People making a difference: Gunnar Swanson
An Iraq war veteran has dedicated his life to helping children affected by conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
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For Gunnar Swanson, it all started six years ago, when he was serving in Iraq with the 957 Multi Role Bridge Company of the North Dakota Army National Guard. One afternoon in 2003 he found himself aiming his M-16 rifle at a young Iraqi boy, warning the child, in a strong, nonverbal way, not to come any closer. The boy froze in his tracks, a puzzled look on his face, then ran off.
In his 12 months in Iraq, which included surviving a close call from an exploding rocket-propelled grenade, this experience was one that affected Sergeant Swanson the most.
Just three months earlier, the same scene would have played out in a completely different way. Then, Swanson and his fellow soldiers enjoyed frequent contact with the local children – talking with them, picking up some Arabic words, taking pictures, giving the kids candy and food, and buying souvenirs and ice from them. For the troops, these encounters were a reminder of home and an invaluable morale boost.
But as violence increased and insurgent activity escalated, more and more Iraqi children were coerced, sometimes threatened, into joining insurgent groups, who then used them against the American soldiers. With kids now representing a potentially dangerous or deadly distraction, all contacts with children were ordered to stop.
"Pointing a gun at a child, threatening to shoot him," Swanson recollects. "I was 25 years old at the time, and it has weighed pretty heavy on me ever since then."
Swanson left Iraq in 2004 and was discharged from the Army the following year, but his thoughts kept returning to the children he had seen and the cycle of violence in which they seemed to be trapped. Civilian life took him on a circuitous route that eventually landed him in what, for many, would be a dream job: training dolphins at a marine mammal educational center in Florida. For two years Swanson enjoyed every aspect of his job and his life, but it wasn't enough.
"I joined the military to serve my country, protect those who can't protect themselves, and to make the world a better place," he says. "I still wanted to do that even though I was out of the military. I was living a great life in Key Largo, but I knew that training dolphins wasn't my mission in life. My mission is to help these kids over in Iraq."
Persistence, serendipity, and a little help from Google led Swanson to the perfect outlet for his passion: War Kids Relief (WKR), a nonprofit organization in Northfield, Minn., that works on behalf of children in Iraq and Afghanistan who have been deeply affected by war. Economic opportunities there are extremely limited, even for those few lucky enough to graduate from high school, making young people easy targets for the Taliban.