Sergeant First Class Ronny Sweger doesn’t fully remember the details of that chaotic day in Afghanistan in 2002—or he chooses to downplay it, as his wife, Claudia, suggests. One major exacerbating factor of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is that the type of men who win battles are typically not the type to complain.
What is known is that the Special Forces senior engineer and master door breacher received shrapnel during a firefight. His comrade was in worse shape with a wound to the stomach. Both men were medevaced. It was the first of several Purple Hearts the former plumber from Bristow, Okla., was awarded over seven combat tours beginning in 1993.
In 2004 he remained at the tip of the spear. “It was a big ambush,” he says when pressed. “No big deal … a hectic day … we lost several guys … you know … I was just doing what needed to be done.” What is known is that Sweger was awarded a medal for valor for his actions in battle to go with his traumatic brain injury, skeletal and muscular disabilities, and severe PTSD. When he finally went home for good, Claudia noticed he wasn’t the same old Ronny.
“I didn’t know it at the time, but I came back affected,” says Sweger. “You’re over there, on the forefront, important, carrying a gun, adrenaline every day. … You can give life and take life … you make a difference. Then you come home and take out the trash and clean up after the dog. Lots of vets fall off in a hole. Without a job and a mission they give up on themselves.”
By 2005, Sweger was struggling in his personal life and marriage. Claudia called him a ticking time bomb. Reluctantly he sought treatment, but doctors simply prescribed massive amounts of meds—a remedy for pain that Sweger feared would doom him like other chair-ridden vets he knew. He noticed that his old loves, hunting and fishing, were about the only things that helped heal him.
In 2006, Claudia gave birth to triplets, Brett, Briggs and Brooks. While the boys helped take Ronny’s mind off the physical pain, they also added weight to the broken man’s shoulders. Claudia had to take a year off work to raise the kids, and soon the Swegers learned that diapers are expensive. A college fund is a laughable notion when all energy is spent surviving. Because she had a salary (albeit meager Oklahoma schoolteacher wages) they didn’t qualify for state aid. Because Ronny had extended his enlistment repeatedly instead of re-enlisting, the GI Bill wouldn’t help. Soon PTSD and guilt blanketed him. The former Green Beret was giving up on himself.
And then Major Dan “Noonan” Rooney’s F-16 streaked over the horizon. Even the world’s toughest men can use a wingman.
Daniel J. Rooney was born in Stillwater, Okla., in 1972. By age 13 he had three life goals: to be a professional golfer, a fighter pilot and a golf course owner. Undersized but determined, Dan practiced his golf game doggedly, and in his early 20s made the professional tour. He used his winnings to pay for flight lessons. After a couple years playing he shifted priorities and joined the Oklahoma Air National Guard, earning his wings three months prior to 9/11.
During 2002’s Operation Northern Watch, strapped in his F-16, he chaperoned a fleet of joint-reconnaissance aircraft—the tip of the U.S. offensive—and was fired upon by enemy ground units. After three combat tours and numerous awards including the Distinguished Service Medal, he returned home to his wife, Jacqy, and four daughters. In 2006 he invested in a golf course in Michigan with his father. It was during a commercial plane ride to Grand Rapids that something powerful called on him.
As United Flight 664 descended, the passengers learned an American hero was on board. Army Cpl. Brock Bucklin’s remains were being delivered to his family. The captain asked everyone to remain seated to honor Bucklin and his family until his flag-draped casket could be presented ceremoniously to the grieving family, including Bucklin’s 4-year old son, Jacob, as they waited in the rain on the tarmac, teary eyed. Rooney was sickened to see many passengers defy the captain’s request. Right then, Dan Rooney knew what he had to do: He’d help the families of veterans with his golf, military and business skills. In 2007 the Folds of Honor Foundation took flight. Jacob Bucklin was the first person it helped.
The Folds of Honor Foundation (FOHF) is a nonprofit, charitable organization that provides scholarship money to the families of fallen or disabled veterans. With a staff of nine, it raises money via individual donations and corporate sponsorships (Bushnell, Budweiser, the United States Golf Ass’n and the PGA of America are major sponsors), and by teaming with other nonprofits such as NRA Country. (At the 2012 NRA Annual Meetings & Exhibits, proceeds from NRA Country music artist Trace Adkins’ performance were presented to Rooney and donated to FOHF.) Nearly 90 cents of every dollar raised goes out Folds’ door. To date it has granted more than 3,500 scholarships across all 50 states in the form of $5,000 trusts that grow until recipients use them.
As the storm cloud darkened over the Sweger family, Claudia heard about Folds. They applied, and in May 2009 Brock, Briggs and Brett Sweger became financially endowed to higher education if they choose it. One wants to be a teacher, one a veterinarian and Briggs wants to “build things like his father.”
“It was a godsend,” says Claudia. “With the financial burden removed, much of our stress was relieved. I got to go back to work and Ronny got to concentrate on healing himself.” FOHF also did something else for Ronny.
“Folds was helping my family and helping Americans, so I figured the least I could do was help it,” he says. So Ronny, who had shied away from nearly all social contact, became a spokesman for FOHf. At first he was nervous, but he began going to dinners and presenting scholarships to other families in need. Pretty soon Ronny’s pre-war, outgoing self re-emerged. He checked into vocational programs offered by the Veteran’s Administration and took up taxidermy. He took other vets hunting and fishing, urging them to talk and get out in the great outdoors and feel alive again. And he started Wounded Warriors in Action, a group that takes veterans hunting. Helping others is helping Ronny Sweger to heal.
But the mission is not complete.
“There are more than 1 million military dependents in the U.S., and 87 percent of them don’t get federal assistance,” says FOHF president Rooney. That’s why he built the Patriot golf course near Tulsa, Okla., and worked with the USGA to set up Patriot Day, when 4,500 golf courses around the nation ask players to donate at least $1 on top of normal fees. It raised $4 million last year; this year promises more.
“It’s for God, country and the game,” says Rooney. “It helps fund FOHF, and that helps heal the freedom fighters of this great nation, because—as NRA members know—freedom isn’t free.”
Read the stories of other families who have been helped, become a Wingman, learn more about Patriot Day, buy a copy of Rooney’s book, A Patriot’s Calling, or pass the word to a military family in need at foldsofhonor.org.