Backstory: Leaping tall stereotypes in a single bound
A state trooper redefines the parameters of 'disability.'
If he'd lost his leg in a war, or in a high-speed chase, or in a shootout with a fugitive, there might have been easy glory for New York State Trooper Matt Swartz.Skip to next paragraph
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But the only remarkable thing about the day his life changed was its perfect ordinariness. He was driving his wife, Alison, to work on a chilly fall morning, winding past hay fields on a country road he traveled every day here in upstate New York. At 7:34 a.m., a man made a sudden left into the driver's side of Mr. Swartz's pickup. The truck flipped. Swartz was thrown out a window. His left leg was so badly injured that doctors decided to amputate.
"Just a plain old stupid accident," Swartz would say later.
If he were to find redemption in the randomness, if he were to defy the expectations of doctors and make New York State Police history, he would have to search inside himself.
For Swartz, police work always seemed less choice than destiny. Both his parents were small-town cops. If he was out with his dad on an errand and an emergency call came in, his father didn't bother to deposit his son at home first. While other kids were playing ball or riding bikes, Matt was watching from the backseat as his father hosed down fires or broke up bar fights.
In high school, he thought life might take him in other directions. He aced classes in mechanical drawing and building design, and worked construction in the summer. By 10th grade, he knew he wanted to be an architect. But there was no money for college.
He enlisted in the Air National Guard in 1990 when a recruiter told him about the civil engineering corps. After just a day in uniform, however, superiors told him there were no engineering vacancies. So he chose the one job he'd been around as a kid, and served as a police officer in the military for six years, three on active duty.
Swartz had already worked at a half-dozen small upstate police departments by 1999, when he scored high enough for admission to the State Police academy. He was assigned to Troop G, in the same rural county west of Albany where he grew up, and patrolled towns too small to have their own police departments.
Backup was often 30 minutes or more away. So he fine-tuned a cock-eyed stare – "a half a breath away from crazy," he called it – intimidating enough to subdue a room full of felons. Or so he hoped. Because some days, all alone out on the back roads, he felt like a one-man army.
Swartz was wiry and strong. He'd been a hurdler and high jumper in high school. Until the accident, in November 2004, few things gave him a bigger rush than chasing a wanted man through the woods, battling blazes as a volunteer firefighter, or dragging a dummy across a freezing river while training with a rescue team.
Now his once-muscular left leg ended in an angry stump five inches below the knee: it looked, he thought, like a loaf of bread. When the gravity of the amputation dawned on him, in the hospital, he found himself more contemplative than panic-stricken.
"It was kind of like a quiet solitude," he recalls. "It was, 'OK, what's next? How am I going to get past this?' "
He looked at his body with the brass-tacks pragmatism of a contractor surveying a hurricane-damaged house: It was a wreck, to be sure, but one that the right combination of tools, supplies, and sweat might just rebuild. This was a kind of architecture he'd never dreamed of in high school.
In January 2005, a few weeks after his release from the hospital, the State Police approved him for a disability retirement. But Swartz asked to hold off. He said he wanted to try to return to work.
"Let's see what happens, Matt," Swartz recallsone of his bosses saying.
His superiors knew as well as Swartz did that there is no light duty for state police. Regulations specify that every trooper be fit for "full and strenuous duty." Swartz couldn't so much as stand without a walker.
People saw he'd need time to think. Troopers donated vacation days to a pool so he could pay spiraling medical bills as he was fitted for a prosthetic leg and learned to walk again.
"Many of us in the state police thought at the time that his career was over," recalls Capt. William Sprague, a supervisor several steps up the chain of command. "None of us knew the courage and heart this man had."