LOWNDES CO., GA (WALB) - WALB and Montlick and Associates would like to recognize the Heroes Among Us.
Each month, we will spotlight an active duty man or woman, a veteran, or a fallen hero whose service to our country goes beyond the battleground.
Vietnam veteran and Lowndes County resident Richard Swofford joined the U.S. Army at age 17, in October of 1966.
“I went down and mom and dad signed for me and let me go,” Swofford explained.
After training, he spent some time serving in the demilitarized zone in Korea.
Then, at age 19, he got orders to take his specialty, demolition, to Vietnam.
“They said, well they need tunnel rats,” Swofford said. “I didn’t know what a tunnel rat was. I said, ‘That sounds good. I’ll take it.’”
Tunnel rats are now widely referred to as the most dangerous job in Vietnam.
They blindly searched and destroyed tunnels that were built and used as shelter by the Vietcong.
Swofford said there wasn't much training for that position, other than what he called "on-the-job training."
“We had to be alert to boobie traps, snakes in the wall, mines, all that stuff,” Swofford said as he explained the dangers they faced while trying to clear the dark, small tunnels.
Turning a corner, he explained that the tunnel rats would often meet an enemy soldier at arms' length.
"You stick your weapon out first and shoot instead of going around," he said. "A friend in front of me shot his thumb off. That's better than getting shot in the head though."
Many, though, did meet that fate.
After clearing the tunnels, Swofford took the lead to destroy them with explosives.
"We lit the fuse at the end, and it was like the end of the world," Swofford explained.
Twelve months later, Swofford went home, complete with a Bronze Star for heroism.
But, he kept those stories from war to himself for 40 years.
That was partly because he was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder nearly 20 years after he returned home.
It affected not only him but his loved ones as well.
His wife and daughter even found him ready to do harm, as if he was back in Vietnam, multiple times.
Because of these struggles, he stayed in the Army for the most part, where he felt understood.
“I got out and went to the Atlanta Fire Department for a while, and it was just too much on me,” Swofford said. “A lot of death and people burning up in that too, so I couldn’t get away from that.”
It's clear that the memories of the death and destruction seen in those tunnels are with him, now and forever.
“Yeah, it was horrific. It’s something you wouldn’t wish on anybody,” he explained.
But, this soldier at heart said he wouldn't change a thing about his service.
“I felt like I was fighting for my country. I grew up like that,” said Swofford
If you would like to nominate your military hero to be featured on ‘Heroes Among Us’ on WALB ABC, click here.