From expatriate to Jackrabbit soldier

John Kubal/Register: Lt. Col. Stephen Sewell has found his “dream assignment” as professor of military science at South Dakota State University. He admits to a “passion for training young people to become officers.”

Army ROTC prof born in Volunteer State

BROOKINGS – Lt. Col. Stephen Sewell, South Dakota Army National Guard, was born Nov. 10, 1974, in Chattanoga, Tennessee. 

His dad was a native of Huron and a graduate of South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. His mother attended University of Tennessee (Knoxville). His dad became a chemical engineer and got a job with Dupont in Chattanooga, where they met and married.

“I spent the first year of my life down there,” Sewell said. “He didn’t want me growing up in a large city; he wanted me to grow up the way he did. So he bought a General Motors dealership in Webster, and we moved up there when I was 1.”

He grew up there and graduated from Webster High School in 1993. He was already a member of the South Dakota Army National Guard, having enlisted in 1992 in a “delayed entry program” and been assigned to A Company, 153rd Engineers, in Brookings as a power generator repairman.

In that program, Sewell spent some time with his unit before going to basic training following graduation. Following that he came to South Dakota State University in August 1993 to pursue his major of mass communication (radio, television and film). He graduated in May 1998, with a Bachelor of Science degree and as a newly-commissioned Army second lieutenant, he had to compete for full-time active duty.

“It was difficult then,” he explained, “because that was during the Clinton administration and they were doing the downsizing of the military. It was very competitive, and I was lucky enough to get commissioned into the Regular Army (as a transportation officer).”

Following completion of the basic course for transportation officers, Sewell was assigned to the Third Infantry Division at Fort Stewart, Georgia, where he served for three years as a medium truck platoon leader and battalion adjutant. And while he was at Fort Stewart, he met his wife to be, Chris Pack from Savannah, Georgia.

“We got married down there,” he said, smiling and adding, “following the tradition of Sewell men bringing southern women to South Dakota. That worked out really well.”  

The Sewells celebrated their 20th wedding anniversary on Oct. 7. They have a 9-year-old daughter.

Finding a full-time niche

After leaving active duty in May 2001, Capt. Sewell returned to South Dakota and the Guard and was assigned as senior tactical officer to the 196th Regiment RTI (Regional Training Institute), considered one of the premier RTIs throughout the Army National Guard. At the same time, for about a year and a half, he served “temporary full-time, three months here, four months there.”

“That’s how you get hired as a full-time Guardsman,” he explained. “You have to pick up these temporary jobs, get your name out there and wait for the right time – especially for an officer, because it’s extremely competitive.” He was in a temporary job in Rapid City when the right time came, in August 2002.

“I ended up getting hired full-time in Sioux Falls as a brigade personnel officer, for the 147th Field Artillery Brigade,” Sewell said. Additional career-enhancing assignments lay ahead: March 2006, chief of SIDPERS/PSB (an office that tracks all the electronic and paper personnel files of the SDANG) in Rapid City; June 2007, back to the RTI as Regimental S-1 (Administration); and January 2008, a one-year wartime deployment as a member of Coyote One Embedded Training Team. 

Afghanistan: an international flavor

Coyote One consisted of a total of 15 Guardsmen from South Dakota and Nebraska, senior sergeants and mid-grade senior officers (Sewell was “a brand-new major.”)

“Our job was to go over and to mentor either the Afghan army or the Afghan police,” Sewell explained. “We trained for three months together in Fort Riley, Kansas. One of those three months we trained in Germany for our jobs. We trained in culture, trained in combat, trained in everything we could think of that we would need to know.

“When went over, we were all split up. We knew that was going to happen. An embedded trainer works (alone), or they work in small groups.”

For about a month, Sewell lived and worked “on a German-run base in north central Afghanistan with about 2,000 to 3,000 other people.” It was an international mix. He was one of the few Americans there. Other nations represented included Norway, Sweden, Croatia, Macedonia, Italy and Great Britain.

“It was a very good experience,” he said. “I was U.S. liaison when I got over there. Not really what I expected; but they needed someone for a month, so I was selected for that.”

He moved on to running an Afghan police basic training camp and became a trainer-mentor for an Afghan major. German police officers oversaw the instruction and basic training.

“The students were Afghans that were just volunteers off the street,” Sewell explained. “We’d bring them in and try to do the best we could as far as background checks on them. We’d give them a very basic physical (exam), give them equipment and then start training them. It was part of the police surge that the Afghan government was trying to do. They wanted to have as many police officers on the street as possible.”

After his return to South Dakota in 2009, Sewell went on a string of Guard assignments that included command of the OCS/WOCS (Officer Candidate School/Warrant Officer Candidate School) Company at Fort Meade. And then came SDSU Army ROTC and professor of military science – what he called his “dream assignment.” 

‘A passion for training young officers’

“I wasn’t assigned out here,” Sewell, now a lieutenant colonel, said of his posting to SDSU in May 2018. “I had to compete for this position. I actually interviewed against other people for it. I was fortunate enough to get the position.”

As to his affection for what he calls his “dream assignment,” he explained, “I have a passion for training young officers, young people to become officers. That passion started back in 2001, when I started teaching Officer Candidate School and it just never went away.

“A lot of my career has been spent in military education. Even when I was an embedded trainer (in Afghanistan), I was considered in military education. Even though I wasn’t personally teaching people to be police officers, I was running an academy.

“Here, it’s pretty much the same thing. It’s running an institution of military learning. And I absolutely love that.”

And he also has a love for SDSU and Brookings.

Contact John Kubal at [email protected]


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