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

A native of Rockford, Ill., Chaplain 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 medical evacuation missions.

While he served in Vietnam, Chaplain 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."

Chaplain Swanson also witnessed firsthand the close-air support and strategic air interdiction 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 chaplain 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, Chaplain Swanson 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, he 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 Balad, Iraq, from February to September 2010.

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

"It was rough business," he said. "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, Chaplain 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."

Chaplain Swanson said everyone involved with trying to save this Soldier's life learned from the experience just how precious each and every moment of life is.

Knowing how precious life is, Chaplain 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.

Chaplain Swanson has spent nearly 10 years serving in overseas locations as a clergyman. 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, the superintendent for chapel operations at Offutt AFB, has worked on Chaplain 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 service members.

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.

Through attentive listening and counseling those in need chaplains provide hope, Chaplain Swanson said.

"I've been a safe person for people to talk to (about) whatever is going on in their hearts and minds," he said. "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."