Battalion commander escaped dictator in Uganda to pursue dreams in America
Lt. Col. Joseph D'costa receives the Order of St. Maurice during a transfer-of-authority ceremony Jan. 11 at Fort Benning.

FORT BENNING, Ga. - As a young boy growing up in Uganda, Joseph D'costa became inspired by America's role in World War II and told his teacher he wanted to go to the U.S. Military Academy someday.

"She laughed at me for my dream of going to West Point, telling me it would be impossible because I wasn't an American and Uganda had no ties to the U.S.," he recalled. "I still remember that to this day."

The 13th of 14 children raised by an Indian father and African mother, D'costa was exiled to Austria at age 7 following Idi Amin's rise to power in 1971. Two years later, he came to the United States and ultimately got into West Point on a third and final attempt, earning his commission in 1989.

Now a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve, he just completed a 10-month mobilization at Fort Benning as commander of 1st Battalion, 378th Infantry Regiment, a Lafayette, La.-based unit activated to augment basic combat training for the 192nd Infantry Brigade on Sand Hill.

"When we talk about the diversity of Soldiers across our Army, Lieutenant Colonel D'Costa's life story is one that tells a great story and serves as a motivational and inspiring example for our Soldiers, DoD civilians and the nation's civilian population," said Lt. Col. Roger O'Steen, the brigade's executive officer.

Shortly after Amin seized the Ugandan presidency in a military coup, D'costa's mother fell ill with pneumonia-like symptoms. Because of her Protestant faith, however, she didn't get proper treatment as Amin decreed that anyone not a Muslim would get sent to the back of the line for health care. She died at 42.

"For me, it was very devastating, to realize the person I depended on so much was no longer there," said D'costa, who was 6 at the time.

He said Amin then declared that anybody who wasn't 100 percent black had a choice: leave Uganda or face execution. D'costa's father fled to India, a brother and sister got sent to Italy, and he took exile in Austria with five other siblings. Three stayed behind.

"I was half, so I was considered impure and had to leave," he said. "Here's a black man saying, 'You are not the perfect race.' When you experience racism from your own race ... I was not expecting that."

"Idi Amin was killing so many innocent people when they weren't leaving the country fast enough. Books were burned. Even educated blacks got killed because they were considered threats to Amin."

The "Butcher of Uganda," as he became known, ruled over the nation for eight years. The number of opponents who were killed, tortured or imprisoned varies from 100,000 to half a million, according to biographical accounts. The dictator was ousted in 1979 by Ugandan nationalists, after which he fled into exile.

In Austria, a Catholic priest looked after D'costa, who spoke Swahili in Uganda and never learned English. In time, he was taught German. D'costa said he told the priest about his desire to attend West Point. The priest was a friend of then-U.N. Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim, who arranged for 9-year-old D'costa and several siblings to come to the United States. He went to live with an older brother in Englewood, N.J.

After graduating high school in 1983, D'costa applied to West Point but got turned down. "They said I'm not American and don't speak English well enough, the very thing that teacher was telling me would happen," he said.

So he joined the Army ROTC cadet corps at Providence College. Following his freshman year, the department head offered him a full scholarship, but he'd have to abandon his West Point dream and remain at Providence.

"It would've been the easy way out," he said, "but I needed to know how far I was willing to commit. I had given up on that, but (the ROTC department head) said, 'If West Point is in your heart, you need to apply again.'"

D'costa submitted a second application, but West Point was already at its 1,500-cadet limit, so he had to go to the U.S. Military Academy Preparatory School at Fort Monmouth, N.J., for a year and then apply again. If turned down, he would've been too old for another shot but was finally accepted and became a 21-year-old "plebe."

He served in the Gulf War as a field artillery officer. D'costa left the Army in 1994 but joined the Reserve two years later. Since then, he's deployed twice to Iraq, once to Afghanistan, and supported military relief missions following Hurricane Katrina and the Pakistan earthquake.

D'Costa has been the 1st Battalion, 378th Infantry Regiment commander since 2008. A change of command ceremony takes place March 12 in Lafayette. He's set to leave Fort Benning on Feb. 11. "I credit every success I've had to my faith in Jesus Christ, because I shouldn't be alive today. My life should've ended in Uganda," he said. "All these people I encountered along the way were put into my life to help me reach my goals. ... I never looked at my skin color as a reason I did not get to West Point at first. They were looking for certain qualities and tools I needed to learn."

D'costa will return to work in the private sector, but he's expected to graduate from the U.S. Army War College by July. From there, he'll learn if the Army has any further plans for him. The lieutenant colonel praised the U.S. military for preserving freedom around the globe and said he stays in the Army Reserve as a token of his appreciation.

"The United States could've said 'no' to me," he said. "Putting my life on the line for a country that took me in is a small price to pay. ... Freedom is so priceless, and all I have to do is serve in the reserves to continue saying 'thank you.' Until the Army tells me to get out, I'll stay."

"This is the greatest country in the world. When I say that, I'm not just saying it because I heard it from somebody else. ... The majority of Americans don't know what it's like when you have no freedom."

D'costa ultimately hopes to work for NASA. In the late 1990s, he spent two years with the agency in a liaison role for Enron.

"West Point seemed like an impossible goal ... but I kept pursuing that goal till I made it happen," he said. "You can achieve anything you want - you just have to put a little effort into it."

Page last updated Wed February 2nd, 2011 at 08:08