by Dana Zimbleman
In late October, I sat down with PPCC Math and English Dean and retired Army Colonel Joseph Southcott, who discussed his military service and why he carries 16 names with him every single day.
DZ: The first question I have for you is about your younger years and how you decided to join the military. How did you get to West Point? That’s a pretty prestigious honor. You’re up there with the giants…Grant, Lee…
Dean Southcott: Don’t forget about Eisenhower and Patton (laughing).
DZ: Seriously, how did you end up there? It’s a big deal! Who encouraged you? Was it a family thing or just a random, “I think I’ll apply to West Point” impulse?
Dean Southcott: No, it definitely was not random. When I was in sixth grade, I wrote a letter to the congressman of the 36th congressional district in western New York state, Congressman Henry P. Smith III, and I told him that I wanted to be a page in Washington D.C. I also told him I wanted to do three things in life: Be an Eagle Scout, go to West Point, and become the president of the United States of America. Now I’ve done two of those three.
DZ: Southcott 2024!
Dean Southcott: (Laughing) I still have to work on the presidency.
DZ: You’ve got time!
Dean Southcott: That’s the god’s honest truth. I continued to work on getting into West Point. I was nominated by the congressman at the time, Congressman John J. LaFalce. There are certain presidential and vice-presidential nominations, but I was a direct appointment of the congressman from my district in 1980.
My father is a Korean War veteran, and I have uncles who were in the second world war. But as far as my immediate family, Dad, my younger brother in the navy, me, but none of my older brothers. In 1992 or 1993, Adam, my younger brother, re-enlisted, and he was stationed in Boston. He came down to West Point so I could re-enlist him.
DZ: Would your dad talk about his experiences in Korea?
Dean Southcott: No. Dad told me two things about the war. (Well, he probably told me more than two things.) But the first time he ever told me anything about his military experience when I was going to West Point. He said that some of the best guys he ever met were his squad mates that he fought with in Korea. Later on, we were having a conversation, and I was basically whining about something, and my dad’s snarky remark to me, because I was complaining about being wet, cold, and hungry at Ranger school, was that the coldest place he ever served was North Korea.
DZ: Ah yeah. With some of those guys who froze to death.
Dean Southcott: Roger that.
DZ: So, did the military allow you to pursue the career goals you had for yourself? If you hadn’t joined the military, what would you have done?
Dean Southcott: Yes, I absolutely wanted to go to West Point, and I absolutely wanted to be a professional soldier. And my goal was either to retire in the military or die in the military. That was my plan, with a caveat. Some of us who are old enough…You might remember the war on drugs.
Dean Southcott: When I was first stationed overseas, I had the opportunity to apply to be a part of the war on drugs. I was, like, “Man, I want to be a drug enforcement agent or a special forces guy and go down to South America and kill bad guys!” Because that’s where the bad guys were then, right? You’ve got to understand, the Cold War was going on when I graduated the Academy. I was in Germany for five years right after graduation. I was part of the Cold War. But the real cool stuff was going on in South America.
But then I met this woman, and damn it, fell in love, and she said, “If we’re going to get married, you’re not going to South America,” so she put the kibosh on that plan! I ended up staying in the regular army (laughs).
Graduating from the Academy requires a five-year commitment. And a lot of my classmates did their five years and got out. I was never of that mindset. I was always of the mindset that I would continue to serve, other than that minor thought that I might go off and do counter-drug operations in South America until my future wife told me, “No, you’re not going to do that.”
DZ: (laughs). And so…you also had a second career as an academic.
Dean Southcott: See, my entire military career, I never had to ask for a job. It was 1989. I was sitting at dinner with my wife in our quarters in Baumholder, Germany. This is summer of ’89. We were on orders to leave in December of ’89 and go back to Fort Benning, Georgia, for the Infantry Officer Advanced Course (IOAC), and then after that I didn’t know what I was going to do. The phone rang, and it was my assignment officer. He said, “You’re due to PCS (permanent change of station) in December, you’re going to IOAC. What do you think about going to graduate school after your advanced course?” I nearly fell out of my chair. Graduate school? That was the furthest thing from my mind! I never thought the army would give me the chance to go back to graduate school. He said, “West Point wants you to come back and teach math for them.” I thought, “That’s insane!” When you’re a cadet, and you look at those folks teaching, you think, “They must be really smart, 4.0, Ph.D, that kind of stuff.” My assignment officer said, “You’re a by-name request by Colonel Giordano.” When I was a cadet at West Point, Colonel Giordano was Lt. Colonel Giordano, my math professor for a series of math classes, and we just connected. He was now the head of the department of mathematical sciences at West Point, and he requested me. And I thought, “That’s awesome!”
So that’s how I got into education. Did two years at Georgia Tech, got my master’s degree in operations research, which is a soft engineering program. I went up and taught calculus at West Point for three years and loved it. I loved being in the classroom and interacting with cadets, developing future leaders. So, wherever I was after that, I always went to the local community college and tried to get an adjunct position, and I did that in a couple of places.
DZ: What was your first major deployment outside the U.S. Did you have your family with you? How often were they with you when you were away?
Dean Southcott: For the first 20 years of my military career, I was overseas more than half of that. So the sequence of assignments were: Graduated from the Academy in ’84, went to Ft. Benning for a year to do a lot of military training, Airborne school, infantry officer basic course, ranger school, graduated from all that in March of ’85, then went to Germany in April of ’85. I was single at the time. Served in Germany from April of ’85 to December of ’89. In ’85, I met my wife Lisa. She was an active duty officer at the time. She was in Stuttgart, Germany, and I was in Baumholder Germany.
Back then, during the Cold War, we had two corps in Germany, 7th Corps and 5th Corps. Now you don’t even have a division in Germany. That’s how much we’ve drawn down forces since the Cold War ended. Anyway, she and I ended up at a military course at the same time…that’s how we met. It was a two-week course. It was love at first sight. We dated for two years, got married in ’87. So that was the first overseas assignment. We came back to the states to Ft. Benning for my advanced course, went to Georgia Tech to get a graduate degree, went to West Point to teach, went to Leavenworth for Command and General Staff College, not to go to prison (laughs), and then to Ft. Hood for two years.
Then in ’98, we ended up back in Germany for three years. We had three children by then. The Berlin Wall came down in November 1989 and the Cold War ends with the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991. The Balkan war starts in ’92, NATO air strikes begin in ’95, and the Kosovo war in ’98. So while in Germany I did a couple of trips into the Balkans. We left in 2001, came back to Ft. Benning, thinking this was going to be a three-year assignment, and it ended up being ten months.
That’s when we went to Korea. So, we went to Korea in 2002, stayed in Korea until 2004. Lisa and the kids stayed in Korea when I went to Iraq on my first trip. So, I went to Iraq from August 2004 to August 2005. We all met up back here at Ft. Carson. Lisa and the kids came to Colorado from Korea, and I came from Iraq to Ft. Carson. We’ve been in Colorado Springs ever since. After my change of command in December 2005, I was assigned to the Current Operations Directorate at USNORTHCOM on Peterson Air Force Base until the summer of 2009. I made my second trip to Iraq from summer 2009 to fall 2010. When I returned from Iraq, I was reassigned to NORTHCOM until my retirement on June 1st 2014.
I served in Iraq pre-surge and post-surge. In 2004, the main effort was the second battle of Fallujah, the national elections, and the standing up of Iraqi Security Forces. Then I was back there in 2009, which was the transition of military authority from the U.S. to Iraqi security forces.
DZ: Now… Lisa’s background. You said she was in the military as well… She was an officer. Was she in the military the entire time? When did she get out?
Dean Southcott: ’89. She was an ROTC graduate, so she, too, had a five-year commitment. And so, she got out in September of ’89, right at her five-year mark, and has been a mom ever since.
DZ: I was just thinking about juggling a military commitment with a young family. Have you seen the movie Thirteen Hours? About the Benghazi issue?
Dean Southcott: Yep. Oh absolutely!
DZ: One of the most touching scenes, in my mind, is when the Jack character is talking to his wife. They’re video conferencing. He’s in Benghazi. She’s in the U.S. She’s in line at McDonald’s with a whole van full of kids—her own and probably a few of their playmates. She and Jack are trying to sort out family business. She says something like, “Well, what about the life insurance bill?” He says, “You’ve got to pay it!” And she says, “Ok, I’ll figure it out,” an obvious allusion to the fact that, being a military contractor in such a violent environment, his life insurance must be an astronomical expense that she’s going to have to figure out how to pay from the family budget. She’s also telling him there’s a tree in the front yard that needs to be cut down, and they’re discussing other family business. One of the kids blurts out that they’re going to have another baby. He’s surprised, taken aback in the moment, and says, “Another baby?” He hurts her feelings and upsets her. Long story short, it’s a scene showing how tough her life is, having to manage the family stateside while he’s away. But he also has to maintain his own composure and try to be supportive of her. He cannot really discuss his own fears, that he may find himself in some situation where he gets his head blown off. He has to be supportive but knows he may have to face holy hell at any moment.
Dean Southcott: Two funny stories. The very first patrol I did in Iraq in 2004, we were ambushed. The very last vehicle in the convoy—I think I was third from last—or maybe second from last. It was either two behind me or one behind me. Both soldiers in the vehicle were injured. An ensuing firefight took place. My wife read about that incident in the Stars and Stripes paper before I told her about it, and she was not a happy camper (laughs). From the get-go, we had embedded reporters, a Stars and Stripes guy. I took a lot of flak from my wife for that.
The second one is one of our family things. Our daughter Olivia was born in Korea. We have six children, and her birth was the only one I wasn’t there for. That in itself is an issue that will bubble up in conversation over Thanksgiving or Christmas. Her birthday—ha! Lisa was in a military hospital in Korea. The military has what is called Defense Switch Network—DSN phone lines. I called and got to—the baby ward or whatever the hell that’s called—can’t think of the name—and the ward nurse says, “Oh, your wife has a phone in her room. Let me patch you through!” Lisa was in labor, and she says, “You’re the last person in the world I want to talk to!” (Laughs.) Yeah, so I’m pacing in my command post in Iraq as my wife is having a baby in Korea.
So the whole family thing…There’s a huge amount of support that has to come for the spouse and kids, or you just worry about stuff. One of the reasons Lisa and the kids stayed in Korea when I was in Iraq was they had a support network right there. They had lived in Black Hawk Village for two years, and all those families there, all those husbands or wives, were either working right there in Seoul or up on one of the camps, so it was a tight-knit community. So me going off to Iraq, there was no way I was going to pick her up and move her someplace else.
When she was here in Colorado Springs and I went back to Iraq for my second trip, she was well-established, neighbors, and so forth, and that support network is so important for the families. They need support, and you need to know they’ve got support. And you don’t need to be worry about bills or whatever, though you do get those kinds of phone calls.
DZ: So how was it for you and when you came back and she’d been by herself for a while?
Dean Southcott: Ohhhh!
DZ: Are you kind of, I don’t know, standing around like a chump, going, “What do I…do? Should I help out and actually load the dishwasher?” Did you even know how a dishwasher works? (Laughs)
Dean Southcott: (laughs): We call that re-integration. Yeah, you have to slowly ease yourself back into it. You can’t come back in and take over operations.
If I put the dishes away in the wrong place, is she going to get mad at me? If I put the cereal in the cabinet how I like the cereal, is she going to yell at me?
DZ: Because…basic things like home maintenance…if the roof needs repaired, are there conflicts?
Dean Southcott: Not necessarily conflicts, but there is an issue with smooth re-integration. And it’s not like my re-establishing my authority as the head of the household, don’t take it like that. It’s cooperation, Like, “Should I take the kids to school today? Do you want me to take the kids to school today? Would you rather I do that?” It’s a challenge. But again, they want you to integrate as much as you want to re-integrate.
DZ: How hard, though, is it to re-integrate when you’ve lived in…I don’t know how an officer lives when you’re away from home? Do the walls close in on you? Are you like, “I’ve got to get back, you know, to my homies in my unit?
Dean Southcott: It’s so funny you mention that. (I don’t know if you want to print this.) I sleep on my back, with my hands down by my side, because I spent so many nights in a sleeping bag, ‘cause that’s how I sleep. When I get in bed at night, that’s the position I take! Still, to this day!
DZ: Well, I would assume Lisa would like that because you don’t take up much space!
Dean Southcott: (Laughs.) I also make the bed as soon as I get out of it.
DZ: Military discipline can be advantageous to keeping a tidy house!
Dean Southcott: Yes. I’m a nut about that. If you go to my office, I’m a nut about it in my office. I keep things organized in a certain way. That’s how my mind works.
DZ: Where were you on 9/11?
Dean Southcott: On 9/11, I was in Ft Benning, Georgia, the Executive Officer of 3rd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division. I was in a video conference call with the assistant division commander for support (ADC). This is a monthly thing we’d do to discuss logistics, maintenance, etc. All of a sudden, I could tell the conference was being interrupted. I wondered, “What the hell’s going on?” Then the door to my conference room opened up, and my driver said, “Colonel Allen needs you in his office right now.”
I got down there in time to see the second airplane crash into the second tower.” Colonel Allen said “Joe, are your bags packed?” and I said, “Yes, sir, I’m ready to go.” I was in Kuwait within a week. I went back and forth with my team, planning our deployment into Kuwait, which didn’t actually happen until the spring. The first brigade to go into Kuwait was the 2nd Brigade out of the First Cavalry Division at Ft. Hood.
It was crazy! We lived on post, and so I was able to get to work the day after, but the guy next to me, Lt. Colonel Salvetti, he lived off post and it took him 13 hours to get on post the next day.
DZ: Because they were checking all the vehicles?
Dean Southcott: They shut everything down! I remember running around the night before with my operations officer, and we were looking at places of egress people might try to use to get on post. We were coordinating where we needed to put up barricades and so forth.
DZ: Now we really didn’t officially go back to war with Iraq until 2003, right?
Dean Southcott: That’s true. First, we went to Afghanistan. Afghanistan was the 101st out of Ft. Campbell. I want to say Operation Anaconda was the first major operation in Afghanistan, and that was in the fall. We didn’t get to the berm again until 2003. My division, the 3rd Infantry Division, was part of that. The 3rd Brigade of the 3rd Infantry Division was the most deployed brigade during those years, all the way through the drawdown.
The brigades that went to Kuwait were conducting expeditionary operations because we weren’t really deploying to go to war. Those brigades were in Kuwait to defend in case Saddam tried a second time to take over Kuwait. It wasn’t until later that we would build up forces to invade Iraq.
DZ: So when did you first see combat?
Dean Southcott: I deployed to Iraq in August of 2004. That’s an interesting story because US Forces Korea were planning to draw down forces in Korea, so this was an opportunity to take a brigade out of Korea, put it into Iraq as a surge operation. The 1st Marine Expeditionary Force (1MEF) needed extra forces, and there was nothing available in the U.S. When I left Korea in 2004 and went to Iraq, the only thing I knew was that we weren’t going back to Korea. As I recall, there were four or five places they thought we might go, Ft. Hood, Ft. Sill, Ft. Carson, Ft. Riley, so places that already had big, heavy units, mechanized units. But we didn’t know. It wasn’t until December of 2004 that we found out that we were going to Ft. Carson. That’s when families who were waiting to hear started moving to Ft. Carson to link up with us when we got back in August of 2005.
So I got there in August of 2004, and took over operations in September. We were an Army brigade working for the marines. And the 1MEF was responsible for the Al Anbar province in western Iraq.
The 1MEF, had three priorities, take back control of Fallujah, train and support the re-introduction of Iraqi security forces, and establish safe and secure polling sites in support of the 2005 national elections. They knew they wanted to take back Fallujah before the elections, so there was a definite timeline of events. The elections were going to happen in January. The other major part of this plan was the re-establishment of Iraqi security forces. Some Iraqi security forces had already been set up in places like Baghdad. So, we were doing a lot of that. And you’ve got to understand that Iraqi security forces means different things, army units, police units, national guard units, border units, all that. Later on, in my second tour, I was really involved in that.
Al Anbar Province at that time was pretty much the Wild, Wild West. The question wasn’t whether you were going to get attacked or have casualties that day. It was really about who, where, and when. We were loaded for bear every time we went out the gate, ready to fight.
I told my intelligence officer, “I don’t need to know if we’re going to take a mortar. Can you kind of tell me when, and from what direction we’re going to get a missile or a mortar attack?” It’s really hard to explain, but you knew at some point in the day, the siren was going to go off because of incoming rounds. I knew that at some point in the day that I was going to get a report that one of my patrols had been ambushed.
FOB (Forward Operating Base) Ramadi was just west of the city of Ramadi. So Colonel Patton’s brigade…
DZ (interrupting): Any relation to THE Patton?
Dean Southcott: No, but everyone asks that question (laughs). He does become a major general.
DZ: Well, that’s a relief. Anyone with that name better make general.
Dean Southcott: (laughs). He retired as a major general after serving in the office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Military Personnel. But anyway, he commanded a brigade combat team that was responsible for an area of operations that included the city of Ramadi. The 1st Battalion of the 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment was in Ramadi working alongside a Marine Battalion attached to Colonel Patton’s brigade. The 1st Battalion of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment was east of Ramadi in the city of Habbaniyah, and my battalion, 1st Battalion of the 9th Infantry Regiment, was west of Ramadi. If you think about how Iraq is laid out, Ramadi is the capital of Al Anbar province, so that’s why we had to hold Ramadi. There is a road directly from Ramadi into Habbaniyah that goes into Fallujah, so there was an important supply line/line of communication that we had to own. So that’s why Dave Clark’s battalion, 1st of the 506th, was in Habbaniyah, and Justin Gubler’s battalion, 1st of the 503rd was in Ramadi, and my battalion, Task Force 1-9 was west of Ramadi. My task force brought the heavy forces, tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles because these two other battalions are light battalions, light infantry mounted in up armored Humvees.
My battalion patrolled north of Ramadi providing security along what is known as the MSR, the main supply route, that went from the western Iraq border with Syria and ran all the way to Baghdad. If you look at a map of Iraq it is Highway 1. The road that connected the cities of Ramadi to Habbaniyah to Fallujah to Baghdad was Highway 11. That’s how that whole interaction takes place for the fight in Fallujah that was so important, that opened up Baghdad to Fallujah, to Habbaniyah, into Ramadi. That was where the main effort was throughout the year. Again, it all played to run a successful election. Had we not taken back Fallujah, taken control of Ramadi and Habbaniyah, that part played such an important part in the election, I don’t think the election would have been seen as valid.
So Fallujah, known as Operation Al Fajr, takes place in November and December. If you look at the history of the Second Battle of Fallujah, you’ll see a lot of marine and army units, because U.S. Forces Iraq provided additional army units to 1MEF to make the operation successful.
My part of that fight is actually my Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment, which actually plays a very pivotal part in securing the bridges that allow the major forces to go into Fallujah. We actually got back to FOB Ramadi…I want to say after Thanksgiving, though I’d have to check my notes on that. But we didn’t lose anybody in Fallujah. All my losses took place prior to the fight and later on in other fights we had. I mean, we had some wounded soldiers, but no actual KIAs.
The other part about it that you don’t read in books is that the second battle for Fallujah starts with Charlie company 1/9 infantry directing the takedown what we (the MEF) believed were the insurgent forces in Iraq’s headquarters. I want to say an old police or army headquarters building. Anyway, that was one of the first tasks they did was drop a 500-pound bomb from a marine airplane on that building. That was the initiation of the Second Battle of Fallujah. The bomb takes out the building, Charlie company went and secured the bridges, and then we passed marine and other U.S. army forces through us into Fallujah.
DZ: What should young students who did not live through 9/11 know about the war on terror?
Dean Southcott: When I read that question, I put a lot of thought into it. There are military officers who cut their teeth as lieutenants and soldiers who were privates during the war of terror. They are now retirement eligible. They’ve spent their entire military career in this thing we know as the war on terrorism. The class of 2001 that came out of the Academy, they graduated in May of 2001, they’re in their basic officer courses, they’re learning to fly if they’re at the Air Force Academy, they’re learning to drive a boat if they’re from the Naval Academy, they graduate, woo-hoo, everything is cool. Then September 11 happens!
Those young second lieutenants are now eligible to retire next September! I find it amazing that I spent half of my military career in the Cold War, right? And part of it in the Balkans! These guys and gals have been in the military for the entire war on terror. This is the longest—other than the Cold War—active fighting, shooting war we’ve ever been in. That’s incredible! So I think those officers are the ones you should be talking to because I left in 2014, six almost seven years ago. They’ve probably been to Iraq and Afghanistan four, five, six times. Who did that? Not even in Vietnam did we do that.
Let me tell you a little war story. Sargent First Class Valentine was my second platoon sergeant as a platoon leader in Germany, and he was a Vietnam veteran. He used to say, “Every time I went to Vietnam, I was an E-5, and every time I came back, I was an E-1 (laughs). He’d get busted, right? He had gone three times! He had served three different tours in Vietnam. Now you think about these guys who’ve fought the war on terrorism, four, five, six, deployments! It’s crazy!
DZ: It’s so strange to me. I guess it’s been this way forever, at least since the ending of the draft. So we don’t have…People are fighting on our behalf…or, maybe not on our behalf. We don’t really know anymore. I guess what I mean is that the draft made us more tuned in, and people had more incentive to ask what are we doing, why we are deploying forces? I mean, we’re still in places like Korea and Okinawa! But I think they’re going to move the Okinawa base to Guam.
Dean Southcott: So some places where we’ve been, we’ve always been welcome. Some we haven’t been. Sometimes, I’d go into a German bakery, and the woman behind the counter would love us. A block down the street, at a bar that if we happened to go in, there would be some interestingly dressed younger generation of Germans who would throw us the finger, “Screw the United States! We don’t want you here! Get out!” I’m talking within a city block.
It depends on the cultures, whether they see us as liberators or oppressors. Sometimes there are intersections. I’d like to think it’s a middle of the spectrum. It’s a national or a regional security issue and they want us, and we want to be there versus it being a national security issue and we want to be there but they don’t want us, or it’s a regional issue but we don’t want to be there. It’s a spectrum, and it’s a hard thing to get your head around.
Sometimes, and that’s why, I’ve told you before, H.R. McMaster, a classmate of mine, big into the national security, global security thinking, and a smarter guy than I will ever be, understands these issues really, really well. He served 13-14 months as President Trump’s national security adviser. I love listening to his stuff. He breaks it down into a non-political Republican/Democrat thought process, he really thinks of it as a national United States kind of process. He doesn’t try to get into the politics of it, he just sees it from a security aspect.
DZ: I don’t have the background to grapple with it, other than we get into these areas and never come home. Like Germany. We’re still there, seventy-five years after the end of World War II!
Dean Southcott: A perfect example is Turkey. We are not liked there at all. We’ve been there forever. And we’re still there! So what is it about that little country that we see as such a strategic role in our national security, that even though they don’t want us there? Now I say that, but maybe there are some elements within Turkey that want us there.
DZ: And that relationship impacts a whole lot of other relationships like Armenia, the Armenian genocide, and the U.S.’s unwillingness to recognize it because of our relationship with Turkey and having a base there.
Dean Southcott: It is. And I think that’s the key. The complexity has so much back history. It amazed me in Iraq, when I could be in the same room with a Shia and a Shiite, drinking chai tea, and everybody was getting along with everyone. No problem. There would be places where I would go in Iraq and everyone got along, the mosques got along great. A big happy community, if you will. Then we’d go into another area, and everyone hated each other, wanted to kill each other. It was like, “What’s going on over here?” I could never really understand it. There was another area, Hit and Haditha, along the Euphrates River, on the northern part of Al Anbar province, we’d conduct operations there periodically. Very peaceful places, but every now and then, there would be a spike and nine times out of ten, we weren’t fighting insurgents; we weren’t fighting local militia. When we got into serious gunfights, we were fighting well-trained Syrian army guys coming out of Syria into Iraq to keep up the trouble. There was a pipeline of trained fighters from Syria into Iraq … we called it a “rat line.” These fighters would come out of Syria, into Al Anbar Province, on their way to Baghdad, or Fallujah, or Habbaniyah, or Najaf. That is why we had to train and support the re-introduction of Iraqi security forces who could secure their borders, even with Iran, that played a very important role.
DZ: That brings up some future implications for our military involvement in places like Syria. Will be involved in some future effort to topple the Assad government, as we did in Libya with Qaddafi? With the Trump administration’s hoping to draw down our forces in the Middle East but other national security specialists like McMaster, who think our involvement is critical to global security. Who knows? By the time this is published, a presidential election will have taken place….
Dean Southcott: Yes.
DZ: What was the hardest thing about your service?
Dean Southcott: The hardest thing an officer deals with is the dichotomy that results in loving a soldier and issuing an order that puts that soldier in harm’s way. That’s the hardest thing to deal with, especially when that order results in the death or disabling to one of your people. That weighs on the mind of people in leadership. That’s the hardest thing anybody can do.
DZ: Did you have to talk to family members?
Dean Southcott: All the time! So I lost 16 soldiers in Iraq. I failed to bring 16 men home. Every one of them died in combat as a result of an order I issued. All 16 of those families I personally spoke with. I wrote letters of condolence. Spoke at those memorial services. All their names are in the book I carry with me every day (shows me the book).
It’s not so much a specific memory. It’s knowing that, carrying that burden the rest of your life. If you were to ask me which of those 16 was the hardest, it would probably be the four we lost on a single day. That crushed us….to lose that many in a single day. Again, all 16 were hard, but you lose four in one day, in a single mission, that can cripple a unit. Along with issuing an order that puts them in harm’s way, having to issue another order the next day that puts them in harm’s way again is….You can’t take a vacation! That’s not how that works. Yes, you have to grieve, go through that process, but you’ve got to get back up on your horse into the operation. If you didn’t….if any operation didn’t, that would just be disabling to the organization, to the mission, or the whole operation. Again, that’s the hardest thing to do as a military leader. In five, ten, thirty years, that’s what stays with you.
DZ: That sounds pretty selfless, an important quality for a military leader. But what about for yourself. Were there ever times you thought, “This is it. This is the day I’m going to die”?
Dean Southcott: So I was in a number of engagements. There are two occasions. There was a vehicle borne IED (VBIED), car bombs, if you will, that blew up in between my Humvee and another Humvee, injured us all in the vehicle. In that incident, I was cognizant that there was a vehicle that had just driven between my vehicle and the other vehicle on the road, where we were on patrol. And the next thing I remember was waking up at the aid station with an IV in my arm.
DZ: So it knocked you out!
Dean Southcott: Yes. So in that instance, I wasn’t thinking I was going to die. It just happened. There was no time to think. The second was an ambush, with me and another vehicle, we were in. That was a fight. That was a well-executed ambush on their part, that we fought with them for a long time. The thought never went through my head that I was going to die until after the fact.
When something like that happens, you go into sort of—I won’t say survival mode—but you start doing things because they’re habitual, they’re embedded in you. You start issuing commands to your gunner. You start firing back yourself. You’re talking on the radio. The thought isn’t “Holy shit. I’m going to die.”
In other cases, the thought did occur to me because I’m given time to reflect as it’s going on. Another one was in Ramadi, and we were clearing some buildings, and me and three other men are on the top of a building. We were trying to get into a position where I had observational command of the area. We came running across the top of the building, the sergeant behind me got shot. Smack dab center mass in his individual body armor, his IBA. Knocked him flat on his ass. I’m thinking, “Holy shit. He’s been killed.” But he wasn’t dead. But the bruise on his chest was massive. I have a picture of it. So it wasn’t “Holy shit, I’m going to die.” It was holy shit, he’s dead.” He’s lying there, his eyes big.
Another incident was one day when I was sitting in my office. I’ve already talked about every day we were taking incoming. I was in my office, inside FOB Ramadi. Right outside my office, to the left of me, is what we call the ready-pad, for what we call the QRF, the Quick Reaction Force. I was responsible for the quick reaction force for the brigade, if something was going on in a specific area, and they needed reinforcements. I had a couple of tanks, a couple of Bradley Fighting Vehicles, and a lite QRF with four Humvees, armored Humvees with .50 cal machine guns.
A missile—a 120 millimeter rocket—I call them missiles—blew up right there. Blew the door off, blew the sandbags out of my windows, blew me out of my chair, dust, debris everywhere. I’m like, “Holy shit!” And what you have to understand about 120 millimeter rockets is they were just aimed and fired. They had no way of knowing where they were going to hit. So I was never in the moment thinking I was going to die. But when we left the FOB…It was game on. Somebody is out hunting us and wants to cause harm to U.S. forces.
DZ: Do you ever have any kind of PTSD?
Dean Southcott: Oh, yeah. Loud noises, that kind of thing. People still startle me in my office. Even though I leave the door open all the time. Somebody will pop in and get me that way. Driving on the highway, sometimes I’ll get it…..The other day, some jackass was darting in and out, and that bothers me. Sometimes if I’m home alone, and I’ve got nothing to do, I gotta go find something to do, or you know, you start reflecting. Not that reflection is bad. I keep a lot of military stuff around. My garage where I have a lot of stuff, or my office. It’s not there that it happens, it somewhere else where it happens. There do seem to be triggers—a car, a noise, someone startles me.
DZ: I’ve taken a number of shooting/marksmanship classes, and they teach a lot about situational awareness. This sounds similar.
Dean Southcott: I know where every exit is all the time. I always know there is more than one way to go from Point A to Point B. It’s a second nature kind of thing. One of my military buddies was in a traffic accident—a minor traffic accident, only because he has second nature, knee-jerk, if you will, quick thinking, because his body has been trained that way. I really think that comes into play a lot. You can bet that if I’m say, on an airplane, I’m in the back, on the aisle, so if something goes down, I can see, move, shoot, maneuver, and communicate better than everybody!
DZ: Of what of you most proud? What is the line from Patton about shoveling…well, you know…in Louisiana? What will you tell your grandkids about your service?
Dean Southcott: I just look back at all 30 years and think that it was all worthwhile. It was all great. There’s a saying in the army and probably the military generally that the worst two units are the one you are leaving and the one you are going to. And it’s a joke, right? I would rather say the best two assignments I ever had were the ones I was leaving and the one I was going to. I never had a bad assignment. I never said, “I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to do this. I wish I wasn’t in Iraq. I wish I were someplace else.” I look back on every one of my assignments and am glad I did it. I never had to campaign for my next job. I was always given an opportunity, and I could say, “Hey, that sounds really, really cool.”
My old man, like I told you, was a Korean War veteran, and though he didn’t tell me a lot about Korea, I had read about it. I said to myself, “I don’t think I want to serve in Korea. I don’t want to do that.” And so there was a point in time in my military career, I would say to my wife Lisa. I said, “You know, honey, if we ever get an assignment to Korea, I think that might be a point which I call it quits.” I never thought I would command a battalion in Korea, but that was the opportunity I was given, and I was like, “Holy moly, you don’t turn down battalion command!” That is a list very few officers get to be on. That’s a list that you know gives you the chance to be a senior officer. I could be a colonel. I could be a general. And so you don’t turn that down, and when you do accept it, it’s a huge yoke on anybody’s shoulders to be the commander of a battalion.
So we were in Ft. Benning in 2001, after 9/11, going back and forth to Kuwait, and it’s Thanksgiving. Colonel Allen says to me, “Hey Joe, congratulations, you are on the command list for battalion. Looks like you’re going to command a battalion in Korea. I’m like “What?” I was shocked! We’d just got back from Germany in August, and they were telling me I was going to go command a battalion in June! We hadn’t even unpacked our boxes! I was thinking, “Oh, this is not going to go over well with Lisa.” So Colonel Allen said, “Joe, tell her in a public place. That way, she can’t get mad.” (laughs).
DZ: Oh my gosh! Did you?
Dean Southcott: I did! So Matthew was in kindergarten and they were doing a Thanksgiving program. We were at his school for lunch that Wednesday afternoon, and we were having fun. We were sitting in the cafeteria, and so I say, “Honey I have to tell you something.” She’s probably thinking, “Oh hell, he’s probably going back to Kuwait,” or something, another two weeks, three weeks. So I said, “Guess what? I came out on the battalion command list.” She says, “Oh that’s great! What battalion did you get?” I said “Uhhh…1/9 Infantry in Korea. She’s like, “What?!?!” (laughs).
When I took the oath of office as a cadet at West Point in July of 1980 to my retirement in June of 2014, that was some really interesting history. There’s the Cold War, there’s the collapse of the Soviet Union, sadly the breakup of the Soviet Union resulted in the devastation in the Balkans, and then that created the Desert Shield/Desert Storm/9/11, the global war on terror, that is some serious history. I just think that was a great time to be in the military. A lot of opportunities to travel the world and do many interesting things. I was proud to serve during such a momentous time in American history.
DZ: Thank you so much for sharing your military experiences
Dean Southcott: My pleasure!
Dana Zimbleman is a Professor of English and Instructor of History at Pikes Peak Community College as well as the Editor of SITREP.