MOUNT VERNON — The tragic events of 9/11 served as the catalyst for Charles Swank’s decision to enlist in the U.S. Army.
Then a senior at Clear Fork High School, Swank was already looking at the military. “ 9/11 is what really sent me,” he said. “ I went right up to the recruiter’s office and got signed up. Two weeks after graduation I went to basic training.”
As a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division, Swank saw combat in both Iraq and Afghanistan. A part of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003-04, Swank’s unit drove from Kuwait into Iraq. They secured the town of As Samawah, moved from there to Fallujah, then proceeded into Baghdad.
“We rode on gun trucks that had 50-caliber machine guns and automatic grenade launchers and antitank missiles,” Swank said. “We were like an anti-armor platoon.”
“Everything was just getting set up as we were getting in to Baghdad,” he continued. “It was really just getting established. Baghdad Airport was just getting built up to be a major hub for stuff flying in and out. Nothing had really been established. The green zone came towards the end of my stay there.
“When we first got in there [Baghdad], they were saying the war was over. We were rolling out buying ice cream and things like that. The Iraqi people were very friendly. They were helpful. The biggest feeling I got from them was that they just wanted everything to be over.”
After a lull of a month or two, Swank said, the U.S. forces had to transition from actually fighting an army to dealing with guerilla warfare. “All of the sudden the IEDs [improvised explosive devices] started and that just changed your whole mindset,” he explained. “We had to worry about IEDs all the time after that. I saw the whole transition from actually fighting the army to the guerilla stuff.”
In 2005, Swank, then a sergeant, went to Afghanistan as part of the force sent there to bolster security for upcoming elections.
“In Afghanistan,” he said, “there was a lot less IED stuff and more actual attacks from people with RPGs [rocket propelled grenades] and stuff like that actually attacking us.”
Swank also had contact with civilians in Afghanistan. “When we’d go on patrols we’d try and do humanitarian missions,” he said. “I know one time we did security for a little health clinic someone set up, where the doctors and nurses were there for the locals to come in and get medicine and medical aid.
“That was one of the most rewarding parts of what we did,” Swank continued. “It was great actually seeing those people get help. I mean where kids get to go back to school and people getting health care and things like that. That’s the stuff you don’t see on the news.”
Swank, who received the Bronze Star for valor in Iraq, numerous other Army commendations, medals and service ribbons, said his experiences in combat changed his view of the veterans in the wars that came before.
“What I have seen and learned about their experiences just gives me a greater appreciation of what the men who landed in Normandy and the people who fought in Korea and Vietnam and all the different wars actually went through,” he said. “I think what they went through was a lot harder than anything I did. We jumped out of planes, but that’s what I did. Just thinking what it must have been like in WWII to jump into France, behind enemy lines and all that. ... I did nothing to even compare with that. Thank you to all veterans. Even though I am one, I still say thanks to the rest of them.”
Serving his country is, in a way, a family tradition for Swank. His father was a paratrooper in Vietnam, one brother served in the Air Force and his younger brother is now in the Army Reserves.
Serving the community is another family tradition. “My dad actually died in the line of duty as a firefighter for Jefferson Township in Bellville my senior year of high school,” Swank said. “My brother’s a firefighter here in Mount Vernon with me, and I also serve as a volunteer with the Fredericktown Fire Department.”
Swank and his wife, Alaina, live near North Liberty. They have two sons and a daughter with twin boys on the way. Son Jaxon is 5 years old, son Kasey is 4, and daughter Haylee is 3.
Swank will serve as the speaker for the Veterans Day service Thursday on Public Square at 11 a.m.