Tribute to a Sailor; Casualty from Cole honored in Rockport

by John Tedesco
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All content (c) San Antonio Express-News

ROCKPORT — Family members, friends and Navy personnel gathered in this fishing hamlet Thursday to honor the memory of Gary Swenchonis Jr., a South Texas sailor killed aboard the USS Cole. Those who knew Swenchonis, a Navy fireman who helped maintain the destroyer’s air conditioning system, remembered him as a respectful son, a quiet classmate and a loyal sailor.

“Fireman Swenchonis is one of the reasons why we are the greatest Navy in the world,” Rear Adm. Jose L. Betancourt said.

He posthumously awarded Swenchonis the Purple Heart.

Swenchonis, 26, was one of 17 sailors killed Oct. 12 when an explosion — believed to have been caused by terrorists — ripped a 40-foot hole in the Cole.

The attack brought the Middle East conflict home to this coastal community, half a world away.

Born in San Antonio but raised in Rockport, Swenchonis was the quiet kid in class, a student ingrained with a respect toward others.

“He was very gentle,” said Joseph King, a high school classmate. “A lot of people knew him, but at the same time a lot of people didn’t know him.”

Swenchonis’ parents raised their son to be polite, and they led by example. Even on the day of their son’s funeral, they welcomed reporters into their home before the service, apologized for the lack of space and rearranged chairs on their patio to accommodate the visitors.

Their house, partly shaded by oak trees that years of coastal winds have bent into twisted angles, was a sad place Thursday. Family members wandered inside, dressed in black.

Unfailingly gracious, Deborah and Gary Swenchonis Sr. offered a glimpse of the void their son’s death had left.

They clenched each other’s hands and cried as they described their feelings for Swenchonis and their anger toward those who killed him.

“We don’t understand,” the father said, shaking his head.

“They were all just babies,” Deborah Swenchonis said of the victims.

If the attack was meant to deter the U.S. military, it was senseless, Gary Swenchonis Sr. said, and only hurt the innocent.

“They were going after America,” he said. “That ship symbolized America. I guess they just thought they were hurting America as a whole. I guess they did. They hurt us. But I don’t see America changing their policy and it’s just a shame all those lives had to be wasted.”

They taught their son that he owed a debt to his country for the freedom that he, as an American, enjoyed. So it was no surprise when the young man joined the Army after high school.

However, he wanted to see the world and — four years later, after finishing his Army stint — Swenchonis became a sailor.

“We love him. We’re very proud of him. We’d give anything to have him back. We just never expected it, that he’d have to pay this price,” Gary Swenchonis Sr. said.

“It was an honor and a privilege to be his parent,” the sailor’s mother said.

For a few minutes, the couple held hands, sitting in silence as their tears fell. Then it was time for the Swenchon is family members to attend the funeral.

They arrived to a packed chapel of 150 people in the center of town. A U.S. flag was draped across the casket that held the sailor’s body, with two members of a Navy honor guard standing at either end.

Navy Chaplain James Looby abandoned the usual one-page biography that funeral homes routinely provide to ministers at such gatherings. Instead, he read comments from Swenchonis’ parents and quoted from the Bible, as everyone tried to come to terms with the unfathomable.

The hole left in the ship could be repaired, Looby said. The hole left in the hearts of the victims’ families never will heal.

But while the void was a cause for sorrow, it could also be an impetus for family members to comfort one another, a personal way to be closer together, Looby added.

Betancourt rose and said Swenchonis “embodied everything that’s good about our nation.”

“He took a tough assignment, and sailed into troubled waters where only the best are sent,” the admiral said.

Betancourt presented the Purple Heart to the family. Navy personnel in the congregation then rose and stood at attention as taps was sounded outside.

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