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December 15, 2006

Drop zone named for fallen Geronimos

Editor's note: Wednesday I posted about an assignment that got a little personal for me. Here it is. I hope you get something from the sacrifice of these two Soldiers.
-- Published in Fort Polk Guardian (Aug. 1, 2006) --
By: MICHELLE LINDSEY, Guardian staff writer

Tears mingled with laughter and pride as past and present Soldiers of A Company, 1st Battalion (Airborne), 509th Infantry Regiment, gathered with the families of two fallen Geronimos, Sgt. Andrew W. Brown and Sgt. Brett D. Swank, at the Beauregard Parish Airport Dec. 12.

Brown, 22, was injured Oct. 1, 2004, when his patrol vehicle was struck by an improvised explosive device. He was taken to a Baghdad hospital but did not stabilize enough to be brought to the States. Swank, 21, died of injuries sustained Jan. 21, 2005, when his dismounted patrol was struck by an IED.

Soldiers and families gathered at the airport to remember the sacrifices of Brown and Swank at a dedication ceremony renaming a portion of the airport the “Brown-Swank Drop Zone” in their honor.

Brown and Swank had more in common than rank and unit.

Both were from small, close-knit Pennsylvania towns. Both had dreams of becoming a Soldier, and fellow Soldiers claim both could make them smile in the darkest times. Both have brothers following in their military footsteps. Both Soldiers also gave their lives defending the nation they were so proud to serve.

“The military and the 509th have a long history of remembering those who have made the extreme sacrifice during their service to our country,” said Lt. Col. John King, commander, 1/509th. “We need to remember those who did not look for excuses, did not point their finger at someone else, but knew they had a duty to serve and went forward into harm's way.”

Despite not having served with Brown or Swank, King said the 1/509th is a family that remains true to each other despite separation.

“It is true I did not know Sergeant Brown or Sergeant Swank. They served in the battalion prior to my arrival. However, I did not know Private Brookins, who was one of the first 509th paratroopers, who jumped into North Africa and was killed in November, 1942, during World War II. I did not know Sergeant Miller or Private 1st Class Lowhorn, 509th paratroopers killed as part of their unit's airborne assault into the mountain country of Italy in September, 1943. I did not know Sergeant 1st Class Crane, a 509th paratrooper killed in Southern France in August, 1944, and I did not know Private Bills, a 509th paratrooper who was killed during the Battle of the Bulge in December, 1944,” King said.

Of all these paratroopers, especially Sergeant Swank and Sergeant Brown, I did not have to meet them to know how they had contributed to their fellow paratroopers in combat, the 509th unit and their country,” he continued.

“This is just an honor, a very fitting tribute to our son,” said Lourdes Brown, Brown's mother. “He loved his hometown, he loved his country, but he really loved the Army.

He loved to jump, so having this place named for him is very appropriate. It's perfect,” she said, fighting back tears.

The pride the Browns have for their son was evident as they spoke of his childhood love of the military.

“We knew he was going to join the military when he was 9 or 10 years old,” said William Brown, Brown's father.

“He played in camouflage. We used to have to go to Army-Navy surplus stores and buy him camos,” Lourdes added.

“He would have worn those clothes to school if it had been possible,” William said. “There was no doubt in my mind he would (serve).”

Brown joined the military shortly after his high school graduation, his parents said.

“He did not want to go to college. He wanted to go straight into the Army. He graduated in June and left for the Army in August,” Lourdes said, tears once again glistening in her eyes. “He always wanted to be in the infantry. It wasn't what I wanted, but it was his choice.”

Their pride has spilled over to his fellow Soldiers of the 1/509th. The bond the family and Soldiers have developed was evident as Brown's parents called Soldiers by name and hugged them. Lourdes even mothered them a bit, inquiring about one Soldier's cough and another's family.

The Browns said the 1/509th Soldiers never waivered in their support of the family. “We are a close family, but we never knew how close Andy's family in the Army was. It was a very strong bond, and they have been so supportive of us and kept in close contact,” Lourdes said.

The Browns said the reality of how close the unit is came to light when they learned his fellow Soldiers slept on the ground outside of the Baghdad hospital tent.

“The men of the 509th stayed with him 24-7, never leaving his side. For a mother who couldn't be there to help her child, this was important,” Lourdes said. “Those men were there with him and stayed until the end. That was really important. I owe them so much.”

“The most painful thing was knowing he was there and we couldn't be there,” said William.

Seeing them today shows us how much they care. Some of them came from other bases, having left the 509th,” said William.

Swank's father, Daniel, and stepmother, Becky, agreed that the relationship they developed with the unit has helped them get through their son's death.

“They have kept in touch,” Daniel said. “(They call) in January, the anniversary of when Brett was killed, Memorial Day, July 4 -- it is great to hear from them. It really means a lot.”

The Swanks said Thanksgiving is especially hard for them because two years ago Swank was home on mid-tour leave. Little did they know that when they put him on the plane the following Saturday, it would be the last time they would see him alive.

“We are happy they included us (in the ceremony.) When they told us about it, we dropped everything and came down. We would not have missed it for the world,” said Daniel. “It means a lot that they remember not only Brett and Andy, but all of the Soldiers who have given their lives for the country.

“Brett had a great smile. He was a kidder, loved to snowboard and enjoyed life a lot,” he added.

Becky said they cherish the stories the Soldiers told of Swank, especially about jokes and pranks, which he loved.

“He was determined from his senior year in high school to be a Ranger. Once he achieved that there was only one thing left to do and that was earn his combat infantry badge,” said Daniel.

He added that when the unit was called up, Swank told his parents, “This is my job. I have to do it.”

Soldiers who served with Brown and Swank also remembered them.

“It's an honor to be a part of this. We've had ceremonies overseas, but now that we are all back home and together again, it means a lot to us (to be here). The community can also learn and benefit from their sacrifices,” said Sgt. 1st Class Eric Luneau. “I knew Sergeant Swank and Sergeant Brown very well. They were both down-to-earth cutups,” he said, remembering his fallen brothers.

“They liked to have fun, but at the same time were very oriented (to their job).“

Both the Brown and Swank families said they understand the importance of the military to their fallen sons.

The torch has been passed as Brown's brother serves in the Navy as a Seabee, and Swank's younger brother is a member of the Colorado State University Reserve Officer Training Corps.

Click here to see other articles in this week's Fort Polk Guardian.

2 Tea Party Guest:

lime said...

i'm wiping my eyes now...thank you for sharing this. may the brown and swank families find peace and comfort.

Tommy said...

I know you ain't there, but Merry Christmas anyway and as long as I'm here, Happy New Year!
TG