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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

Phil Southwell's Story interviewed by, Emily Ball

Philip James Southwell was born on May 17, 1982, to Mike and Mary Southwell, in Wilkesboro, NC. He has one brother, who also lives in Wilkesboro with his family.

He went to Western Carolina University from 2000-2004, studying to get a degree in Sports Management and spent time working with a hockey team. After visiting a recruiting center in Greensboro, Phil made the decision to sign up for the Coast Guard in 2009 at 27 years old. He served until August 2022, for just short of 13 years of service. 

Phil had several 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, and wanted to find a career, rather than a job. He grew up with a love of boats and the ocean. It was a great chance to see the world. His father had served for less than a year before receiving an honorable medical discharge.  Both of his grandfathers were in the military as well, serving in WWII. Wyndham Southwell served with the British Royal Navy, being a Welshman. Edward Bell was in the US Army and sent to Saipan, Japan. His brother followed the family tradition, joining the State Guard in Indiana. 

Phil went to boot camp on December 1, 2009, at The Coast Guard Training Center in Cape May, New Jersey. He described it as a fraternity in college, but more extreme. The next parts of the experience were getting into shape and the friends he made. There were some negatives to the experience, such as the weather and lack of sleep. He joined in December and spent 8 weeks in New Jersey's winter environment.

After graduation from boot camp, he went straight to California, studying to be an Operations Specialist at the Coast Guard's A-School for 18 weeks. He learned how to manage and organize people, information, communications and security systems, along with resources to complete missions for the Coast Guard. 

Phil received orders to Coast Guard Sector Charleston in 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.  He worked in the Command Center focusing on Search and Rescue and Homeland Security.  He describes it as being like a “911 operator of the ocean”.  He then was sent to Alaska for three years, Florida for two years, and then back to California for three years, and returned to Florida until the end of his service in 2022.

One of the cases that sticks out from his time in South Carolina, working on the Night Watch. He was working from 6:30 pm to 6:30 am. He received a ‘Mayday’ radio call at 5 am, from a family in a sinking boat near Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. It was a man, woman, two kids and dog, out on their boat when it started to take on water.  He was able to coordinate with Coast Guard Station Charleston to rescue the family.

His next assignment was on the Coast Guard Cutter Alex Haley, based out of Kodiak, Alaska, from 2013 to 2016. 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 Haley, 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 in the Bering Sea. 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 Korean Coast Guard, back in 2014. A South Korean fishing vessel sank in Russian waters. It was extremely difficult to search for them in those conditions, even with GPS and radar. 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 leaving Alaska, Phil received orders to Coast Guard Air Station Clearwater near Tampa, FL from 2016 to 2018. He earned his wings there, after flying for 418 hours. He went on 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). They were able to follow it undetected and pass its position to a Coast Guard Cutter and seized over 3,250 lbs. of cocaine, which was the 3rd biggest bust in Coast Guard history out of El Salvador at the time. He achieved the rank of First Petty Officer during this time.

After advancing in rank, Phil received orders to be an “A” School instructor in Petaluma, California, teaching Operations Specialist classes at the Coast Guard's “A” School. He did this from 2018 to 2021. He was able to teach young Coast Guardsmen proper radio communications and mold them into the next generation of Operations Specialists.

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.  He volunteered to assist the communications team in Myrtle Beach, after Hurricane Florence in September 2018. 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.

Phil’s last duty station was in Pensacola, FL on the Coast Guard Cutter Reliance.  He spent 3 deployments in the Caribbean around Haiti, Cuba, and Puerto Rico.  The missions focused on Migrants and Drug prevention.  He proposed to his fiancé, Jessica Gambill, in November of 2021 in Pensacola and it holds a special place in their hearts.

When he was serving, he got to see so many amazing places. He got to travel the world, different cuisines, and see wildlife and nature in a completely different way than most. He saw pods of orcas from the side of a ship, bald eagles in Alaska, and 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 these experiences opened his eyes to the world. 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, 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 married Jessica in December of 2022. She also grew up in Wilkes County and they moved back to Wilkesboro.  He was able to invite his friends from all over the country he made during his time in the military. He was able to get a friend to record his wedding, as he had started a video business after his service. This was something he wouldn't have thought of if they had not been friends.  

Phil is currently going back to school with help from the GI Bill. He is studying for his Graduate Degree in Risk Management at NC State, which he started in the fall of 2023. 

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 Meritorious Team Commendations, a Coast Guard Commandant Letter of Commendation, as well as 4 Good Conduct Medals and a Sea Service Medal.