Over the past 34 years, U.S. Army Lt. General Stephen M. Twitty has been on five combat tours in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait, has served in 174 countries and has been to every continent except Antarctica.
It is an experience that has taught him many lessons, not the least of which is humility and an appreciation for life.
"Appreciating life is definitely at the top, but also appreciating others. In the military, you get soldiers from all walks of life -- different racial backgrounds, different socioeconomic backgrounds. They are the fabric of our society. So you get a great appreciation," Twitty said.
"In the world that we live in -- the stereotypical world that we live in -- at the end of the day, people are great people no matter where they come from. All people want to do is have an opportunity.
"For me, it's been about that need to provide folks that want to serve an opportunity to be their best no matter where they come from, no matter what color. Give them an opportunity to do their best and perform, and they will amaze you," he said.
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The three-star general is a 1985 graduate of South Carolina State University and one of 22 generals to come out of the institution's Reserve Officers Training Corps.
Henry Doctor Jr. was the first S.C. State graduate to obtain the rank of three-star general. Twitty obtained the rank in 2016, followed by Bruce Crawford in 2018.
"I'm the senior one on active duty now, though," said Twitty, who currently serves as the deputy commander for the U.S. Army European Command.
"I run the day-to-day operations in the European Theater that consists of 51 countries. Our job is two-fold. The first would be obviously to protect the homeland, and the second one would be to ensure that peace, stability and security is maintained on the European continent," he said.
Twitty said he handles the responsibility only with the help of a strong team of soldiers.
"It is a wonderful thing to be a part of a team of selfless servants who are committed to protecting and defending our country. So it is a noble calling. In my mind, only a few people out there really have the noble calling of selfless service. You see it every day in our military.
"I've been on five combat tours and even on my hardest day in combat -- even with losing soldiers in combat -- it has been an honor to serve. I've enjoyed every single day of service and wake up every day motivated to come into work and serve my country because I've got a team of selfless servants. We're all moving in the same direction," he said.
He said the time spent traveling and the loss of soldiers have been among the hardest parts of his military career.
"When you lose a life is probably one of the hardest things that there is about being in the military. Whenever you sign up to commit to military service, the possibility of the loss of life exists and comes with the territory. It's just something you have to deal with, but part of that is also ensuring that you never forget about those soldiers that you lose. And I guarantee you that I never forget about them," Twitty said.
The general said what he won't do is have a soldier's life lost in vain.
"It makes you work harder, it makes you strive to do things right. We never want any of our service members to be lost in vain. They will always be etched in my heart until I go to my grave because at the end of the day, I commanded those soldiers. I was responsible for giving the orders for those soldiers to execute those particular missions and, therefore, responsible for the life or the death of those soldiers," Twitty said.
He doesn't talk much about his combat experience and prefers to have the books written about it speak for themselves.
"What I will tell you is that it's no secret that you go through a lot of adversity when you're in combat, particularly when you doing a lot of work that I'm doing. But the one thing that I always tell folks is that my combat experience is what has really made me, number one, the godly person that I am today, the best father that I could possibly be today, the best husband that I could possibly be today.
"And the reason why I say that is when you're up close to death, the perspective of life comes into play. You get a real understanding of what is important in life. And all of the petty stuff that's out there in the world, I don't focus on anymore," Twitty said, noting that he is not, however, completely free from the scars of war.
"It's not to say I don't have nightmares and the other things that come along with the combat experience. I do. But the great things outweigh the bad things that I have from the experiences in combat. It is a blessing," Twitty said.
It was while growing as "a country boy" in rural Chesnee that the early seeds of an extensive military career were planted.
Twitty said his grandfather, Spc. Carson Mackerson, who served in a segregated U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II, was his inspiration.
"He served 11 years in World War II. He was without a doubt the single-most influence that drove me into the military. When I was a young kid, he used to march me around the house and in the yard. He'd give me a stick as a fake gun and had me doing all these maneuvers. I just fell in love with it. He saw something in a young kid, and he planted the seed," Twitty said.
The seed was planted so deeply that Twitty ended up joining the South Carolina National Guard while just a junior in high school. He eventually landed at S.C. State, where he said its ROTC program further molded him for his military career.
He had been all set to go to Furman University until he went to an S.C. State football game.
"I had never been to South Carolina State. And I was just impressed with the camaraderie. It was homecoming and State played Florida A&M. I looked out there and I saw all of those ROTC cadets out there on the field. Instantly I said, 'This is where I wanted to go,'" Twitty said.
He added, "I got down to South Carolina State and back then we had a huge ROTC program. It was about 600 cadets. When I joined the ROTC program, I fell in love with it. It was just a motivating experience for me. Pretty much the rest is history."
Joining the infantry was Twitty's first choice after graduating from S.C. State. He was looking for the challenge that the mock military exercises his grandfather engaged him in as a child prepared him for.
"I told them, 'If you did not put me in the infantry, I did not want to go in the Army.' That's all I wanted to do. This goes back to my grandfather. Being a little kid, I couldn't throw a real hand grenade. So he just gave me rocks, and I used to throw rocks like hand grenades in the yard. He'd correct my stance for throwing hand grenades and give me a stick to use as my rifle and stuff like that," Twitty said.
He added, "I was singularly focused on the infantry because my grandfather didn't tell me to go in the infantry, but he taught me to be an infantryman as a little kid. Because I graduated in the top of the ROTC class, I could have gone into any branch I wanted to go, but I had a goal in mind. I've enjoyed the fact that I made the right decision because there's no other place I want to be but the infantry."
He said S.C. State's ROTC program is "a crown jewel that really needs to be highlighted."
"I definitely gotta give credit to S.C. State. You need time to mature when you're a young person. I cannot tell you whether I was a mature person and really displayed the necessary traits of a grown, responsible man when I was in high school and college, but what I will tell you is by the time I graduated from South Carolina State, I had the focus.
"I had the great education that they gave me and the family environment, the way the professors really worked us hard and cared about us. My parents built the foundation, but South Carolina State built the rest of the house for me," Twitty said.
He said maintaining humility is key to his success, and he continues to credit his soldiers' work.
"Absolutely. You just can't get there without them. When you get to this position, you must maintain humility. When you start having hubris and thinking that you're better than anyone else, then I would say you're probably in the wrong line of work. You've got to give credit where credit is due. I'm just blessed," Twitty said.
He also believes in reaching back to help others, particularly molding young cadets into future military leaders. It was Twitty who developed and orchestrated an event in 2018 at S.C. State, where more than 200 cadets from seven ROTC battalions gathered to learn more about mentorship and leadership development from senior Army leadership.
"I want to see South Carolina State produce more general officers. The only way you're going to do that is not only do what you're supposed to do as you come up through the rank, but also have mentors that show you the way and help you out through the process.
"I want the cadets there to be able to call on me for advice and direction and help them get to point A to point B and so forth. I wanted all the former South Carolina State generals to come in and also pick up the task of mentoring these young cadets so that we get more in the pipeline and keep them in the pipeline so they can go on to be successful in their military career," Twitty said.
Twitty was selected as a 2004 S.C. State University Distinguished Alumni and inducted into the S.C. State University Army ROTC Hall of Fame in 2009. He was awarded the Silver Star Medal, the nation's third highest award for valor, for his gallantry in combat in Iraq in 2003.
Twitty was inducted into the U.S. Army ROTC Hall of Fame in 2018.
"(S.C. State) President (James E.) Clark came to that induction ceremony at Fort Knox, Kentucky. That was a special moment," he said.
The 56-year-old said he doesn't know how much longer his military career will last.
"I don't know, but I'm closer to this side than I am the other side when I came in. This is a young man's sport. So, to be honest, I don't know. I enjoy what I'm doing, but I do know that at some point I'm going to have to hang up the combat boots and transition out," he said.
Until then, he remains grateful for his blessings, his family and the soldiers who have made his journey worthwhile.
"My achievements are through the good lord's grace and blessings. I'm not the type to brag about my achievements. My thing is you just keep doing what you're doing and you'll get recognized for the great deeds that you've done," he said.
Twitty and his wife, Karen, are the proud parents of two daughters, Ashley, a biomedical engineer who resides in Phoenix, Arizona, and Brooke, a 14-year-old high school student.
Contact the writer: firstname.lastname@example.org or 803-533-5534. Follow "Good News with Gleaton" on Twitter at @DionneTandD
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