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Petraeus in SC: 'More unites us as Americans than divides us'

January 25, 2012

When Gen. David Petraeus first led U.S. troops into Iraq in 2003, he said Iraqis often greeted his soldiers with cheers and gratitude.

"Thank you, America. We love the United States," Petraeus said they shouted. "We love democracy. What is it?"

In Columbia on Tuesday for the annual David Wilkins Awards for Excellence in Legislative and Civic Leadership, the retired four-star general - named director of the Central Intelligence Agency last year - said Iraqis have a much better idea of what democracy is today.

"They also know how truly difficult it is to build and then to sustain," Petraeus said. "Indeed, they are experiencing many serious challenges at present."

Yet Petraeus said Iraqis and Afghans still put their lives on the line each day because they think freedom is worth the effort.

Petraeus is best known for bringing together isolated tribal factions in war-torn Iraq and Afghanistan. Tuesday, he said the U.S. body politic could take a page out of that playbook.

America's fractured politics belie an often-forgotten truth, Petraeus told the audience, a Who's Who of S.C. business, academic and political leaders.

"My message to you today is simple: no matter how much contention and partisanship there appears to be in our country, there is far more that unites us as Americans than divides us," Petraeus said.

During Tuesday's event, the Wilkins Award for legislative leadership was given to state Rep. James Smith, D-Richland, an Afghanistan war veteran. The Wilkins Award for civic leadership was given to BlueCross BlueShield board chairman Ed Sellers.

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., introduced Petraeus. Gov. Nikki Haley, former U.S. ambassador to Canada David Wilkins, former U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley, Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin and state legislators were present as well.

"For much of the past decade, I've had the honor of serving in various fronts in the fight against terror, in the Balkans initially, then in Iraq, then in Afghanistan and throughout the greater Middle East," Petraeus said.

It was an extraordinary privilege, he said, because military service represents the definitive example of coming together for an important cause - "putting aside differences and sacrificing for the common good."

The former commander of U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan said young troops often enter U.S. military service with a clear vision of what they want to fight against. In the heat of a firefight, they quickly come to understand that they are fighting for something, too.

"For country, of course - for the ideals that bind us together as citizens," Petraeus said. "But most of all, for the troopers on their left and their right.

"Ultimately, in the face of real danger and in the heat of a real firefight, our troopers fight most of all for each other, fiercely determined not to let their buddies down in that most special of fraternities - the brotherhood of the close fight."

Originally posted on TheState.com and also re-published on TheHeraldOnline.com

By Roddie Burris - rburris@thestate.com
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