The military is a breeding ground for excellence. You have to be a cut — or two — above the rest to make it through those doors and the wringer doesn't stop until you are appropriately Blue, Green, or Marine.
It is no surprise that some of those excellent members turned out to be some of the all-time great athletes. Check out some of the best to ever step on the field of competition before, after, and sometimes during service to their country.
7. Bernard James - United States Air Force
James served in the U.S. Air Force from 2002 to 2008 as a security forces member, HUA. James would separate from service to eventually attend and play ball for Florida State. He was drafted in 2012 by the Cleveland Cavaliers. James is the youngest veteran on this list at 32.
Bernard James in warm-ups. A long way from the front gate. (Image from Wikimedia Commons)
6. Elgin Baylor - Army Reserves
Baylor joined U.S. Army Reserves during his Hall of Fame career. At the time, Baylor was one of the premier players in the early days of the NBA. He was called to active duty during the 1962 season, having to bounce from duty to game and back throughout the course of the season. Baylor is a Hall of Fame inductee and a stylistic predecessor to many of today's players.
Elgin Baylor. He was basically MJ before MJ... seriously. (Image from Alchteron.com)
5. Alejandro Villanueva - Army
Villanueva attended West Point and received a commission in the U.S. Army in 2010. He would initially go undrafted before eventually finding a home with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2014. In the space between, Villanueva served his country as a U.S. Army Ranger and notched a few tours in the Middle East under his belt. His journey has come full circle, as he made the NFL Pro Bowl in 2017.
Alejandro Villanueva post-game with Steelers in 2015. From Army Ranger to NFL O-line. (Image from Wikimedia Commons)
4. Willie Mays - Army
Mays was drafted to the U.S. Army in 1952 during the Korean War. He would miss two seasons while serving his country. He would return to the MLB with the San Francisco Giants in 1954 and promptly liter the record books with his name. Mays would go on to make every All-Star game until retirement in 1973.
A 1951 Bowman of Willie Mays. Just a year before serving in the Korean War. (Image from Wikimedia Commons)
3. Nolan Ryan - Army Reserves
Ryan holds the MLB record for strikeouts — nearly 1,000 strikeouts ahead of the number 2 guy — and no-hitters. He enlisted in the U.S. Army Reserves in 1967.
Nolan Ryan after opening up a can of whoop *ss. (Image from BeyondTheBoxScore.com)
2. Randy Couture - Army
Couture served in the U.S. Army from 1982 to 1988. He attained the rank of sergeant before separating to pursue other endeavors. He went on to become an Olympic team alternate three times as a Greco-Roman wrestler before going on to UFC fame.
Former UFC champion Randy Couture spent the afternoon with the Army Marksmanship Unit seeing what the AMU does and getting to know the troops April 17. (Photo from Ft. Benning)
1. Brandon Vera - United States Air Force
Vera enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in the late 1990's after deciding college wasn't the route for him. He trained with the Air Force wrestling team before injuring his arm and eventually being medically discharged from service.
Vera went on to rehab himself and make it to the UFC where he has a professional record of 15 and 7.
Brandon Vera landing a front kick during UFC 164. (Image from MMA Mania)