Chaplain has huge impact

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. James M. Hodgman
  • 55th Wing Public Affairs
His hair is white, the lines on his face show his age, yet his eyes are warm and determined.

At 60 years old, Chaplain (Col.) Carl J. Swanson is the senior chaplain here and one of few Vietnam veterans still on active-duty.

As Offutt's senior chaplain, Colonel Swanson ensures that his staff of seven do all they can to take care of Team Offutt. This is done in a variety of ways from worship services, to bible studies and even marriage or grief counseling. Every month Colonel Swanson and his staff provide religious support for more than 3,000 people.

A native of Rockford, Ill., Colonel Swanson has been in the military for more than 30 years. In 1967, he enlisted in the Marine Corps and served in Vietnam as a helicopter mechanic and crewmember. During the conflict, he also served as a radio operator during medevac missions.

While he served in Vietnam, Colonel Swanson said, he developed a love for the Air Force.

"I was in the northern part of South Vietnam, and we were resupplied by Air Force aircraft," he said. "That's how we got our food, bullets and bandages: it all came to us from Air Force aircraft so we had a real love for the Air Force."

Colonel Swanson also witnessed firsthand the close-air support and strategic air interdiction that the Air Force provided ground forces throughout the war.

In 1971, he was honorably discharged from the Marine Corps. He spent the next five years completing a Bachelor of Arts degree in social sciences at Northern Illinois University. The colonel then completed his seminary work at Lutherna Northwestern Seminary in St. Paul, Minn.

After working at a church in Wennona, Ill., for a few years, he decided to join the Air Force in 1984, but not as a helicopter mechanic or radio operator. Now he was a man of God.
As an Air Force chaplain, Colonel Swanson has provided religious support to America's sons and daughters in many places, including Air Force hospitals. He shared some of his experiences while deployed to Joint Base Ballad, Iraq, from February to September 2010.

"At the hospital, as a chaplain, I was a steadying resource of maturity and wisdom," Colonel Swanson said. Many hospital staff members looked to him for a sense of calm, hope and encouragement.

"It was rough business," the colonel explained. "We were doing amputations every week. People died in our hospital (and we) treated enemy soldiers. (All of that) presented challenges for youngsters who may (have been) medics, nurses or young doctors who haven't experienced (such) carnage and trauma."

By being there and supporting them, listening to their stories and praying with them and, most importantly, having the strategic sense to take advantage of his knowledge, Colonel Swanson was able to help those medical professionals get through the deployment.

However, the chaplain admits there were some rough days.

"We had an American who was severely wounded and it took him five days to die," he said. "Our surgeons and medical team did everything they possibly could day and night. I've been to Vietnam and other war (zones) and his wounds were the most extensive I've ever seen. When he died, frankly, there were some people that needed to talk about their feelings and what they learned."

Colonel Swanson recalled that everyone involved with trying to save this soldier's life said they learned from the experience just how precious each and every moment of life is.

Knowing how precious life is, Colonel Swanson said, is one thing he's charged with helping people understand.

"If I can bring that preciousness into some clarity in people's lives, it would set their future up for more fulfillment, and they're going to be much more positive, happy and they'll have a radiant influence on those around them," he said.

As an Air Force chaplain, Colonel Swanson has spent nearly 10 years serving in overseas locations. Some of his most important work though, is done right here at home where he and his staff provide a variety of faith based services.

Master Sgt. Timothy N. Storer, superintendent for chapel operations at Offutt, has worked on Colonel Swanson's staff for the past three years and said working with him has been a great experience.

"I have witnessed Chaplain Swanson go above and beyond the call of duty in order to help those in need," Sergeant Storer said.

He recalled how Colonel Swanson helped a veteran who used to frequently wander into the chapel.

The veteran was cold, hurt and in need of special care, Sergeant Storer said. "Chaplain Swanson treated him with compassion, provided assistance, contacted his family in Indiana and ensured he received treatment at a Veterans Affairs Center."

The proudest moments the sergeant said he's had of the chaplain have been during the return of fallen servicemembers.

With each returning warrior, Sergeant Storer said Colonel Swanson eagerly met with senior leaders, sister services, family members, chapel staff and other caregivers and agencies to ensure that the fallen hero was properly honored.

Asked to describe the chaplain in only three words, Sergeant Storer answered with "passionate, patriotic and pastoral."

The former Marine is more than just a military warrior or a man of God. He's also a husband of more than 40 years and a father of three. He's set to retire in April, yet the glow in his eye seems to say that he'll miss serving the military community.

At Offutt, the chapel community is more than 3,000 strong every month. That amounts to more than 36,000 every year. With a slight grin, Colonel Swanson remembered helping a woman who sought his council.

She came to talk to me many years ago because she had a lot of issues, he said.

"I asked her some general questions like what's going on, why did you make this decision and why did you decide to do this," the colonel said. "She saw me for several sessions and with each session she complimented me on how much I helped her. After the third session, I told her that I haven't done anything other than pay attention, listen and ask questions. So what have I done?"

The woman replied, "Well, it's like being sick, and you got the flu, and you need to vomit. That's not a very pleasant thing to do, but once you puke it all up, you start feeling a lot better. I needed to vomit up some things from my soul that were bothering me and I did, and you listened to me in confidence and privacy. I feel better about life, about myself and my future."

She needed someone to just sit down and listen and make sense out of what she was dealing with, Colonel Swanson said. This enabled her to go on and live a more wholesome and healthy lifestyle.

Chaplains can make great listeners and have the capacity to help people with a myriad of issues.

"We all have issues, we all have wounds inside of us, we have fears (and) issues that we're struggling with," Chaplain Swanson said.

Through attentive listening and counseling those in need, the colonel said, chaplains provide hope.

"I've been a safe person for people to talk to (about) whatever is going on in their hearts and minds and I've noticed as a chaplain and pastoral care counselor that when people get out the issue or whatever is bugging them they can often look at (themselves objectively) and get in touch with their resources, intelligence, values, courage and make decisions about how to best proceed in life so they won't be dragged down and burdened by something that's bothering them," Colonel Swanson said.

At Offutt, Colonel Swanson continues this work every day. He can often be found in the SAC Memorial Chapel assisting his fellow chaplains with the latest issues of the day. He's working to bring a meditative area to Offutt so members of the base can relax and reflect, and he's advised squadron and base commanders on major issues like suicide.

Colonel Swanson has earned the Air Medal, the Air Force Commendation Medal and the Republic of Vietnam Cross of Gallantry with Bronze Star.

However, his greatest reward may be knowing the impact he's had on thousands of people. As he looks toward retirement and the Air Force looks to replace him, the question is, who will or could fill his shoes?