A warrior at peace

July 3, 2018 GMT

The 7th Annual Peace At Last program was held Sunday evening in Veterans Memorial Park in Beatrice. Asera Care Hospice staff and volunteers organize the event to honor veterans and their families each year around Independence Day.

“Every year more people come to hear about how we need to help our veterans” said Lori Stanley, Asera Care Provider relations manager.

The keynote speaker was Steve Swarthout, father of Spc. Drae William J. Swarthout.

Drae served in the U.S. Army from October 2012 to March 2016 in the 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment at Fort Lewis, Washington. He then served in the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Drae died February 27, 2018, by suicide.

“I thank God for giving me Drae as a son,” said Steve at the beginning of the address, wearing a Nine Line Apparel Suicide Awareness T-shirt. “He had a lot of energy. He loved racing cars and was never afraid of the gas pedal. I hear stories from his friends and have always thought of him as an M&M: a little crispy on the outside shell, but soft and sweet inside.

“At a young age, he learned that we stand for those that can’t stand for themselves and embraced that belief throughout his life,” his father continued. “He was a warrior. He always said he was going to be in the Army or Marines when he got older.

“When he was 17 we had a Marine recruiter at our door and he wanted me to sign for him. I told him we need to slow down and think about this. When he was 18 he called and said ‘Dad you need to get down here. I’m in the Army recruiter’s office and I’m about to sign.’

“He went off to basic training and when he was graduating, it was about the third time in his life I saw him cry. He was so proud that he had earned his blue cord and excitedly shared that he had made ranger,” Steve said.

Drae was later deployed to Afghanistan and communication with his family slowed. He was not able to tell his father where he had been or details of his missions.

“When he called and he said ‘I love you dad,’ I knew he was in danger,” Steve said. “We celebrated when he came home from his first deployment. He was safe. But then he was deployed for the second time. He was one of the first 48 soldiers that went to Iraq. Even when our President was saying ‘we do not have boots on the ground in Iraq,’ I knew that we did because Drae was there.

“Near the end of his contract he was trying to decide if he was going to continue his career in the Army or if he was going to come home. Drae called and said that he was ‘invited to take the long walk’ which meant he was invited to join Delta Force. It was a tough decision for him, but he called and said ‘I can feel I’ve changed already.’ That should have been a sign,” Steve said.

“He came home and I was relieved. He was home and he was safe. I had no clue that the real danger was just beginning. I had heard that there are 22 military personnel that die by suicide every day in the United States, but I always thought no, not Drae. He is strong. But my son became one of the 22 on Feb. 27.

“Drae had severe PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder). We need to get our vets the help they deserve,” Steve said. “When it becomes your son, it becomes your mission. I will fight for veterans’ care until my dying day.”

Steve said Drae had 70-percent PTSD disability. He explained that two weeks before he died, Drae was talking about going back into the Army and if he would have had more than 70 percent he would have lost his security clearance.

“I think that is why he had not tried harder to get help. He had survivor’s guilt and felt he should have stayed with his team. I heard several times from his friends that he was a leader and everyone had felt safe when he was with them.”

In the days before Drae’s death he had not slept. He was having seizures and hallucinations, his father said.

“It hurts me to think that he was in so much pain. He left a note saying ‘I can’t fight anymore’,” Steve said. “I am going to lead the charge that changes the way we care for our service members. That is why I spoke at the event. When a part of your heart is broken, you can never get it back.”

Steve said that he has spoken at different places and will continue to speak “until my last breath. It energizes me to be Drae’s voice.”

Steve talked about the love and kindness that people have shown him and his family since Drae’s passing.

“It’s just been amazing. There are no words.”

A Quilt of Valor sewn during a 4-H workshop was presented in memory of Drae at the Sunday evening program.

Jetta, Margie Jane and Carla Harvey with Claire and Kerri McGrury unwrapped the patriotic-designed quilt and wrapped it around Steve and his wife Jenny.

The mission of the Quilts of Valor Foundation is to cover service members and veterans who’ve been touched by war with comforting and healing Quilts of Valor.

“Knowing the families who sewed that quilt and their belief and faith in God, I could feel the love cover me and give me strength,” Steve said. “There are days when it’s hard to put one foot in front of the other, but I will continue to be Drae’s voice until I’m reunited with him in heaven. Hopefully, I can be the one voice that prevents other families from having to go through this pain. I can’t do it alone, but maybe people will write their political representatives and start talking about this issue. Maybe we can move 22 suicide a day to 10 and then to none.

“I want people to remember Drae as unselfish, strong and as a warrior. I will continue to fight because Drae has found peace at last.”