Camp Ripley commander prepares to hang up his boots - St. Sauver to retire from 37-year Guard career
Col. Scott St. Sauver is about to leave the greatest job he's ever had: post commander of the Minnesota National Guard Base at Camp Ripley. In two months, he will hand over command of massive installation to someone else, and then separate from t...
Col. Scott St. Sauver is about to leave the greatest job he's ever had: post commander of the Minnesota National Guard Base at Camp Ripley.
In two months, he will hand over command of massive installation to someone else, and then separate from the Army in October.
His peers offered positive impressions of St. Sauver.
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka met with St. Sauver before his seven-year stint as commander of Camp Ripley. He subsequently dealt with St. Sauver on several key pieces of recent legislation, including the creation of environmental buffers around the camp and a bill that would expand soldiers' ability to carry weapons on base.
"He is a great American," Gazelka said. "The way he runs the camp, the way he treats his staff, the way he reaches out to the community, are nothing but fantastic."
Col. Lowell Kruse, a friend and work collaborator of St. Sauver's from the National Guard for more than 17 years, also had a glowing opinion. Describing St. Sauver as a soldier, Kruse talked about a man who takes his mission seriously and acts with a special dedication and empathy for the men and women he commands. In addition, the atmosphere of excellent customer service for those who come to Camp Ripley to train largely stems from St. Sauver's influence on operations at the base, he said.
"All of his actions start with what's best for the National Guard and the soldiers inside of it," he said.
Kruse said St. Sauver is a loving father who grew a family that became dedicated to service. He also pointed out St. Sauver uses his notability to advocate for disabled veterans, and much of his free time is spent helping vets groups.
When not on duty, Kruse and St. Sauver do everything from fishing to watching "Game of Thrones" together, Kruse said. Gazelka had the chance to fish with St. Sauver during a Governor's Fishing Opener, and came away with the impression St. Sauver could be a professional walleye fisherman if he wanted.
From an early age, St. Sauver was interested in spending time doing much more meaningful things than sitting in a boat.
He grew up in Britton, S.D., and joined the South Dakota National Guard in 1980 while in high school after his buddies pressured him to do it.
"I really didn't want to, but they kept saying I needed the money for college," St. Sauver said.
In the 37 years since that day, all of those high school friends have since gotten out of the military at one point or another, but St. Sauver stuck with it. What was supposed to be one tour of duty for college money became a lifetime.
The answer to why he stayed in for so long intertwines with his dedication to both the National Guard mission as a whole and for the soldiers who serve under him. From the very beginning of his career, the Guard was a place for kinship.
In 1980, the South Dakota Guard allowed recruits to join up as a group of friends and serve in the same platoon rather than splitting them up, so St. Sauver had help with the stresses of basic training. However, one of St. Sauver's most poignant learning experiences in the service came because basic training exposed him to people who weren't from the same rural, white background he came from. The camp at Fort Sill, Okla., threw him in with Latinos and African Americans, and taught the teenager from South Dakota how to interact with people who weren't like him.
"The military opened my eyes-and it has my whole career-to what diversity is," St. Sauver said.
As he went further into adulthood, St. Sauver moved to Wyoming and the Wyoming National Guard, where he served as an artilleryman on the weekends and managed a golf course for his day job. In 1990, he became an officer. But he had one person in particular behind his rise in the ranks.
"There's no way I could have done what I've done in my military career without the support of Deb, my wife," he said. "She is my teammate."
St. Sauver recalled one incident when the family was moving to South Dakota and he was already away on assignment. His wife had to move the family's belongings by herself in a Chevy Chevette, packing the stuff and the couple's kids in the car and driving it across the monotonous plains in July heat. Decades later, Deb was doing the same thing as St. Sauver prepared to retire, moving back to South Dakota.
While living in South Dakota earlier in his career, St. Sauver taught golf course horticulture at Southeast Technical Institute in Sioux Falls, building on his earlier work as a golf course superintendent.
While he was an enlisted man, St. Sauver's unit traveled to Camp Ripley in Minnesota to train. But it wasn't until he was living in Garrison, S.D., that he would make the fateful journey back to the camp one more time for annual training. There, Neal Loidolt (now a major general) told him they needed somebody with an artillery background to work at the camp for the whole summer. That summer would form the basis for nearly two decades at the base.
When he came on staff at Camp Ripley in 1999 as a young major, St. Sauver left behind his civilian job to become full-time active duty. But that wasn't before he had to spend a harrowing time navigating the freeways of the Twin Cities on his way to the job interview at the Roseville Armory. Eventually, the hopelessly lost country boy had to stop where his grandparents lived in Little Canada to get his bearings (this is was in the days before Google Maps).
St. Sauver liked the transition from being an academic, though-his new life as a full-time soldier meant his group actually got things done rather than be in endless talking and meetings. With the National Guard, he knew the expectations and framework, he said. But his son didn't want to leave South Dakota as it was senior year of high school, so St. Sauver commuted four days a week from Sioux Falls into central Minnesota for a year. But as soon as the son graduated, the three other kids moved with the family to Pierz.
'I felt so bad'
It was during this period in 2005 that St. Sauver deployed for the first time to Iraq, as part of a rear area operation center 12 miles north of Baghdad. St. Sauver's unit ran a base for five brigades' worth of coalition troops, nearly 10,000 soldiers. Nearby were another 10,000 Iraqi troops.
Iraq had its first elections that year following the coalition occupation, so St. Sauver got to witness the famous sight of citizens holding up their fingers stained purple after they cast their vote to prevent people from voting multiple times.
However, St. Sauver interacted more with Iraqi private contractors working on his base than the Iraqi troops garrisoned nearby. He was impressed with their translators; well-educated young people who risked their lives to work with the Americans. He also enjoyed interacting with Iraqi children.
"Kids don't see any politics," he said. "They don't see color. They don't see politics. They're just kids."
St. Sauver was "inside the wire," staying on base most of the time, so he considered his first tour to be relatively safe. But that didn't mean he was completely separated from the danger. His base came under mortar and rocket fire. He got used to it, he said-and emphasized again that his time inside the wire was much safer than going on patrol. When the base took mortar fire, and the attack ended, that was it, St. Sauver said-but a patrol faced unknown and constant threats. An artillery attack is random, and the only thing that saves someone is fate, but a soldier outside the wire needs to be on guard all the time.
The Iraqi recruits forming the division nearby were a frequent target for insurgents, St. Sauver remembered. The rebels would do drive-by shootings of recruits waiting in line to enlist, he said.
"I felt so bad, sometimes-when the Iraqi soldiers would come to join, they'd be in big, long lines waiting to join, and then they'd get attacked," he said.
St. Sauver deployed a second time five years later, in 2009-10. Operating from a base in Kuwait, he and his soldiers were tasked with escorting supply convoys coming both to and from the Iraqi heartland. The escort teams under his command drove next to semitrailers full of supplies, traveling all over Iraq. That assignment required him to be "outside the wire" and exposed to danger frequently, but St. Sauver said he still had an advantage being at a base in Kuwait, safe from the insurgency.
The assignment satisfied St. Sauver's lifetime goal of leading soldiers in combat. He took pride in the fact his unit travelled a cumulative 2.9 million miles, with no one killed in action.
"For me, that's a defining piece," he said.
After he got back, St. Sauver experienced something many veterans feel when they return stateside: restlessness and boredom. Much to the chagrin of his wife, he poured himself into remodeling his basement, running saws in the very early morning hours since he was still adjusting to being on American time.
He was literally lying on his couch one day, wallowing in dissatisfaction, when he got a call from Maj. Gen. Larry Shellito, then commander of the entire Minnesota National Guard. Not realizing the heft of who was on the other end of the line, St. Sauver answered with a grouchy "hello."
"'Is this the way you always answer the phone?'" St. Sauver recalled Shellito responding. St. Sauver almost fell off the couch.
Shellito asked him to command Camp Ripley. From 2010 until this Sept. 17, St. Sauver has commanded the camp. He said he's maintained a single command philosophy his entire career, as expressed in David Letterman-esque "top 10 lists" handed out to soldiers under his command. The lists extol the values of integrity, humility and caring for one's fellow soldier.
His staff at Camp Ripley is reminded its job is to prepare others to go to war. They instruct with live ammo and real armored vehicles, where deadly accidents can happen, so they must still be on their guard although they're not in a combat zone. They must also be ready in case the state of Minnesota calls on them in an emergency.
"The cool part about working at an installation like this is, the job is never the same," St. Sauver said.
St. Sauver said he also makes a point of fostering time for soldiers to be with their families. If a soldier he comes across is on the last leg of a 14-hour shift, for example, St. Sauver will ask them: if you leave this work for tomorrow, will someone die? If not, then go home to your family.
There's some credence to the theme of the film "The Hurt Locker," that soldiers can essentially become addicted to being deployed, St. Sauver said. Being overseas takes away all the complications of money and food and mortgages and family. Everything, from the time they get up to the time they go to sleep, is regimented.
"We have soldiers and service members that are addicted to deployment," he said. "It's easier. It's a way to escape."
To beat that impulse, soldiers must stay connected with their family, St. Sauver said. They can set aside time to communicate with their families while deployed, especially now that technology offers them more options.
Asked what prompted him to realized it was time to retire, St. Sauver said it was when he reached 20 years active duty, in addition to 17 years "traditional" service before. Turning 55 years old this year convinced him-and his wife-it was time to move on.
"Honestly I owe my children a lot, because of the times that I've been gone," he said. "I realize that. Hopefully now in retirement I can give some of that time back, to my grandkids and to my kids."
St. Sauver and his wife are moving back to the area near his hometown of Britton, S.D.