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Story of service

Decorated veteran writes about military journey in new book

By CJ HADDAD - | Nov 11, 2021

A decorated veteran who calls Southwest Florida home has penned a portrayal of his incredible journey through life and 35 years of service to the U. S. Military.

Published in late September, Maj. Gen. James L. Dozier authored “Finding My Pole Star; Memoir of an American hero’s life of faithful military service.” Throughout the 228-page book, Dozier provides commentary on growing up in Arcadia, joining the military, his capture by Italian terrorists in 1981, his life post-service working in Florida’s citrus industry and his active community volunteerism.

Dec. 17 marks the 40th anniversary of his kidnapping in Verona, Italy by Red Brigade terrorists. Dozier was held captive for 42 days before being rescued by a special operations team — a news story that made front-page headlines around the world.

Through it all, Dozier, 90, said he was guided by his “pole star,” a reference to the ability of mariners since ancient times to navigate using the stars in the heavens to guide them.

“As you go through life, there are certain influences that gives you a set of values — what you live your life by,” Dozier said. “Mine came incrementally — my parents, my friends, and then when I got into the military, some of the leaders I associated with. Eventually, for me, the path to my pole star developed in time to help me with some of the hurdles I faced in life. When you have a beacon (such as the pole star) you just follow the path and do the best you can and adhere to the values you develop over time.”

The path to valor wasn’t always the plan for Dozier, who said he wouldn’t have envisioned a career in the military. He said in his hometown of Arcadia, the “social” thing to do when you graduated and turned 18 was to join the Florida Nation Guard. And he did. The current climate of the world sent Dozier on a path he’d never look back from.

“I joined about three weeks before the North Koreans invaded South Korea,” Dozier said. “We were one of the first National Guard units federalized in Florida. That started it, and I began to like it.”

Dozier’s battalion provided air defense in the New York area during his two-year stint with the National Guard. From there, Dozier decided a military career was a good fit and attended the United States Military Academy at West Point.

“It added a lot of the values that pointed me towards my pole star,” Dozier said. “West Point is one of those incredible places that develop character in young folks.”

Dozier was commissioned as an Army officer in 1956 following his graduation from West Point and went to Fort Knox for basic and advanced training. He was also assigned to an Operation Gyroscope unit in Fort Meade, Maryland that rotated with units in Europe every few years.

“I rotated to Europe, and our job was to screen the Iron Curtain,” Dozier said. “We patrolled the border between East and West Germany.”

When Dozier returned to the states, the United States Military Academy asked if he’d come back to teach in the mechanics department. He obliged and earned a master’s degree from the University of Arizona in aerospace engineering and is a graduate of the Command and General Staff College and the Army War College (later down the road).

Dozier served in the Vietnam War with the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment from 1968 to 1969 under Col. George S. Patton III, the son of the famous World War II general.

“He was very influential in the remainder of my career. He was one of my mentors,” Dozier said of Patton.

Dozier was the operations officer with the 11th Cavalry. “A normal day for me would be for Col. Patton and me to be in a helicopter overseeing the various operations that the regiment was conducting.”

During his service in Vietnam, Dozier was awarded both the Silver Star and Bronze Star for heroism, and the Purple Heart for combat wounds — honors he said he’s proud to have had recognized.

Upon his return from Vietnam, Dozier served two tours at the Pentagon — a time of his life he called “penance” for the more “exciting” times he had in his military career. He was part of what was called the Southeast Asia team: a group of four whose job it was to brief the secretary of the Army every morning and the chief of staff of the Army every week.

“That was quite a task,” Dozier said.

He also served on what is called a “red team” assigned to the office of research and development. Their job was to nitpick the various Army programs that developed equipment and find faults. Thanks to Patton, Dozier commanded a recon squadron in Germany in-between his tours at the Pentagon, during which he graduated from the Army War College.

He also went to work for the assistant secretary of financial management for the Army, a position he “thoroughly enjoyed.”

“I learned a lot about how the financial system in the military works,” Dozier said.

Again, thanks to Patton, Dozier went to Fort Hood and commanded a brigade in the 2nd Armored Division.

“One day the division commander changed, they asked me if I’d be the Chief of Staff of the division, and I readily accepted it,” Dozier said.

Soon after, Dozier found out the new core commander wanted to promote him to chief of staff for the 3rd Core.

Dozier had some hesitancy and even contemplated retirement. It was his now-late wife, Judy, who made him reconsider. With the Army wanting their generals to be more well-rounded, his promotion to Brigadier General included the condition he would serve either a combined (multi-country) or joint tour that worked with other services.

“That’s how I ended up in NATO,” Dozier said.

In 1980, Gen. Dozier began his time as deputy Chief of Staff at NATO’s Southern European land forces headquarters at Verona, Italy. It was around 5:30 p.m. on Dec.17 of 1981 when an unexpected turn of events shifted the world as he knew it.

As he was getting ready for a community council meeting for a small American community in Italy, a knock on the door on the sixth floor of his high-rise apartment drew concern from Judy.

Dozier recalls telling his wife not to worry about the knock at the door. “Famous last words, right?” he said.

He asked through the door who was there, and the voice on the other end told him there was a leak in the apartment below his, and that they needed to check for any water coming from Dozier’s place.

“Sounded reasonable to me,” Dozier said. “The building was about 20 years old and things were always going wrong with it. So, I let them it.”

As four men began checking for leaks, Dozier could not quite understand some of the Italian dialect being used to communicate, so he told them he needed to go to the kitchen to get his translation book to look up the word.

“As I was bending over the table looking up the word, I just jumped from the rear, spun around, and was looking down the barrel of two silenced pistols,” Dozier remembers. “A fight started which I rapidly began to lose and, in the process, my wife had dropped to her knees and one of the young men went over to her and put a pistol to her head and said, ‘Don’t scream, or we’ll kill your husband.’ That was the only English spoken.

“I got hit on the head and fell down in the hall outside of the kitchen. When I looked back and saw my wife with a pistol at her head, that’s when the fight was over. They hauled me off.”

Dozier would spend the next 42 days held captive by the Italian Red Brigades, a Marxist terrorist group in an apartment in Padua.

He was tossed into a tent inside of the apartment and always had his right wrist and left ankle shackled to the bunk.

“I was never totally disconnected from the bunk,” Dozier recalled.

The general had no idea why he was being held, and it wasn’t until he was rescued that he’d find out.

“The Russians had installed SS20 missiles in Eastern Europe, and NATO was countering with cruise missiles, and they wanted to install them in Sicily and Belgium. The left-wing organizations in the NATO regions erupted (called the winter of fire). The Red Brigades decided they needed to bring down the Italian government and they did not want cruise missiles established in Sicily. That was the reason for the kidnapping.”

Dozier said he leaned on his pole star greatly during his time in captivity. He was questioned and prodded by the group, and was even given literature to read in hopes of converting him to their thought beliefs.

“The pole star had an influence on the answers that I would give to their questions,” Dozier said. “They also tried to brainwash me into better understanding what The Red Brigade was all about.”

Dozier said he equates his mindset during his time in captivity to that of a professional football quarterback.

“Combat is like that, and this was mental combat with these folks,” Dozier explained. “A professional quarterback knows he’s going to get creamed, but he also knows he needs to get rid of that football and he’s trained to the point where he knows how to do that. In combat, you do the same thing. You do what you have to do and you don’t worry about the outcome right then. You just play the game.”

He said he was fed three meals each day, the same as what his guards ate, and he did isometric exercises to attempt to stay fit.

Dozier was reading George Orwell’s dystopian novel, “Nineteen Eighty-Four” (provided by his captors), when he could feel the walls of his tent billow with air, meaning someone had opened the door to the room.

He looked up and a hand reached through the outer portion of the tent and handed his guard a pistol. “That was unusual, because the guards were never armed,” Dozier said.

He jumped off of his bunk and watched through the flap of the tent and within a split second, another figure burst through the outer flap and knocked the guard down. The guard got up, and again was knocked to the ground. Dozier said he wasn’t sure what was going on during the time, thinking he may have been caught in the crossfire of a jurisdictional dispute between rival members of the Red Brigade.

“I kept pushing this guy out, and he kept telling me he’s a policeman. Finally, he pulled up his ski mask and showed me his face and it dawned on me he was who he said he was,” Dozier said.

It turned out to be a team of NOCS (Nucelo Operativo Centrale di Sicurezza; a special operations unit of the Italian police) who successfully carried out his rescue from the apartment without firing a shot and captured the entire terrorist cell.

The policeman told Dozier they had to get out pronto, as it was their understanding the entire apartment was rigged with explosives.

“As I was being hustled out of there, almost every cupboard, cabinet, drawer, that was pulled out had some sort of weaponry or explosives in it,” Dozier said.

What then transpired is what Dozier called the most exciting part of the whole experience, and that was a ride downtown in an Italian police car during the main rush hour.

“That was exciting,” Dozier said with a laugh.

And of course, he could taste freedom once again.

“It was a beautiful day,” he said.

As a show of gratitude, Dozier (up until the pandemic) traveled each and every year to Italy to thank the people that were involved in his rescue.

As Dozier found refuge with his American allies in Italy and was having a shave, somebody walked in and said, “President (Ronald) Reagan wants to talk to Gen. Dozier.”

“Sure enough, the president was on the phone, and we chit-chatted a little bit,” Dozier remembers. “He said, ‘Are they treating you OK?’ and I assured him they were. And he said, ‘Do you think you can come back to the United States, I’d like you to go with me to the National Prayer Breakfast.'”

Dozier, being the poignant man he was, told President Reagan he had been out of the loop for some time, and had a lot of caching up to do. The president said he understood.

“About 15 minutes later I get a call from the office of Chief of Staff of the Army and he tells me I better get butt back here,” Dozier said. “You don’t say no to the president of the United States.”

He returned to the U.S. almost immediately and was in fact with Reagan during the breakfast.

“The breakfast was wonderful,” Dozier said.

A comedic story goes along with his trip to the White House, as Dozier found himself with Reagan in the Oval Office. It was February, and tax season was on the horizon. Dozier had been told that all of his personal records were confiscated by the Red Brigade and now were in the hands of the Italian authorities. Before Dozier left Italy, he asked for them back, knowing income tax time was approaching.

“Since I had a chance to chat with the President of the United States, I told him about my income tax problem. And he just looked at me and smiled and said, ‘Good luck,'” Dozier said with a laugh. “I decided to go right to the top and give it a shot.”

For those wondering, Dozier was granted an extension on his return.

And as far as his reunion with his wife — as he last saw her on her knees with a gun to her head and she last seeing him being dragged out of their apartment — “Oh, it was delightful,” Dozier said. “I not only reunited with her, but with my daughter. That was wonderful. It was sure good to see them again.”

From there, it was time to retire from the military after 35 years of service.

Dozier returned home to Florida and started getting involved in the citrus industry. He took a job as the president of a vertically integrated citrus company in his hometown.

“It wasn’t a hard choice,” Dozier said.

Dozier stayed in the citrus business until 2004, when Hurricane Charley swept through the region, and an isolated tornado leveled his property.

Since 1985, Dozier, who now resides in Fort Myers, has been actively involved in community groups and veterans’ organizations throughout Lee County, including the Southwest Florida Community Foundation, Lee County Electric Cooperative, Florida Commission on Veterans Affairs, the Southwest Council Boy Scouts of America, the Fort Myers Heart Walk, Rotary Club, the Lee Coast Chapter Military Officers Association of America, Good Wheels and the local Congressman’s Service Academy Nominating Committee, among others. In 2015 he was inducted by then-Gov. Rick Scott into the Florida Veterans Hall of Fame. He also sits on the school district’s Half-Cent Sales Tax Committee.

Over many years, Dozier has shared his life’s lessons in talks, seminars and in his mentoring of thousands of local JROTC (Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps) high school students. Lee County boasts many of the top JROTC programs across the nation, and Dozier has played a large role in that feat. He formed the James L. Dozier JROTC Support Foundation that champions various JROTC programs and created a not-for-profit board that works to enrich and enhance these students’ experiences.

“One of my concerns is discipline. And by golly, if I can do something to enhance the discipline of the schools, I want to be a part of it,” Dozier said.

Living in a veteran-rich community such as Southwest Florida is only a bonus for a man who served his country in a vast array of areas.

“I think it is a very patriotic area. One of the most patriotic I have ever been in,” Dozier said. “It’s Veterans Day time again and I just look at all of the events for veterans across Southwest Florida and I’m amazed by it. I’m just proud to be a part of it.”

As for what he hopes people will get out of the book, Dozier said, “I didn’t gear it towards any one group, but if young folks can learn that they need to develop a set of values that guide them throughout their lives, that’s what I mean my pole star. I hope young folks will read the book.”

Gary L. Bryant, LTC, U.S. Army retired praises the general as a leader throughout his lifetime and careers, “Gen. Dozier had an outstanding military career, and later served his state and local community with distinction. He was a member of and chaired several not-for-profit organizations that made a real difference in the lives of many. Often, he took over struggling groups and turned them into highly productive organizations. His strongest impact was in fostering both good government and education in the local school system, and in particular with the 15 high school Army JROTC programs in Lee County, Florida. Gen. Dozier has been a powerful leader in the community and a role model to us all.”

For more information on Gen. Dozier, or to order a copy of his book, visit www.generaldozier.com. The book is also available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

–Connect with this reporter on Twitter: @haddad_cj