David Lauderdale

Hilton Head’s gift to America: Two new Army generals from same small town

Army Chaplain (Brig. Gen.) William “Bill” Green Jr., left, and U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Brett G. Sylvia.
Army Chaplain (Brig. Gen.) William “Bill” Green Jr., left, and U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Brett G. Sylvia. U.S. Army

One makes war and the other makes peace.

And now they’re both generals in the U.S. Army, after growing up on Hilton Head Island.

U.S. Army Chaplain (Brig. Gen.) William “Bill” Green Jr. and Brig. Gen. Brett Sylvia were officially promoted in separate ceremonies in May and August.

Hilton Head’s retired U.S. Army four-star general, Arthur E. Brown Jr., said two generals coming from the same small community “blows my mind.”

“Being selected to be a general officer is special as it represents trust, faith, and confidence at an elevated level,” Brown said. “A general officer is always on center stage and what he or she says or does matters.

“Having two of our local graduates recently selected to be Army brigadier generals sends a message of strength in our community and especially our schools. The two make us proud.”

Green, 59, was in the class of 1978 at H.E. McCracken High School, then the only public high school in southern Beaufort County. The son of William and Mary Green of Marshland Road is now deputy chief of all Army chaplains, working at the Pentagon.

Sylvia, 46, was salutatorian of the class of 1990 at Hilton Head Island High School, where his mother, Carol, taught math, and he was state player of the year in soccer, playing for his father, Bo Sylvia. He is now 1st Cavalry Division deputy commanding general for maneuvers at Fort Hood, Texas, and is only the third person in the 1,100-member class of 1994 at West Point to make general.

The two new generals have decidedly different jobs. And they took much different routes to get there. But both say they were shaped by Hilton Head.

Bill Green

Bill Green was a third-grader when his parents moved back home to Hilton Head from the Hitch Village apartments in Savannah.

Both his parents have deep family roots on the island, and when young Bill got here, he said it seemed like everyone in the Gullah community was a parent.

“I had multiple surrogate parents,” he said. With the diplomacy of a soft-spoken general, he adds that they were “people who had your best interest at heart.”

He went to the island’s first red brick elementary school under principal Isaac Wilborn, and he recalls the influence of teachers Earline Frazier and Ruth Jones.

His mother, known for her small stature and big singing voice, made sure he got on the stick after graduation. Green and friend Tony Smith joined the Army together. He was assigned to field artillery, which he wasn’t crazy about, but while serving in Germany, his life changed course. He felt the call to God and subsequently to the ministry.

“I tried to avoid it,” he said. “I ran from that for a little while.”

He left the Army and enrolled in the ROTC program at Savannah State University. When he went back into the Army as an officer, his first assignment was in field artillery.

“The Lord has a real good sense of humor,” he said.

By then he was married to Robin McDowell of Milner, Georgia, a bond now approaching 35 years. They have three grown children and nine grandchildren.

Through college and divinity school, he served as pastor of a small but encouraging congregation at Fairlawn Baptist Church in Garden City, Georgia.

He got his divinity degree from Emory University in Atlanta, and in 1994 began his service as a chaplain.

Green has served two tours in Iraq, preaching and counseling on the battalion and brigade level.

But he says he learned the heart of chaplaincy from the late Rev. Ben Williams, the longtime beloved pastor of Mount Calvary Missionary Baptist Church on Hilton Head.

“He was very caring to everybody,” Green said. “He loved people. He connected with people, he supported them, and he reached out and touched all the communities of Hilton Head. He was phenomenal. I felt like I had already been in the chaplaincy because I saw Pastor Ben Williams do it.”

Green is associated with First African Baptist Church on Hilton Head, where his father is a member. William Green Sr. is the son of a fisherman and oyster shucker who ran the Hilton Head Interiors warehouse for many years and was then a security guard in Palmetto Dunes.

Mary Green opened Mary’s Christian Day School next to her home in 1968, and merged it with the the Mount Calvary Achievement School at her church in 1992.

She and William celebrated their 60th anniversary in July. She is known for singing the spiritual “Travelin’ Shoes” at the end of a Gullah funeral when the casket is wheeled from the sanctuary.

“I know he is quite capable of handling his new job,” Mary Green said of her son. “He’s always liked his job. He is dedicated to his job. He will care for people. He loves to help people.”

William Green Sr. said, “He deserved it. He’s a real trouper. I taught him all I could and then he learned a lot more.”

His military decorations include the Legion of Merit and the Bronze Star.

Only now does he pull rank on his older brother, Calvin Lawyer, a retired U.S. Army colonel. His sister Rosalind grew up to be a mail carrier; Brenda, a school counselor; and Samantha, a nurse.

Chaplain Green will now help the chief of chaplains recruit, develop and sustain chaplains in an era in which fewer troops attend services. He said that requires the ability to listen and connect to troops in other settings, just as he saw “The Rev” Ben Williams do it.

“It is for me an opportunity to continue to care for soldiers and families and to have a voice at a much higher level,” Green said.

“What I never lose is the ability to be a pastor. That, for me, is the first and foremost reason I am there.”

Brett Sylvia

The Sylvias took the Lowcountry by storm when they moved from St. Charles, Missouri, to Bluffton when Brett was a freshman in high school.

Bo Sylvia, his father, was the storm trouper, coaching soccer and teaching at Hilton Head Preparatory School until both father and son moved to Hilton Head Island High for Brett’s senior year.

Bo Sylvia’s teams were all successful, with players calling themselves members of “The Five” and wearing “The Five” T-shirts. It was a philosophy of success the elder Sylvia developed over the years, standing for:

Competitive fire.

Self-belief.

Loyalty to each other and to the school.

Self-discipline.

Collective responsibility.

Both Bo and Brett Sylvia are in the Hilton Head Island High School Athletic Hall of Fame.

Bo Sylvia said his son was “always a straight-A student. He always responded well to challenges. That was never the issue. The issue was pushing him to a higher limit than he thought was possible.”

He said that was done by Hilton Head High science teacher Kathy Howard (now Kathy Weatherhead, on the faculty at the University of South Carolina Beaufort).

“She really pushed him hard.”

Brett Sylvia agreed, but said, “At the end of the day, it was my father who had the greatest impact on me, to push me, prod me and hold me accountable, not settling for whatever used to be acceptable.

“My father is a competitor. Winning is a huge deal. I’ve taken that into everything I’ve done: team competition, team sports and, at the end of the day, the Army is about that same team competition, with the ultimate competition being combat and the stakes of winning and losing having ramifications for our freedom.”

Sylvia has been deployed eight times for a total of 60 months (five years) in Iraq, Afghanistan and Bosnia.

He became a Ranger, just like his older brother, Gabriel, a Hilton Head Prep and West Point graduate who left the service for a “higher calling” as a pastor.

As a colonel, Brett Sylvia commanded the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division, and Task Force Strike when it worked with Iraqis to take back eastern Mosul from ISIS in late 2016.

A Department of Defense news story reported Sylvia’s fondest moment in Iraq: “It was Christmas Day, and Iraqi forces, who are Muslim, invited him and his soldiers to a Christian church just outside Mosul to attend services. ISIS had gutted the church, but the Iraqis had rebuilt it with their own money.”

Of Sylvia’s command of some 2,200 people, all but one made it home, and that casualty was not in combat but in a car wreck, he said.

His military decorations include four Legions of Merit; six Bronze Stars, including one with valor; and the Purple Heart. He finished first in his environmental engineering major at West Point, and has two master’s degrees.

He often thinks back to his mornings in the Lowcountry, when his father drove them to school from Bluffton.

“When we came across that double bridge and we would look at the sun rising and my father would say, ‘Do you see that? Do you see that? Look at that. This is paradise. People pay a lot of money to do this, but you get to do it free.’

“That sums up my time living in paradise with wonderful people giving me an incredible foundation. I’m so thankful.”

Sylvia and his wife, Lori, have five children, ages 21 to 7. They’ve sent the first three off to Duke, Georgetown and the University of Pennsylvania.

Bo and Carol Sylvia left Hilton Head in the mid-1990s. They retired in 2012 and now live in Myrtle Beach.

Bo Sylvia said he is not surprised his son is a general. “I expected it,” he said.

Brett Sylvia explained, “It is the culmination of a series of investments that other people have made in me over a lifetime. That’s what it is.”

Senior editor David Lauderdale has been a Lowcountry journalist for more than 40 years. He oversees the editorial page, writes opinion, and tells the stories of our community. His columns have twice won McClatchy’s President’s Award. He grew up in Atlanta, but Hilton Head Island is home.
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