People making a difference: Gunnar Swanson

An Iraq war veteran has dedicated his life to helping children affected by conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

David Conrads
Gunnar Swanson visits an after-school program in Cameron, Mo. Sergeant Swanson joined Northfield, Minn.-based War Kids Relief to connect US children with kids in Iraq and Afghanistan.

What would impel someone to leave a good job and a great life in the Florida Keys and move to rural Minnesota in a snowstorm in February?

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.

After several conversations with Dina Fesler, president of WKR's parent organization, Children's Culture Connection, and a visit to Northfield, Swanson took the position of program manager. The job meant living in Northfield, so Swanson left Florida and moved to a house on a farm outside town.

Swanson's first order of business was planning and organizing "A Soldier's March for Peace," a 1,000-mile walk that started on July 4 in Dallas and recently ended on Sept. 11 near Northfield. Its purpose was not only to raise money and awareness, but to get children involved. Along the zigzag course, Swanson and Ms. Fesler (who followed in an RV) stopped and spoke to some 30 youth groups – YMCAs, summer camps, after-school centers – about the plight of children in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"He's kind of a tough guy on the outside, but he really is able to let his vulnerability shine through," Fesler says. "He's not afraid to be who he is."

"If I could use one word to describe Gunnar, I would have to say 'passionate,' " adds Chad Pedersen, who served with Swanson before and during the 957's deployment to Iraq. "He is passionate about helping those kids, and anything he gets excited about, he just pours his heart and soul into it."

With his bald Yul Brynner pate, warm personality, and 100-watt smile, Swanson is a big hit with children. In Cameron, Mo., 16 grade-school children at the YMCA respond enthusiastically as they learn the names of far-off cities like Baghdad, Kirkuk, and Sulaymaniyah. He tells them his first name has nothing to do with being in the military: He was named for his great-grandfather. (Gunnar is a Scandinavian name that means "brave soldier.") The children seem pleasantly surprised to discover that children in Iraq and Afghanistan, despite their severe hardships, also play soccer and computer games.

After a short talk, Swanson and Fesler pass out paper, pens, and art supplies, and the children write letters to their peers in the two war-torn countries. "A kid over in Iraq or Afghanistan who has received a letter from a kid in the United States will probably hold onto that letter for the rest of his life," Swanson tells them.

In all, 2,700 letters were collected and will be distributed sometime next year. "We really didn't want it to be just a walk," Fesler says later. "We wanted to turn the walk into something larger where we could really showcase why we are doing this and how we want children in America brought into this."

Money raised by WKR will go to building a rehabilitation and job-skills training center in Mosul, Iraq, and a vocational training center in Khost, Afghanistan. WKR partners with local groups in both countries.

Swanson's 1,000-mile walk and his encounters with children were also intended to inspire the children to undertake their own fundraising. Along the way, all manner of lemonade stands, bake sales, carwashes, and other efforts sprang up, contributing to WKR's project.

As more funds come in, Swanson hopes that construction can begin on the projects. "[The children] can feel like they're building the youth center in Iraq and the vocational center in Afghanistan," he says.r

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