Combat Veteran / Chaplain
Makes Sense of the World with a Life of Service

“You could have hostility, anger, fear, unfairness about life or you can do something good with your lives; turn that pain into compassion, to do things to make the world a better place.” 

This quote from VMF Caucus Vice Chair for CD2, Carl Jeff Swanson, USAF Chaplain, Col. (Ret.), describes the mantra that has guided his life from childhood through a tour in Vietnam with the US Marines, a career as a pastor, and as a chaplain in the US Air Force (USAF).

He learned that mantra growing up in rural north central Illinois. His parents’ generation lived through the depression and some lost their farms, including his parents; they survived with jobs in town. As a kid, he spent every waking moment on relatives’ farms. He learned a hard-work ethic and sense of patriotism growing up with them.

Enlisted Marine, Jeff Swanson, in Vietnam

After infantry training at Camp Pendleton and helicopter crew training in Memphis, he was sent to North Carolina to reconstitute a helicopter squadron that was destroyed in Vietnam. He shipped out in July 1969 and spent the next 11 months and 28 days in I Corps, in DaNang and Phubai with the 1st and 3rd Marine divisions, along with Korean and South Vietnamese Marines. He supported resupply missions, troop insertions and extractions, and medivac operations.

“I’m the only one (of the buddies who kept in touch) left alive for the past 20 years,” the former Marine sergeant recollected. “I’ve had a lot of survivor guilt that told me I want to use my days to be productive.”(A bit of history: the names of the 58,318 Americans who gave their lives in service to their country in the Vietnam conflict are immortalized on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC.)

As most of us know, war affects soldiers in many ways; some effects are immediate and some take decades to process.“ I lost my sense of taste and smell in Vietnam. They left me on a helicopter flight in Vietnam because you had to function among all the bodies and the carnage… I still have no sense of nausea about anything. What I do have to be careful about,” the former USAF chaplain continued, “is that there are a lot of images in my head (from that time). If I say words about the carnage, et cetera, I put images in other people’s heads. I don’t want to do that; not now, not ever.”

While many experiences in Vietnam have changed his life, one experience in a zigzagging Jeep in the midst of enemy fire played a key role in his decision to enlist as a chaplain in the US Air Force. (See details in that section of the article.)

He lived that mantra when and since he became a minister.

He was discharged from the Marines and started college 60 days later. He married his long-time love, Donna, had three children. During that time, he worked as a precision machinist (one of his childhood dream avocations), then used the GI bill to graduate from Northern Illinois University (1977) and North West Lutheran Seminary in St. Paul, MN (1981). He was endorsed by the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America and served as a pastor in rural Illinois until he joined the USAF as a chaplain in 1984.

He lived that mantra when friends encouraged him to join the USAF as a chaplain.

“By going into the USAF as a chaplain, I realized I could be a pastor and in the military at the same time,” he reflected.  “In 1984, when President Reagan and Congress expanded the US military, more chaplain positions opened up. Some pastor-friends had been military chaplains and they recommended I apply when a USAF chaplain slot opened.”

“I took their advice for lot of different reasons.  I had a head and a brain for caring for our military people because of what I had gone through as a Marine.  I was fortunate because I had very good chaplains in the Marines. One saved my life. We were moving a US missionary who was caught in a gun battle; my job was to keep him and his family alive. As we left, I heard a bullet go by my head and I turned around to fire. The truck driver zigzagged to avoid fire, and I fell off the truck. The chaplain grabbed me and held on until we got to a safe place,” he recollected. “His action saved my life and helped guide the direction of my life ever since.”

“While in Vietnam, I steeled myself physically, mentally and spiritually. Later I learned that that made me a very good hospital chaplain. Medivac missions in Vietnam got me interested in medicine. And I did pastoral care training at a hospital in Minnesota. I took to that like a duck to the water,” he said.

“I took their advice for lot of different reasons.  I had a head and a brain for caring for our military people because of what I had gone through as a Marine.  I was fortunate because I had very good chaplains in the Marines. One saved my life. We were moving a US missionary who was caught in a gun battle; my job was to keep him and his family alive. As we left, I heard a bullet go by my head and I turned around to fire. The truck driver zigzagged to avoid fire, and I fell off the truck. The chaplain grabbed me and held on until we got to a safe place,” he recollected. “His action saved my life and helped guide the direction of my life ever since.” 

USAF Colonel Jeff Swanson in a C-17

Col. Swanson’s assignment was Wing Chaplain, 55th Wing, Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska.  He led a diverse chapel community including Air Combat Command’s (ACC) largest chapel active duty and reserve team to meet the religious and spiritual care needs of ACC’s largest wing, the US Strategic Command, and 93 tenant units. Additionally, he led his staff for immediate contingency and wartime ministry deployments, anytime, anywhere, according to his military bio. 

“This is what I’m good at,” he said of his USAF chaplain experience. “My last assignment was in Offutt AFB in Nebraska, for the US Strategic Command. I had the most deployed unit and the most deployed chaplain staff and the best trained chaplain staff. We also did intel, surveillance and recon. We did some very important work for our country,” the former USAF chaplain said.

And he lives that mantra in his retirement years in Otero County, NM, now.

Jeff living out his farming dream in retirement

He retired on 30 April 2011 after 30 years, 7 months and 13 days of active duty, including his four years as a US Marine warrior and 26 years as a military chaplain.  

“I wanted to come here and raise some cattle and some donkeys,” says the activist Otero County resident of his five acres set against the 1,000 acres of BLM lands and the Lincoln National Forest.  “I wanted to support our infrastructure, our hospital, our waters, our lives. And I did. I still am.”

Jeff Swanson with his critters on the farm

He is living the farming dream he had as a child.  “I have three donkeys, three mules, four cows, five dogs, 23 guineas and chickens; and I grow fruit trees using sustainable agricultural methods. I also provide  compost manure for area farmers. One cow will be butchered soon and all the meat will go to the Otero County Hunger Coalition,” the very humble farmer commented. 

When he’s not working on his land or playing with his four grandchildren, he continues to serve many groups of people in Otero County, NM. As a veteran, along with serving in a leadership role in the VMF Caucus:

  • He is a mentor for veterans enrolled in the 12thJudicial Court Treatment Court (one statewide service project of the VFM Caucus). He is currently working with a female veteran to help her resolve her legal issues successfully to help her transition into civilian life.
  • He is a member of the Marine Corps League, providing military honors for veterans’ funerals and performing community service projects.

He generously shares his pastoral care to all who need it, serving as a police chaplain for the Alamogordo Police Department and serving as a volunteer parish pastor for any denomination when the need arises. He also extends his concern and care for the land by serving as volunteer chair for the Nonpartisan Land Alliance in Otero County. The organization serves the interests of area land owners as others attempt to change the rural landscape of this beautiful area.

His role as Chair of the Democratic Party of Otero County tested his mettle recently when the three members of the Otero County Commission refused to certify the votes in the recent primary election. The situation made headlines in New Mexico and nationally. “This situation triggered my PTSD,” he said, wearily. “I like to believe in people but challenging the choice of the voters is downright seditious.” Two of the three county commissioners eventually voted to certify the Otero County election results. This majority vote enabled the NM Secretary of State to validate all primary election results across the state. The third member and founder of Cowboys for Trump, Couy Griffin, was sentenced for his role in the January 6, 2021 insurrection on the same day the other commissioners voted for the certification. “We need patriots to serve as our legislators in our government; not these dividers,” he said.

Even with all the controversy surrounding the Otero County primary election, this veteran has a strong focus. “I want to serve, I want to do good. Because I get to live for these other people who didn’t live. It’s important for me to keep going, keep giving, keep helping.”