There are few stories like David Swierzynski’s, because there are few men who can remain committed to a goal as long as he can, take as many hits as he can, and continue to get back up and fight, every single time.
Swierzynski grew up in foster care in the New Jersey area until he was 18. His foster father said he was no longer “making him money, so I had to get a job or get out of his house,” David told the Veterans Site.
So, he dropped out of high school and left.
“For 2 years, I spent time sleeping on various friends’ couches and even a couch I found in the woods,” Swierzynski says.
The mother of one of Swierzynski’s friends saw an ad in the newspaper, promoting open jobs on three ships sailing in and out of Hawai’i. The opportunity gave Swierzynski a roof over his head, a steady income, food, and a chance to travel.
But, there was a catch.
“They only required a high school diploma,” Swierzynski says. “I did not have one of those, so I scrounged up the money to take my GED. Once I obtained that, I got hired.”
Swierzynski’s first position was utility galley, for which he began training at Lundeberg’s School of Seamanship in Piney Point, Maryland. His neighbors on the training ship introduced him to the woman who would change his life forever.
“We got along well. What went from group activities eventually turned into secluded chats alone,” David says of meeting his future wife, Jessica. “It was just a fling at first, because we weren’t even certain we would be on the same ship when we got to Hawaii. Well, we got the same ship.”
David worked the night shift, 5 a.m. to 5 p.m., seven days a week. Jessica worked breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
“I seldomly slept, but she slept even less because she would come and visit me on all my breaks during the night and still do her shifts,” he says. “I would sleep during her breakfast shift and she would come and wake me up when she was done. We would then go explore the islands we were on that day.”
Once, Swierzynski worked a full 24-hour shift, just so he could take a day off to spend time with her.
“Love makes you do crazy things,” he says.
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Swierzynski’s time working on the cruise ended weeks before Jessica was done. But that would not be their last meeting. He didn’t hesitate to pack up his things in New Jersey and move to San Antonio, TX to be with her.
“Her parents were very accommodating,” he says. “I remember the day I pulled up to their driveway with everything I owned, and I got out of the car where I saw her dad in the garage tinkering with some tools and I said ‘Hi, I’m Dave.’ He said, ‘I’m David.’ I stayed at their house until she got back two weeks later.”
“If it wasn’t for that, I don’t know where I would be,” he continues. “I owe my in-laws everything, and I am always sure to remind them of that by taking care of their daughter and grandchildren.”
When Jessica returned, she and Swierzynski set out to find a place of their own. They settled in an extended stay hotel and worked entry-level call center jobs. They weren’t getting rich, but they were paying the bills, and eventually planning a family.
“Next thing you know it, we had our first child, Madyson,” Swierzynski says.
He credits the birth of his daughter for teaching him humility.
“I became less selfish and took myself out of the spotlight,” Swierzynski says. “I am known to be an extrovert, but that only slightly changed the day I became a father. I will give anything to see my kids happy. At the same time, I want them to become independent, so I let them struggle just a little to help them learn they must work for the things they want.”
Swierzynski and Jessica did not want to raise their child in a hotel, so they moved back in with Jessica’s parents. It wasn’t easy, however. Swierzynski felt stifled at work, but worried he had little other choice, lacking a high school diploma.
That’s when he thought the military might give him a chance.
“I went to the recruiting center right down the block from the house,” he says. “I walked into the Air force office, and they told me they don’t accept anyone with a GED. I went into the Navy office, and they told me they accept GEDs, but they were at their quota. I walked into Marines, and they didn’t want me. While I was walking out, there was an Army recruiter standing on the sidewalk. He asked if I wanted to join.”
Swierzynski was honest with the recruiter and got the big question out of the way first. He said he only had a GED, and the Army said, “that’s not a problem.”
At the Military Entrance Processing Station, David found 14 different positions he was interested in. Not a single one was available.
“So, I took the next best one, Healthcare Specialist,” he says. “When you see the words Healthcare Specialist, you think of a nurse or something. After I signed I quickly discovered it was known as ‘Combat Medic.'”
The newly minted medic had no intention of deploying in battle. Swierzynski preferred to work in a hospital and handle triage and sick call.
The Army had other plans for him.
Swierzynski put in his 9 weeks of Basic Training at Fort Leonard Wood and 16 weeks of advanced individual training back in San Antonio.
“I was grateful for that because I got to see my wife and kid frequently,” he says.
He took advantage of EMT classes during training, and became certified as an EMT basic, was restationed in Fort Carson, Colo., and then deployed to Iraq. David was responsible for providing front line medical assistance in combat situations.
“The total opposite of what I signed up to do,” he says. “I don’t regret it though, because the bond I have with my guys is unbreakable.”
After Swierzynski’s tour ended, he took a job stateside handling sick call, once again. But, it didn’t feel right. Instead, he tried teaching a combat lifesaving skills class and found he was a natural.
He taught over 1,000 soldiers before his time in the Army came to an end.
Swierzynski was honorably discharged in 2013, and relied on the GI Bill to get back into school.
“I knew I wanted to go to school and get a degree from the moment I swore in,” he says.
He considered classes at a local community college, and though he enjoyed his work as a medic, Swierzynski did not think he could handle the same adrenaline rush every day until retirement. He chose an occupational therapy path, instead.
But his challenges weren’t over. He still wasn’t ready for college.
“All the stuff I left behind almost 10 years ago in high school was coming back again,” he says. “The algebra and the history and science put me in a whirlwind. Here I thought I was going to learn about being an OT, but my vision to becoming one became cloudy and it didn’t take long before I was failing my classes.”
Two semesters in, Swierzynski was put on academic dismissal. He took the following year off and worked as a delivery driver for Papa Johns and coached his daughter’s T-ball team. The work wasn’t bad, and his performance as a T-ball coach landed compliments from other coaches and parents, but it wasn’t making the most of his military benefits, and David promised himself he wouldn’t defer his dreams.
He went through the community college’s appeal process and eventually enrolled as a student once more. He improved his grades this time through, and graduated with an associate’s degree.
From there, Swierzynski transferred to the University of Texas San Antonio to complete a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology.
“This is when it got fun,” he says. “EVERY class I did was fun. I knew this was the right career choice for me.”
Swierzynski has not only excelled in his classes, he’s led his class. He will graduate Cum Laude with a degree and a teaching certificate in Physical Education on May 19, 2019.
“I am very grateful for where I am now,” he says. “I have my family and my grit to thank. My biggest motivation is knowing that I can impact the future generations and hopefully lead them to successful lives.”
“I try to let anyone who is willing to listen know what I’ve been through to get where I am,” Swierzynski continues. “I use my experience to motivate others by letting them know that they will always make choices in life. It is the bigger choices that produce the biggest results. That bigger choice being the one you work harder for or the one that will send you flying out of your comfort zone. Stay comfortable and stay where you are.”
Swierzynski says his next biggest challenge will be finding a job as a PE teacher. His initial months of searching were met with some disheartening results. Many of the schools David has connected with give PE positions to experienced teachers.
But, he’s got a plan for this hurdle, too.
“I need to get certified in another content like math or history and wait my turn to get into a PE spot,” Swierzynski says. “I am still able to coach as a math or history teacher, but my passion is teaching kids how to play sports because playing sports is what helped my social life growing up, not solving math equations. So, I am working aggressively to try and find that opening before I am teaching another subject.”
Rest assured, Swierzynski has got a lot going for him.
“I can relate to these young students and teach them that sports teams are like families and when you join a team you’re not alone,” he says.
Matthew Russell is a West Michigan native and with a background in journalism, data analysis, cartography and design thinking. He likes to learn new things and solve old problems whenever possible, and enjoys bicycling, going to the dog park, spending time with his daughter, and coffee.