SOCom university teaching commando lessons in new home at MacDill

Army Gen. Raymond A. “Tony” Thomas III, commander of SOCom, speaks at the dedication Thursday at MacDill.
Army Gen. Raymond A. “Tony” Thomas III, commander of SOCom, speaks at the dedication Thursday at MacDill.
Published April 21, 2017

TAMPA — Every day, the man who runs U.S. Special Operations Command goes to work thinking that world events had gotten as crazy as they could the day before.

Then the new day starts.

To help deal with escalating challenges facing the nearly 70,000 men and women in the command, serving in as many as 100 countries, SOCom opened a new $43 million building at MacDill Air Force Base on Thursday to house its Joint Special Operations University.

"I can't imagine it getting more frantic and every day someone ramps it up a little bit more," the SOCom commander, Army Gen. Raymond A. "Tony" Thomas III, said Thursday. Thomas lauded the university's capacity to "breed leaders who have the agility" that special operations forces need.

Known as JSOU, the SOCom university first opened at Hurlburt Field in Okaloosa in 2000 as a way to teach the unique lessons that commandos and their supporters need, in subjects such as language, technology and culture. There is even a course in dining etiquette because often, commandos must dine with local leaders as the only U.S. representative in a foreign country.

JSOU moved to Tampa in 2011 and had been housed in a building just outside MacDill's main entrance. Moving on-base gives students easy access to MacDill lodgings as well as SOCom headquarters.

While commandos draw a lot of attention for missions like the 2011 raid that killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, the bulk of special operations work is conducted through foreign partners to ensure problems don't explode into conflicts.

Education, said university president Brian Maher, is a critical part of that mission.

"We train for certainty but educate for uncertainty," Maher said, repeating the mantra of Army Gen. Peter Schoomaker, the SOCom commander from 1997 to 2000 who turned plans for a university into reality.

The university offers 67 courses to more than 12,000 military students — 7,000 in person and 5,000 online. The students are from the United States and allied countries.

"We have to outthink the enemy," Maher said, noting that critical thinking and analysis are a university focus.

JSOU has an annual budget of $15 million and offers an education found nowhere else in the Department of Defense. SOCom is the only one of nine major U.S. military commands with its own university.

The faculty is composed of military and civilian personnel from all four service branches.

JSOU is accredited to award a junior college certificate. The university is also seeking accreditation to offer higher-level certificates, and partners with local schools, including the University of South Florida, the University of Tampa and Saint Leo University.

The new university building has 16 classrooms, including an auditorium, seminar and lecture rooms, smaller breakout rooms and a digital planning room. The building also houses a library and research center and the SOCom historian's office.

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Classrooms can accommodate teleconferencing as well as classified, unclassified and commercial lines, Maher said.

To help ensure the university remains current in an ever-changing world, Maher said, JSOU relies on former students who return from deployments for additional course work.

"I have to make sure I stay relevant," he said, "so that I don't become the Ivory Tower of Tampa."

Contact Howard Altman at or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman