Sunday, March 25, 2007

Army Sgt. Jason W. Swiger

Remember Our Heroes

Army Sgt. Jason W. Swiger, 24, of South Portland, Maine

Sgt. Swiger was assigned to the 5th Squadron, 73rd Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, Fort Bragg, N.C.; died March 25 in Baqubah, Iraq, when an improvised explosive device detonated near his vehicle during combat operations. Also killed were Cpl. Jason Nunez, Pfc. Orlando E. Gonzalez and Pfc. Anthony J. White.

War claims another 'hero'
By BETH QUIMBY, Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND - A 24-year-old South Portland native who was killed Sunday while serving in the Army in Iraq enjoyed poetry and was so proud of his military service that he wore his uniform back to South Portland High School to talk to students and teachers, his friends and family said Monday.

Army Sgt. Jason Swiger was the second Mainer -- and the second South Portland High graduate -- to die in Iraq this month when he and three other soldiers were killed by a suicide bomber in Diyala province, according to family members. Swiger was on his third tour in Iraq with the 82nd Airborne Division, based at Fort Bragg, N.C.

"He's my hero and I will love him forever," his wife, Alanna, said Monday in a prepared statement. The couple met during a poetry reading at a coffeehouse in Fayetteville, N.C., and were married last May. They moved in with his wife's parents in Fayetteville, and Swiger began his third tour in Iraq in August.

Swiger was the third Maine serviceman to die this year in Iraq. Of the roughly 3,200 U.S. troops killed since the Iraq war started in 2003, 25 are Maine natives or have ties to the state.

The Army had not officially released information about Swiger's death as of Monday night. Swiger's mother, Valorie Swiger, said she was told by her son's wife and Army officials that her son and four other soldiers had stopped their Humvee as they traveled in a convoy between two military camps, Camp Caldwell and Camp Warhorse. Swiger and a couple of the other soldiers started to hand out candy to children when a motorcyclist approached the group and blew himself up, killing Swiger and three of the others, his mother said.

Valorie Swiger said she heard about an explosion in Iraq while watching the news earlier Sunday, but it was not until her son's wife called her shortly before 6 p.m. that she learned her son was one of those killed. The Army later called her with the news, said Swiger's mother, who was active in a campaign four years ago to display yellow ribbons on South Portland streets in support of soldiers in Iraq.
"He loved what he was doing," Valorie Swiger said. "It was meaningful (to him) because it meant we could be free and his nieces and nephews would not have to be afraid."

Swiger joined the Army shortly after graduating from South Portland High in 2000. His mother said he had wanted to join the 82nd Airborne Division since he was a boy. His uncle, Carl McAfee, retired from the 82nd Airborne after 23 years of service. Jason Swiger would sit on his uncle's front porch near Fort Bragg and watch paratroopers jumping from the planes, his mother said.

Tall and thin with sandy blond hair, Swiger liked to write, draw and sing, and to work on his beloved Mitsubishi Lancer.

"When he made his sergeant's stripes, he said, 'Gram, you can't argue with me anymore,' " said his grandmother, Elizabeth Swiger.

Swiger had three sisters and two brothers. He was part of a tight-knit group of high school friends. One of those friends, Ronnie Dahle, signed up for the Army with Swiger.

"We were inseparable," Dahle said. "We went everywhere together."

Swiger's mother-in-law, Alice Regan, said burial will be in South Portland but details have yet to be worked out.

Students at South Portland High got the news of Swiger's death over the public address system early Monday afternoon. The announcement came less than two weeks after the death of a 2004 South Portland graduate, Marine Lance Cpl. Angel Rosa, 21, who was killed during combat on March 13 in Anbar province in Iraq.

Principal Jeanne Crocker led the school in a moment of silence Monday, just as she had for Rosa. "There are a thousand students and hundreds of others, and (there was) absolute silence," she said.

Swiger was a frequent visitor to the high school after he graduated, Crocker said. Sometimes he would come to reconnect with teachers. Several times, he wore his Army uniform to address students in the military history class.

"I think he probably had some kind of a calling to come back and show and model for everyone a young person making good," Crocker said. "I knew he was proud to come back and be that person."

Swiger's yearbook entry lists his nicknames as "Swag" and "The Joker," and refers to "drawing on myself, making jokes about everything and being an all-around nutcase."

An accompanying photo shows a shaggy-haired boy in a blazer and T-shirt lunging toward the camera. Crocker described Swiger as "unique" and "extremely artistic," but said he didn't seem to find his niche until he joined the Army.

"It was clear to all of us who knew Jason well at South Portland High School that he went into the military to find and define himself, and he did just that -- he found the real Jason Swiger through military service," she said.

Crocker said the school would offer grief counseling to students and plans a plaque memorializing Swiger and Rosa.

"It's very difficult to be experiencing this twice in such a short period of time, and to realize how short our time with these young people is and how sometimes their very promising futures are cut short," Crocker said.

Army Sgt. Jason W. Swiger was killed in action on 03/25/07.

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