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Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Disabled veteran's 5-year-old triplets get college scholarships from Folds of Honor

In North Carolina, the birth rate is so high at Fort Bragg that locals call it the "Baby Factory."

But even there, the Swegers drew a lot of attention with a set of triplets - a redhead, a blond and a brown-haired child, all boys.

Ronny Sweger met his wife in the early 1990s on their first day of classes at Northeastern State University. But, while he's remained interested in her ever since, he soon grew bored with college and joined the National Guard instead.

"That was boring, too," he remembers. So, in 1994, at age 19, he went active duty.

"Never do anything halfway," Sweger says is his philosophy in life. "If I'm going to be a ditch digger, I'm going to be the best ditch digger in the world."

In the Army, that means the Special Forces.

The selection process, at the time, involved four weeks of "gut punches," as Sweger describes it.

"You average three hours of sleep. And you can eat as much as you want, but I still lost 30 pounds. They push you as far as you can go and then keep pushing."

Since the terrorist attacks of 2001, Sweger has had seven official tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, plus a number of unofficial missions that he will keep to himself.

He offers no details about where he was or what he was doing when he was injured.

"In my business, you're going to get wounded. It's inevitable," Sweger says, "Thank God, mine are all minor. The real scars are the ones you can't see."

Forced into medical retirement in 2007, not long after his triplets were born, Sweger came home to Oklahoma with a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder.

He fidgets all the time. Doesn't like anyone to walk up behind him. And without constant reminders pinging from a smart phone, he'd forget what he's supposed to be doing.

Worst of all, crowds seem to bother him. And that's partly why Sweger moved his family to a little farm near Salina, a town of only 1,400 people at Lake Hudson where his wife grew up.

While his wife teaches middle-school math, Sweger runs the farm, does taxidermy and volunteers as the state director for Wounded Warriors in Action, a national group that arranges exotic hunting trips for injured veterans.

The job involves public speaking.

"And obviously that's a problem," Sweger admits, because he watches hands. Everybody's hands.

That's where threats come from - guns, knives, bombs.

"They train us to watch hands," Sweger says. And now he can't stop. "If I'm at a golf course talking to 200 people, that's a lot of hands to watch."

But if you're going to be a ditch digger. ... Nobody listening to Sweger would think he's even slightly uncomfortable.

The real problem with his volunteer work is the volunteering - it doesn't pay. And remember: Sweger has triplets, now 5 years old.

"How am I supposed to keep them in clothes," he wonders, "much less send them to college someday?

"They all need new shoes at the same time, baseball uniforms at the same time. And when they're older, the tuition will all come at once, too."

Five years ago, about the same time Sweger was leaving the Army, a fighter pilot from the Oklahoma Air National Guard was starting Folds of Honor, a nonprofit group named after the meticulous way that honor guards fold the American flag at military funerals.

Maj. Dan Rooney wanted to help the children of dead or disabled veterans. And Folds of Honor, based in Owasso, has now set up college funds for more than 2,500 students nationwide, including the Sweger triplets.

"It took a huge burden off me," Sweger says. "Frankly, it lets me focus a little more on myself and start to heal more."

At last week's kindergarten "graduation" in Salina, the triplets led the Pledge of Allegiance while their father watched from the bleachers, his wife sitting behind him to give him peace of mind.

They will each have a $5,000 "future use" scholarship accruing interest until college starts, in 12 short years.

"I'll probably blink a couple of times, and they'll be grown up," Sweger says. "And who knows? By then, the money might not pay for one semester. But at least it's a start and that means a lot to us."

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