Saturday, March 14, 2015

Navy Region Hawaii Concludes 2015 Wounded Warrior Pacific Trials

By By Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jeff Troutman, Navy Public Affairs Support Element West, Det. Hawaii

PEARL HARBOR (NNS) -- PEARL HARBOR - The Navy Wounded Warrior (NWW) - Safe Harbor 2015 Wounded Warrior Pacific Trials drew to a close March 13, concluding a week of successful sporting events and family-oriented symposiums.

The athletes competed in basketball, volleyball, swimming, marksmanship and cycling events as a way to establish meaningful connections with other NWWs and experience positive connectivity through their challenges.

Adm. Harry B. Harris, Jr., commander, U.S. Pacific Fleet, personally commended the approximately 60 warriors who participated in this year's trials at the closing ceremony in Waikiki.

"On your journey to be here today, I know there were many obstacles that seemed insurmountable. All of you have not only overcome those obstacles, you've strived for new challenges," said Harris. "In pursuit of a dream, every one of you has shown incredible mental and physical toughness. These Trials have provided an opportunity for all of us to celebrate your athletic achievements, your perseverance, your drive and your desire to succeed. So I thank you, and congratulate you for your tremendous achievements."

The wounded warrior athletes competing in the trials were comprised of active-duty and retired service members with upper-body, lower-body and spinal cord injuries; serious illnesses; traumatic brain injuries; visual impairment; and post-traumatic stress. The wounded warrior athletes were competing for selection to the Team Navy roster and advancement to the annual joint-service Warrior Games, which will take place this summer.

Retired Lt.j.g. Laura Root, a gold medalist winner in the 2013 and 2014 Warrior Games, said the trials are a great way for wounded service members to stay active and continue to support their country.

"I know first-hand, when facing disability or when things in your life are going wrong, sports are one place where you can focus on what's right, and here you have a great group of people who understand what you have been through," said Root. "When we come together like this, it's really about the comradery we share. We heal ourselves a little bit by having a good time with each other and by doing something we enjoy."

Perhaps most importantly, the trials are a way for wounded veterans to prove to themselves that they have the strength and the courage to move forward and continue to excel.

"There are a lot of sports in America today that have Wounded Warriors in mind," said Retired Army Staff Sergeant David Kimes, coach of the Pacific Trials rifle shooting team. "To get out there and do something, and realize that even though you have that setback in your life, you can get out there and enjoy life, and succeed, and maybe even compete and win or turn a lot of heads - it can be huge for self-esteem and self-respect. That's what we try to show with these events; that it's just a temporary setback."

Liberty Airman rescued allies, earned Airman's Medal

by Airman 1st Class Erin R. Babis
48th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

3/13/2015 - ROYAL AIR FORCE LAKENHEATH, England  -- Flares were shooting from planes, live rounds were whizzing by and fire bottles were exploding.

Despite these hazards, a Liberty Airman ran toward the wreckage of the crash site to help pull injured service members to safety.

Staff Sgt. Greggory Swarz, 492nd Aircraft Maintenance Unit electrical environmental systems specialist, was awarded the Airman's Medal for saving the lives of three French Airmen after a Hellenic air force F-16 Fighting Falcon crashed into the parking ramp at Los Llanos Air Base, Spain, during Tactical Leadership Program 15-1, Jan. 26.

Gen. Frank Gorenc, U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa commander, presented the prestigious award to Swarz in front of a packed hanger during the 48th Fighter Wing Maintenance Professional of the Year Awards Banquet, March 13.

"We are only going to be as good as our Airmen," Gorenc said. "Liberty Airmen are willing to go above and beyond what we expect normal people to do. Instead of running away from the fireball, they ran into the fireball. It was a validation of everything that is good about what we try to do in the Air Force."

For Swarz, receiving the medal from Gorenc was of special distinction.

"I'm extremely honored," Swarz said, regarding the Airman's Medal. "It's not something I expected to happen, especially since the general came. He also has the same medal, so it was an honor receiving the medal from him."

The Airman's Medal may be awarded to any member of the Armed Forces of the U.S. or of a friendly nation who, while serving in any capacity with the U.S. Air Force, has distinguished themselves by a heroic act, usually at the voluntary risk of their life.

"It was a very scary situation," Swarz said. "The fires were huge; I still think the fire wall was infinite. I just tried to stay calm and be rational about everything. We are trained on first response once a year. It helped a lot."

Swarz described the scene of the crash, where jet fuel was spraying all over the ramp, but there were a few pockets he could reach where he could see people in need of help. Swarz found a pocket and pulled one of the French Airman a safe distance from the flames. The Airman's clothes were still on fire, but an eyewitness recalled Swarz putting the flames out with his hands because fire extinguishers weren't working.

After pulling a second French Airman to safety, Swarz ran toward the wreckage again. Dragging the third Airman away, exhaustion began to set in, and he stumbled. When Swarz called for help, two Liberty Airmen came and helped bring the French Airman out of harm's way.

The third Airman lost his right hand in the crash. Swarz pulled his belt from his uniform to use as a tourniquet, saving his life by stemming the loss of blood.

"When Staff Sgt. Swarz needed to respond to save the lives of those three French Airmen, he did, and he didn't hesitate," said Col. Robert Novotny, 48th FW commander. "And when we decided Staff Sgt. Swarz deserved recognition for his actions, we asked the 3rd Air Force staff, the USAFE team, the Air Force Personnel Center and the Secretary of the Air Force's Office to act quickly - and they did; processing his medal in only ten days so we could present it to him in front of his colleagues at their annual awards banquet."

Swarz has kept in touch with a few of the French Airmen he helped save. The wife of the second Airman he pulled from the wreckage sends him updates every time she visits her husband in the Paris hospital where he is recovering.

"I am happy for them," Swarz said. "I don't think I did more than I had to do. I think I did what I should've done."

His strength of character and commitment to helping others is evident in what he told 1st Lt. Olivia Mills, the TLP 15-1 492nd AMU officer in charge, after leaving the crash site.

"His words to me right after the accident were, 'I wish I could've done more,'" Mills said. "He is an incredibly humble individual, and he saved three people's lives, but he wanted to do more. I have never been more proud of anyone."

The selflessness displayed during Swarz's heroic actions in Spain were articulated when he explained what he was thinking as he ran toward the intense heat, toxic smoke and flying debris.

"Honestly, I was thinking that there was a good chance that I might pass away as well," Swarz said. "I was just trying to get as many people out before that might happen."

Despite the tragedy, Swarz described positive experiences from TLP 15-1, working and spending time with NATO allies.

"It didn't matter what country we were from, if you were French, Greek, British, Italian or German; we all just hung out as one," Swarz said.

Swarz himself comes from a multicultural background. He was born in Italy and raised there until he was 12. He then moved to Portugal with his family and lived there until he decided to move to America and join the Air Force.

"Coming from different backgrounds, there are always different things we can bring," Swarz said. "That's what's so good about the Air Force. We get the best of everybody and just do what we do."