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‘Deeper Meaning to Heroism’: How a Couple Overcame Veteran’s Devastating Injuries

Retired Army colonel drew on his service, and his wife stepped in when tragedy struck

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Phil and Pam Swinford in their home in Haymarket, Virginia on April 2, 2023.
Greg Kahn
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Getty Images/AARP

You can subscribe here to AARP Veteran Report, a free e-newsletter published every two weeks. If you have feedback or a story idea then please contact us here.

Phil Swinford was cycling with three friends on a single-track trail in Williamsburg, Virginia, when he injured his spinal cord, changing his life irrevocably.

Ever competitive, he took the lead and raced ahead. He misjudged a turn and hit an obstacle at full speed, launching over the handlebars like a javelin and landing face first on hard ground.

It was July 18, 2015, and Swinford, a retired colonel who was about to turn 53, knew instantly he was paralyzed. His first words to the friend who rushed to help him were: “Let me die here. I don’t want to live like this.”

Fast forward six months. The fighting spirit, determination and sheer will to prevail that served Swinford so well in war kicked in. Despite doctors at the Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center in Richmond, Virginia, saying his injuries were so severe that 90 percent of people would have died, Swinford attempted the near impossible.

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Now a quadriplegic who needed a ventilator to breathe, Swinford exhibited almost superhuman strength and willpower as he used a frame to get up from a seated position to stand on his own two feet without assistance for the first time since the accident.

Watching him from a wheelchair next to Swinford’s wife Pam was an elderly Vietnam-era Marine veteran who had lost mobility due to a spinal cord condition and was struggling to learn to walk again.

After witnessing Swinford’s “sit to stand,” the Marine turned to Pam and said, “If this guy can do that, then I can do this.” With that, the Marine got up and walked falteringly across the room.

“Phil has this effect on people,” Pam recalled to AARP Veteran Report. “I have never known anyone more stubborn and more determined in my life. He inspires people.”

Seven years on, Swinford’s remarkable recovery has continued — testament not only to his own character and grit but also to the 28-year military career, filled with danger, that prepared him for his greatest challenge. He has movement in his fingers, hands and arms and uses an electric wheelchair to get around.

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A photograph of Phil Swinford during his service in the military.
Courtesy Phil Swinford

Swinford served in Bosnia and commanded a battalion in Afghanistan after 9/11. But it was his time training the Iraqi National Army in Baghdad from 2007 to 2008 that most tested his mettle. He was one of fewer than 100 U.S. American soldiers on a base of around 5,000 Iraqis during a civil war between Sunnis and Shia.

“The base got rocketed several times and took small arms fire. Iraqi soldiers were killed on the compound,” Swinford told AARP Veteran Report. “Whenever the Iraqis would go on operations, I would go with them.

“We frequently encountered small arms fire, grenades and IEDs of all types — vehicle, suicide vests, roadside bombs, anti-armor IED’s. Once we supported a Special Operations team capturing a Shiite militia member from inside our own base where he was serving in the intelligence section of the Iraqi division headquarters.”

He was in a convoy traveling to the Green Zone when an IED exploded between his Humvee and the vehicle in front of him, wounding its gunner and commander. Swinford awarded the two soldiers the Purple Heart.

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Swinford, 60, who retired from the Army in 2012, now exercises at the MedStar National Rehabilitation Hospital (NRH) in Washington, D.C., twice a week. A personal trainer visits his home once or twice a week and he also exercises on his own once a week.

“In all these years he has never missed a single session, even when he’s sick,” Pam, 59, told AARP Veteran Report.

Swinford no longer breathes with a ventilator and he does regular sit-to-stands as well as leg weightlifting, balancing exercises and transfers from walker to therapy table. He has walked as far as 200 feet.

He has embraced technology and remains as fit and healthy as possible so he will be a viable candidate for breakthrough treatment, if and when it becomes available.

Inspired by his father, 2nd Lt. Ethan Swinford, 23, now serves in the 3rd Cavalry Regiment at Fort Hood, Texas.

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Pam and Phil Swinford, who will celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary next year, still feel guilty about the time they spent away from Ethan and his sister Gillian, 30, after the accident.

“They have also sacrificed for their country,” said Pam.

Ethan does not see it that way. “You were helping my dad so he could get better and come and be with me,” he told his mother.

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Phil and Pam Swinford in the backyard of their home.
Greg Kahn

Swinford would rather talk about his wife than himself. She essentially put her own life on hold, resigning from the town council, stepping away from her business and becoming his constant advocate at the VA.

Instead of accepting advice that Swinford live in an institution — which he believes would have killed him — Pam oversaw an addition to their house being built. Now, she helps other spouses navigate the VA.

All this has made Swinford reflect deeply on the nature of bravery. “Neither one of us stood knee-deep in grenade pins while holding off hordes of insurgents, or continued to fight after being wounded multiple times, but I think there is a deeper meaning to heroism than the visual those words create,” he said.

“The heroes are the soldiers who put their lives on the line and the many advocates for veterans including the Wounded Warrior Project, Paralyzed Veterans of America, most VA doctors, nurses, therapists and caregivers,” he said. “Spouses like Pam, and my children.”

He added: “I am not a hero. I am a survivor.”

You can subscribe here to AARP Veteran Report, a free e-newsletter published every two weeks. If you have feedback or a story idea then please contact us here.

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