Let Freedom Endure

Published 3:52 pm Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Dean Schwartz understands enduring freedom better than most. Schwartz was starting the fall semester of his sophomore year at UVA/Wise in 2004 when his National Guard unit was activated. The orders read: Operation Enduring Freedom Contingency.

“To me, holidays like the 4th of July and Memorial Day are important,” the local veteran stated. “To think about all those who fought before me and what they sacrificed – that's special to me.”

Schwartz has experienced more than his share of sacrifice since he felt the need to respond to the World Trade Center bombings in 2001.

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“My first semester in college was when 9/11 happened,” Schwartz related. “We felt pretty motivated to do something, but we wanted to finish school also. The next semester we joined the National Guard – me, two fraternity brothers, and a friend all joined together.”

Schwartz completed basic training over the next summer and was two-thirds of the way through the fall semester of his sophomore year when his unit, the 189th Engineer Company based in Big Stone Gap, was activated.

“We sat at Ft. Eustis for six months,” he related. “Every Monday we came to formation and they'd say, 'be ready, we're going to Iraq Thursday.' We sat for three or four months with our bags packed, and then we were demobilized and sent home just as the spring semester ended.”

Schwartz enjoyed the summer with his parents who live in Keysville and then went back to school.

“This time we got about halfway through the semester,” he continued. “They changed us from bridge builders to combat engineers and put us in Bravo Company, 276th Engineer Battalion headquartered in Richlands.”

Schwartz's unit trained at Ft. Dix, NJ, for three months and arrived in Iraq on March 6, 2004.

“Basically, our job there as combat engineers was to do everything from kicking in doors with the infantry guys and arresting suspects to fixing craters in a road,” Schwartz noted. “Fixing a road was our mission the day I was injured.”

The 189th was tasked with fixing a crater caused by an IED, or Improvised Explosive Device, in a busy six-lane road just south of Mosul.

“One squad would be working on the hole, the other two squads would be providing security,” Schwartz explained. “I was a machine gunner, so myself and my assistant gunner were on our guns.”

The American soldiers were supposed to work with an Iraqi work detail that day.

“We would teach the Iraqis how to fix the road, stick with them half an hour or so to observe them and then go back to the base,” Schwartz continued. “We called for them, but the work detail never came. We ended up staying there for two and a half hours trying to work on the road ourselves. We were tempting fate out there. We had heard a lot about vehicle-borne IEDs.”

After standing at his post at the machine gun on the back of a truck for two hours, Schwartz decided to switch places with his assistant gunner.

“I told him we needed to switch,” Schwartz continued. “The assistant gunner was sitting on a box we had built to hold water and supplies. I switched with him and was sitting on the box facing the back of the truck. The last thing I remember was tucking my shoelaces in and putting my arm on the side of the truck.”

Then, Schwartz reported, everything went black.

“I woke up probably a couple of seconds later,” he continued. “The truck was full of black smoke, and I couldn't hear. The first thing they teach you after an explosion is to look for an ambush, so I got my weapon back, grabbed the side of the truck and was looking for somebody that might be shooting at us. I looked outside the truck and didn't see anybody. Then I looked down and saw my boot lying flat on the truck bed – I could see the leg was gone.”

Schwartz recalled screaming, but no one could hear.

“Anyone who was close enough to hear – their eardrums were blown,” he said. “I remember thinking, if I don't do something I'm going to die, so I got my field dressing out. I couldn't open it because the RPG that came in and hit the truck sent shrapnel into my arm. I had about a golf ball-sized hole in my arm. With all the blood and nerve damage, I couldn't get the field dressing open.”

Fortunately, others came to Schwartz's aid.

“The first guy to me was Sgt. Spurlock,” Schwarz said. “He wasn't even supposed to go on the mission that day, but I'm glad he did. He jumped on the truck, took his belt off and made a tourniquet out of it. The second guy was one of my fraternity brothers, Corp. Williamson. He was bandaging my leg while we loaded up the truck.”

The field hospital was about a 15-minute drive away.

“We got to the field hospital in eight minutes,” Schwartz said. “That's even more amazing because my driver had a concussion and didn't even remember driving there.”

Early the following morning, Schwartz was medevaced to Kuwait.

“I called home from there,” Schwartz recalled. “That's probably the toughest call I've ever had to make. The day after I got injured was Mother's Day. My mom had just got her master's degree from Longwood, and it was my nephew's birthday. They were celebrating all three events when I called.”

Schwartz's father, a Navy veteran, answered the phone. He knew his son was not supposed to be in Kuwait.

“I told my dad that 90 percent of me was okay,” Schwartz continued. “He asked about the other 10 percent. I told him – that's still in Iraq.”

From Kuwait, Schwartz was flown to Germany where he spent three nights in the ICU.

“I had a collapsed lung and pneumonia,” he related. “Finally, I flew to Walter Reed. I got there May 13.”

Schwartz would remain at Walter Reed until December.

“I got out of there quick because my mom was there the whole time – and she was unrelenting,” he smiled. “She'd say – 'you're doing this, this, and this. Here's the paperwork – sign it!' She was a huge help, but I didn't show it at the time. I was all moody and on pain meds.”

Schwartz credits the therapists at Walter Reed with getting him up and moving.

“I was still on what they called a “Christmas tree” – the IVs and pain meds and drips. I still had wires to me everywhere. Once they took the chest tube out, they brought a walker and said – 'come on, get up!'”

When tempted to give up rather than get up, Schwartz recalled the words of his sergeant in Iraq.

“When we were on the way to the hospital I told him thanks for saving me,” Schwartz related. “He kind of shrugged it off, but then he said something that has kept me inspired. He said – 'don't waste it!'”

Those words have guided Schwartz ever since.

“After I got out of Walter Reed I went back to school and did my last three years,” he stated. “I graduated with a business degree and ended up working for a defense contractor in Columbus, GA. I didn't know anybody there, and after about eight months I felt lost.”

Schwartz returned to Virginia and settled in Newport News. During a golf outing near DC he talked with Kirk Bauer, a Vietnam veteran and executive director of Disabled Sports USA.

“They also do War Fighter Sports directed strictly to wounded service members,” Swartz reported.

Bauer offered Schwartz a position as an intern, so he moved to Rockville, MD.

“As an intern I was doing a lot of work with sponsors – telling them how sports helped me to get back into a purpose,” he said.

While in that position Schwartz did an interview at a water sports clinic in New York and posted it on Facebook.

“I had met my wife here through a mutual friend,” he said. “We were Facebook friends and she commented on my interview – 'What an inspiration!' I had wanted to be closer to family anyway, so in October 2010 I got a job at U.S. Cellular and moved back to Farmville.”

Now Schwartz's career path is taking another turn, one that is becoming a recurring theme in his life.

“Starting July 1, I'll be working with the Veterans Rapid Response Grant given to Southside Virginia Community College and the South Central Workforce Investment Board,” he advised.

Working with Dr. Linda Sheffield at SVCC, Schwartz will have an office in Charlotte Court House.

“The main goal is employment, career type employment for veterans,” Schwartz continued. “When a veteran comes in, a profile of what that veteran actually did is made. Then another person goes over the profile to see what that translates to in course work. If veterans need training, we'll get them in the right program.”

The grant will cover veterans living in the following counties: Amelia, Brunswick, Buckingham, Charlotte, Cumberland, Halifax, Lunenburg, Mecklenburg, Nottoway, and Prince Edward.

“I know I'm motivated to do this,” Schwartz commented. “And it's part-time which gives me more time to spend with my stepdaughters.”

The part-time position will also give Schwartz time to study.

“I'm in school now in the Masters of Arts in Teaching online at Liberty,” he added. “My future career goal is to become a teacher and coach.”