Tony Liles had a simple plan when he was at Harnett Central. After graduating high school in 1994, he was going to play college basketball, earn his degree and come back to Harnett County to teach. But life is rarely so simple.
Less than one year into his college basketball career at Methodist College (now Methodist University), Liles felt things start to change.
“It was like I was searching for myself in college,” Liles said. “I got lost; I didn’t know who I was or what my goals were anymore. I had an uncle that recommended I join the Army, just to take a step back and kind of put things in perspective.”
Liles signed up to serve four years, just long enough so he could make enough money to go back to college. But instead, he found his calling.
“Four years turned into eight, eight turned into 12, and the next thing you know I’m walking out at 24 years,” Liles said with a laugh. “I’m more than happy with how everything turned out. It’s been a rewarding 24 years.”
He officially enlisted on March 27, 1995. On June 21 of 2019, he hung up his boots for the last time as a Command Sergeant Major — the highest enlisted rank in the Army. In those 24 years, he’s been all over the country and been deployed multiple times. He most recently returned from his fourth combat tour in Bagram, Afghanistan. It was the largest aviation taskforce in the country at the time, and one of the most successful, as every single member made it home safely.
“The most challenging part of being overseas is when someone doesn’t make it home,” Liles said. “When you have that homecoming and you make it home, you feel it... But in this last one in Afghanistan was great, to be able to come back to U.S. soil with every single brother and sister that you departed with, it’s the best feeling in the world.”
Liles has learned a lot in his years in the Army, but he still credits his humble roots in Buies Creek for helping him build a strong foundation.
One of his most influential mentors was Harnett Central basketball coach Will Gage. Liles is actually the very first player to play all four years of high school for Gage. He started off on the JV team as a freshman in the 1990-91 season, which was Gage’s first year as the JV coach. And when Liles moved up to varsity his junior year, Gage was promoted to coach the varsity squad.
Liles and Gage spent a lot of time together in those four years. Often times, the JV team wouldn’t practice until late at night, so they’d be together from the time school got out until the time practice ended. And they spent many nights together on the bus rides home from games. One of those nights, Gage taught Liles the proper way to eat a steak at Heath’s Steakhouse in Dunn. And he taught him a lot more than that in those four years.
“Time is the most precious thing that an individual has, and he never hesitated to spend that time with me,” Liles said of Gage. “Even during the offseason, he’d train with me. He taught me certain things about life, he taught me what was important to be able to get into college. Just those little things, you know, how to be a gentleman. I got closer to God through it all, just so many life lessons. He’s more than a coach, a life coach, a mentor.”
Liles even credited his love for history to Gage, who will teach the subject at Harnett Central for the 30th year this upcoming school year. In 2018, he earned his bachelor’s degree in history online from Exlcelsior College.
Gage has always had high praise for Liles. One of his earliest memories of Liles was when he watched him score 38 points in a game at Buies Creek Middle School.
“I don’t care who you are, you could be shooting by yourself in an open gym and you’d have a tough time scoring 38 points,” Gage joked.
Liles always had an impressive ability to shoot the ball at Harnett Central, especially in clutch situations. Even more impressive to Gage though was the person Liles was off the court.
“He was one of those kids that you never had to worry about where they were or what they were doing,” Gage said. “Tony was always going to carry himself the right way, and that discipline obviously translated well to the military.
“I was surprised when I heard that he was joining the military, simply for the fact that we had never talked about it. But once I heard that he was, I immediately thought: ‘He’s probably going to be a career soldier, because someone of his caliber is going to climb the ranks.’”
Liles still looks back fondly on his days at Harnett Central. He always looked forward to the rivalry games with Western Harnett and enjoyed the comradery with his teammates. The thing he most cherished was the opportunity to grow and develop.
“We were always very gracious when we won, but I would say that we never really lost,” Liles said. “Because every time, the next day at practice, we’d learn why the other team outscored us. So you either win or you learn, and that’s one of the most important things I learned from coach Gage and Harnett Central.”
Liles returned to Harnett County last week for his retirement ceremony at the Airborne & Special Operations Museum in Fayetteville on Saturday. His family has moved all over the country, and they currently reside in Meridian, Idaho, where Liles plans to start a career in the federal government with the Department of the Interior. He doesn’t get to make the trip down to Buies Creek very often, but he was thrilled to be back.
“My favorite part is the smell of pine trees, the sound of crickets, the open night sky — just being home,” Liles said. “No matter how many countries I visit, how many places I go, this will always be home.”