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Wilkes County Veterans History Project: Phil Southwell

In flight

Alaska Glacier National Park

Class Advisor Graduation

Class Advisor Winter Dress

Flight Crew

Instructor Winter Dress Blues

Salute to Service Game

Veteran's Story

Phil Southwell was born on May 17, 1982, to Mike and Mary Southwell, in Wilkesboro, NC. He has one brother, who lives in Indiana.

He went to Western Carolina University from 2000-2004, studying to get a degree in Sports Management. He then spent some time working with a Hockey Team, but it wasn't very successful or fulfilling career. He bounced around other jobs, working for Lowes for a time, and the Grove Park Inn in Asheville, NC for a year. He then moved to Winston with his wife at the time and went to a recruiting center to sign up for the Coast Guard, in 2009. He was 27 years old. He served until August 2022, for just short of 13 years of service. 

He had a lot of reasons for wanting to join the Coast Guard. He wanted to serve because his family did. He was nearing the cut-off age for service. He wanted to find a career, rather than a job. He grew up with a love of boats and the ocean. It was a great way out of Wilkes and a chance to see the world. His father had served for 8 months before receiving a medical discharge.  Both of his grandfathers were military as well, serving in WWII. One was with the British Royal Navy, being a Welshman, and the other was in the US Army, named Ed Bell, in Pearl Harbor the day after it was attacked. He was later sent to Okinawa, Japan. His brother followed the family tradition, joining the State Guard in Indiana. 

When he told his family that he signed up, his father wasn't happy at first. He was shocked that his son chose the same career that he did, even though his didn't last very long. They realized that it would be a good choice for him and warmed up to his decision. It was hard to leave his family, but it was the right choice. He knew exactly what he wanted to do, and how to get where he wanted to be.

He went off to Boot Camp December 1, 2009. He started his career at Camp Marine, Cape May, New Jersey. He described it like a fraternity in college, but more extreme. The nest parts of the experience were getting into shape and the friends he made. There were some negatives to the experience, like the weather and lack of sleep. He joined in December and spent 8 weeks in New Jersey's winter environment. This wasn't made better by the commanders of the camp waking everyone up at 5 am or at 10 pm for drills, training, and exercises. At least there were no mosquitoes to deal with. 

After Boot Camp was finished, he went straight to California, studying to be an Operations Specialist at the Coast Guard's A School for 13 weeks. He learnt how to manage and organize people, information, communications and security systems, and resources to get missions done for the Coast Guard. 

He then went to Charleston, South Carolina, to spend time working as part of a Land Unit and put his learning into practice. He spent three years there, from 2010 to 2013. It functioned kind of like a mix of a 911 operator and Search and Rescue for the ocean. He then was sent to Alaska for three years, Florida for two years, and then back to California for three years, until the end of his service.

One of the cases that sticks out from his time in South Carolina, working with the Night Watch. He was working from 6:30 pm to 6:30 am. He got a call at 5 am, a 'Mayday' message from a family in a sinking boat. It was a man and woman, out with their two kids and their dog, when they got in trouble. They were able to help them with no difficulty, made easier by the closeness to Ft. Sumpter. 

His next assignment was in the Bering Sea, based out of Kodiak, Alaska, from 2013 to 2016. Part of that time was spent on the USCGC Alex Huxley. It had been a Navy Salvage boat from the 1980s, which was then turned into a Cutter for the Coast Guard. They named it after Alex Huxley, who was the first African American Chief Petty Officer in the Coast Guard, as well as Chief Journalist. It was like being stuck on a cruise ship mixed with a roller coaster for a year and a half. One of the things that he did for luck, which apparently worked, was to take Dramamine on the first day they were leaving, and he never got seasick. Other people he served with weren't so lucky, getting seasick and living on Dramamine. 

He went on two Arctic Patrols, gaining the Arctic Service Medal, after spending 21 days above the Arctic Circle. One of the biggest cases he worked there was a joint effort with South Korea, back in 2014. A South Korean fishing vessel sunk in Russian waters. It was extremely difficult to search for them, even with GPS and radar, as they had to wait for the South Korean Coast Guard, so they could share information and searching duties. The waters were rough and there were no landmarks. They ran 16 search patterns, covering over 5000 miles of open sea, searching for survivors or the remains of the vessel. That incident turned out to be a good PR situation for both countries. 

After that, he was sent to the Clearwater Air Station in Tampa, Florida, from 2016 to 2018. He earned his wings there, after flying for 408 hours. He spent three deployments there, two to Costa Rica and one to El Salvador. The food from Costa Rica was amazing. In 2019, at El Salvador, he was able to help stop a Low-Profile Vessel (LPV), known as a 'Go-fast'. They were able to follow it with a Cutter and sized over 3,250 lbs. of cocaine, which was the 3rd biggest bust in Coast Guard history at the time. He achieved the rank of First Petty Officer during this time.

After that, he went back to California, teaching Special Operations classes at the Coast Guard's A School. He did this from 2018 to 2022, for three 1/2 years. He spent his time teaching them what he learned in school, and from his experiences serving, and how to learn all they could from both the classrooms and their experiences. 

During this time, he was also given opportunities to continue his earlier works, by offering his expertise to various humanitarian efforts, organizing sending aid, personnel, supplies and resources. The most recent time was helping to organize the cleanup for Myrtle Beach, after the Hurricane in September 2022. He also helped with the Haiti Earthquake in 2021 and the Puerto Rican Hurricanes in 2020, when they were hit with three storms over the course of a year.

When he was serving, he got to see so many amazing places. He got to travel the world, try so many different cuisines, and see wildlife and nature in a completely different way than most. Seeing pods of orcas from the side of a ship, seeing Bald Eagles in Alaska. The locals called them dumpster chickens, as they were a nescience and a regular sight. He even got to see polar bears. One time, he saw a polar bear eating a seal. It looked like a murder scene. Another time, a polar bear was taking a swim, which forced the boat to change their course so they wouldn't hit it.  

All of these experiences opened his eyes. He was glad he joined the Coast Guard at 27 instead of 18. It made him appreciate the experience more, and he was more mature, and had a better understanding of what he wanted to do in his service, and where he wanted to go. It showed him what happened behind the scenes of the military, what most civilians have no idea of. They might see a plane at the beach, and he will see it, and know it's for training the new recruits, coming from the local base, a few miles away.

It was hard to leave the Coast Guard. It's something that stays with you. the mentality and the lessons learned. The routine and habits formed are hard to break, going from a uniform and regulation haircut to the endless number of choices as a civilian. After leaving the service, he got engaged to his fiancé, who is a local from Wilkes. They were able to move back home, after his travels across the world.

 They married in December of 2022. He was able to invite his friends, coming from all over the country that he made during his time in the military. He actually was able to get a friend to video-tape his wedding, as he had started a video business after his service. This was something he wouldn't have thought of, if they hadn't been friends.  

He's currently going back to school with help from the GI Bill. He's studying for his Graduate Degree in Risk Management at NC State, which he started back in 2022. 

For those thinking of joining the military, he suggests doing research before joining, not just about the branches, but what careers and specializes they offer, as well as schooling and other training opportunities. If you have no plan, branch or job in mind, finding something that will be fulfilling will be much harder, as the military will put you where they need you, rather than where you want to go.

During his service, he has earned a collection of awards and medals. He earned the Armed Forces Service Medal, the Department of Homeland Security Outstanding Unit Award, the Coast Guard Achievement Award, the Coast Guard Pistol Marksmanship Award, and the Coast Guard Arctic Service Medal. He has also earned 2 Humanitarian Service Medals, 2 Special Operations Service Ribbons, 5 Mertis Team Commendations, a Coast Guard Commandant Letter of Commendation, as well as 4 Good Conduct Medals and a Good Conduct Sea Service Medal.