Brian Mennes has been a competitor his whole life, whether it was on the athletic fields at Sweet Home High School or on the battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Recently promoted to major general and working at the Pentagon, Mennes recalls his father asking him about his college plans in 1983 when he was a junior at Sweet Home.
"I went to my guidance counselor, Mr. Reed, and he said, 'Hey, you might want to look into this,' and he tossed me a book on West Point," Mennes said of how the seed was planted.
Yet as an all-Western New York athlete in lacrosse, football and hockey, an athletic scholarship was not out of the question. Princeton University wanted him for its lacrosse team and was willing to cover all of the costs his middle-class parents could not afford for an Ivy League education.
But there was something about the Army. It bespoke challenge and opportunity. A television commercial urging young people to "Be all that you can be" by joining the Army, he said, "stuck in my head."
After visiting Princeton and the United States Military Academy at West Point, Mennes said the Army won out.
"West Point was team oriented and people seemed to really care about you," he said. "At the time, it never really dawned on me that this would be a lifetime of service."
But Mennes has never looked back, not even after serving a total of eight deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq and experiencing multiple firefights.
And he has been on the move ever since his 1988 graduation from West Point as a 2nd lieutenant. But he made sure to take care of one crucial pieces of personal business before beginning his ascent in the military.
A year after graduation, he married his high school sweetheart and soulmate, the former Kellie Kubiak. Like him, she too has the competitive spirit and earned an athletic scholarship to West Virginia University for volleyball. In fact, years later, both she and her husband would be inducted into Sweet Home High School's Athletic Hall of Fame.
And together, they have embraced the Army way of life, which has been filled with periods of separation. The first happened a few weeks after they married.
In 1989, after U.S. forces had invaded Panama and removed dictator Manuel Noriega, Mennes spent several weeks in that Central American country as part of Operation Just Cause.
After that, he served in South Korea on a training exercise. Then it was off to the Sinai Desert as part of a United Nations peacekeeping mission not far from the battles of the First Gulf War, which ended swiftly in early 1991.
When he wasn't serving in hot spots around the world, Mennes racked up impressive credentials, including a fellowship at the U.S. Army War College and another fellowship over in England. He also earned a master's degree in military art and science at the Army's Command and General Staff College.
In the days after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, Mennes, by now a major, was serving with the Joint Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg, N.C.
"I was sitting at my desk when my boss walked in and said, 'Brian, I need you to go down to the intel shop and help us pick out a target for Afghanistan.' I said, 'Hey boss, are you sure you have the right guy? I'm just a lacrosse player from Buffalo.' "
Turns out Mennes was the right guy.
Brian Mennes, 52
Residence: Burke, Va.
Rank: Major general
War zones: 5 Afghanistan deployments and 3 Iraq deployments
Years of service: 1988 – present
Most prominent honors: Five Bronze Stars, Combat Infantryman Badge, Ranger Tab, five Legion of Merit awards, Meritorious Service Medal, Air Assault Badge and Master Parachutist Badge
Specialty: Multiple commands in war zones; currently serves as director of force management at Pentagon for deputy chief of staff/operations
A month later, he was on his way to Afghanistan where he continued to plan attacks on the enemy. And when it was time to strategize for the invasion of Iraq, Mennes was summoned home in June 2002 from his second deployment to Afghanistan.
"My boss came to me again and asked me to start selecting targets for the invasion of Iraq," Mennes said.
When that invasion began in March 2003, Mennes was in Iraq for what would be the first of three deployments to that war zone. One of them included serving as the commander of an elite unit of Rangers – 1st Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment.
Later Mennes would serve as that battalion's commander in Afghanistan.
On his fifth and final deployment to that country in 2012, Mennes, who had risen to the rank of colonel, could have easily found justifications to stay out of harm's way, but chose not to.
He often went out on missions with his troops and the Afghan forces they were training. Fierce encounters with the enemy were not uncommon.
"We were in western Kandahar and responsible for 5,500 troops," Mennes said, explaining that his soldiers had to walk a fine line in letting Afghan forces reach their potential and take the lead.
"It was a difficult mission with folks who didn't want us there. Our soldiers had to be able to buy into an abstract goal of security, partnering with the Afghan forces, trying to support them. It was difficult seeing the effects of combat. Some of our soldiers gave up their lives or their limbs," he said.
And while Mennes, a father of three and married nearly three decades, now works in a high-ranking position at the Pentagon, he says America's young people willing to step up and defend the nation are the ones worthy of attention.
"Whenever someone thanks me for my service, I have to thank them for entrusting me to lead their sons and daughters. I call them 'America's true treasures, ' " Mennes said. "What more noble cause could there be than to defend our country and our Constitution?"