southern Miss Sports and Athletic Hall of Fame.

In September 2010, Hammond retired from military service and became a senior associate director of athletics, working in athletic development and fund-raising for his alma mater.

"We loved Soldiers for 32 years," he said of his decision. "And now it was time to come home to my first love. … Everything good in life started at Southern Miss. I learned to lead on the football field. I learned social responsibility. I learned how to love the girl of my dreams (wife Diane). Southern Miss taught us not what to think. It taught us how to think. In combat, you can't go through the encyclopedia in your mind and think 'What do I do next?' You've got to be able to react … to think and react."

At Southern Miss, Hammond predicts a promising future for a university building its reputation on its business school. Saying it will be the center of gravity for Mississippi in 50 years, he said "we must never forget that the strength of the U.S. and Americans lies in the entrepreneurial business skills of young men and women."

He also predicted that the Southern Miss football team, which is part of Conference USA, is on the verge of going from "good to great" and that there is a possibility that it will play Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.

Hammond is equally as proud of the graduation rate of the university's football players, which stands at 83 percent, one of the highest among Southern universities.

"If we all decide collectively to make a difference, we can take this school wherever it wants to go. … I want to help push this university over the top into a wow future," he said.