That would not be the case for Portola Valley native Joseph F. Fil Jr., for whom the health, well being and battle readiness of U.S. soldiers is a daily priority and responsibility.
Lt. Gen. Fil — whose Army career began with an offer of college money from the Reserve Officer's Training Corps (ROTC) — recently took command of the 28,500 soldiers of the United States' 8th Army in South Korea. He received his new assignment, and his third star, in February 2008.
As commanding general, he also serves as chief of staff to the United Nations command and the Combined Forces command in Korea. His prior service includes tours in Germany, Texas, California and Washington, D.C., as well as in Kuwait and Iraq during the Desert Storm campaign in 1990.
Gen. Fil, 55, returned to Iraq for the current war. He commanded the Multi-National Division, a combined-forces unit in which Iraqi soldiers serve with other U.S. forces, including the U.S. 1st Cavalry Division.
The 1st Cavalry was under Gen Fil's command when it was folded into the Multi-National Division, which played a key role in the recent "surge" that put a stronger U.S. troop presence in and around Baghdad.
The Almanac spoke with him recently by phone from his official residence at the Yongsan Garrison in South Korea.
South Korea is "unlike any place I've served before," Gen. Fil said. Reduced to rubble by 1953, when a treaty ended fighting in the Korean War, South Korea is now the 13th largest economy, according to U.S. government estimates.
But just across the border is a massive and heavily armed force controlled by a Stalinist-style communist regime in North Korea.
"It's a super intense cycle that (our soldiers) stay in here," he said. "You just never know what they're going to do over there. ... We could fight tonight," he said, echoing a slogan on the 8th Army's Web site.
U.S. soldiers train for such a fight constantly, he said. It can be lonely. There are neither homes nor schools available for soldiers wanting to bring over their families. So the tours of duty are shorter: one year rather than the normal three-year hitch, as is the case in Germany.
Longer tours will come with new accommodations for up to 50,000 spouses and children, he said. Being apart from loved ones is "a huge price that troops are paying," he said. "It's a huge price."
Families would bring in a strategic consideration, as they did in West Germany during the Cold War, he said. "It's one thing to contemplate attacking soldiers. It's another to consider attacking wives and children."
His wife Wendy and daughters Mary Margaret, 12, and Rebecca, 16, are scheduled to join him this summer. It's been four years since they lived together.
Meanwhile, he is enjoying himself. "The (Korean) people are just so warm and polite," he said. "A bit on the formal side but wonderful. ... I'm having the time of my life."
A perfectly safe place
Gen. Fil's life may be regimented today, but his boyhood was not.
He spent his free time with his younger brothers running around Portola Valley, said his parents Joe Sr. and Susie Fil, who still live in the home near the border with Woodside where young Joe grew up.
Portola Valley, Gen. Fil said, was "a perfectly safe place (with) awesome weather," a town that was "rural and fun," without street lights or stop lights — a status quo that still exists today and is not likely to change.
His youthful days included rock climbing, kites, swimming holes, skiing, tree houses, a homemade boat with "8,000 pounds of nails" in it (according to his father), and occasionally, consequences.
"We'd see them going by in an ambulance," his mother recalled. "We were working, so we didn't sort of pay any attention to them." The couple were on a first-name basis with the staff at the Stanford Hospital emergency room, she said.
For a time, Joe Jr. attended the one-room school at Portola School, where the Town Center is now. He also went to Ormondale Elementary and Corte Madera Middle schools and graduated from Woodside High School.
Asked to comment on his primary and secondary education, he noted the stability of his years there, that he'd had friends in second grade who stayed with him all the way to high school. "It was a warm and stable environment," he said. "We all felt like the teachers really cared about us and cared for us."
Another staple of Portola Valley, horsemanship, came to him via a former Russian cavalry officer who trained young equestrians for no charge in Woodside. Joe Jr. "fell in love with horses," his mother said.
And a good thing, too. He has served as a battalion, brigade and division commander in the 1st Cavalry Division and has used his skills with horses to advantage on ceremonial occasions.
A peak experience came in February 2008 at Fort Hood, Texas, during the change-of command ceremony at his departure from the 1st Cavalry for his new post in Korea, according to his mother. At the bugle's call, Gen. Fil led a platoon of mounted soldiers, sabers drawn, in a charge across the parade ground.
He'd always wanted to do it and it was "15 seconds of pure exhilaration," his mother reported.
Iraq: 'It's fragile'
That 15 seconds capped 15 months of combat operations in Iraq, where Gen. Fil's mission was to quell the violence in Baghdad using soldiers of the 1st Cavalry Division augmented with Iraqi soldiers and a "surge" of some 30,000 more U.S. soldiers.
As has been reported, the violence in Baghdad has gone down. Is the surge going according to plan?
"There's no question that we're being successful," he said. "I would say that it is going according to plan. It's fragile. You can expect setbacks and it's one day at a time."
The Web site IraqBodyCount.org reported 78 "documented civilian deaths from violence" in Baghdad in the seven days from May 13 to 19, 2008. Over the same week in 2007, the death count was about 245.
Iraq Body Count says its data is based on cross-checked media reports of civilian deaths or of bodies found, supplemented with figures from hospitals, morgues, non-governmental organizations and official sources.
Some 30,000 U.S. soldiers have come home from Iraq with physical wounds, according to the Web site Iraq Coalition Casualty Count. Not listed are the soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome, an anxiety disorder that can follow a terrifying or life-threatening experience.
"We still don't fully understand PTSD, although I feel we're getting our arms around it," Gen. Fil said. "It's still a fairly new science. I think the soldiers are getting the care they need."
The stress of combat may be in a class by itself. Loved ones are far away, the people you work with are dying, and you never know when the next improvised explosive device (IED) is coming, he said.
Gen. Fil said he knows of individual soldiers who have come through a dozen explosions — and the accompanying concussions — without external wounds. What is the lasting effect? The jury is still out, he said. They did not become punch drunk as he had expected.
What is it like to be participating in a controversial war that likely has substantial opposition in his home town, which tends to vote Democratic?
The important question to him is not why U.S. forces went into Iraq, but what's to be done now that they're there? In conversations with people in Woodside and Portola Valley, he said he has yet to meet someone who is not in favor of supporting the troops.
At times, he travels in uniform. In airports, he said he is continually being invited to lunch by complete strangers, which he sees as an indication of "huge support" out there.
His message to those who oppose the war in Iraq: "I am OK with that," he said. "That makes sense to me."
"I think (the war's opponents) should be confident that the young men and women fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan and Korea are doing so courageously and are wonderful representatives of our nation," he added. "There's a nobility to it, not only as troops but as ambassadors. ... People should be proud. I say that with total sincerity."
Aspiring to esprit
In addition to nation building in Iraq, the United States is engaged in army building. Is it working? Is there an esprit de corps among the new Iraqi forces?
"I think they're developing it. It's a proud nation" and in real hardship at the moment, Gen. Fil said. "They're aspiring to that. You see it in the good units."
The essence of military leadership — and an element still missing from the Iraqi forces, he said — is a corps of non-commissioned officers and young officers. "That's where the esprit comes from."
"Iraqis are proud to be Iraqi and they aspire to be a great nation and they can be," he said. "They're wonderful people. I came to know many of them well."
And the pride in the 1st Cavalry Division? "Soldiers are re-enlisting like crazy," he said. "It's because they know how good they are. They are really on top of their game. They see the results in combat. It's a great army."
Gen. Fil's education includes two years at the University of California at Berkeley and two more at San Jose State University, from which he graduated with a degree in anthropology. He's now a three-star general. What sent him in a military direction?
It wasn't a family tradition. His father graduated from the Virginia Military Institute and spent two years in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, but went on to a career that included teaching, civil engineering and business management. His mother taught special education.
The ROTC scholarship reoriented Joe Jr.'s career compass. "I said, 'OK, I'll take it,' not really knowing what I was getting into," he said. "I fell in love with it. By the time I was a sophomore, I was just hooked. I knew I was going to do this."
He emerged from SJSU as a Distinguished Military Graduate. His education continued, including two master's degrees in strategy from military institutions.
How is it, being the parent of a career soldier? "It's horrible," his mother said. "He's been deployed to Iraq and Bosnia and it's been pure hell." She starts each day with a prayer, she said. "Would I prefer that he be a doctor or a dentist or a lawyer? You bet. But that's not our choice."
The Almanac asked Gen. Fil if he would recommend a military career to kids growing up where he did.
"I think so. I've just had a wonderful time. It's an opportunity to work with people in a leadership role, and to take as much responsibility as you're willing to accept," he said. "I've really liked the fact of being with young men and women who are committed to serving the nation."