"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.