Saturday, March 23, 2019
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George Rice “felt compelled to do my part.”

Joe Swoboda “felt it was something I needed to do.”

There are many reasons young men and women join the military, some out of necessity, others out of desire. For veterans like Rice and Swoboda, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 struck a chord and compelled them defend their country and put down those who posed a threat.
“When I joined, I joined to fight,” said Rice, a Mission resident who served in the U.S. Army. “I wanted to serve in a fighting capacity – I wanted to be that guy.”

Rice, who manages the State Veterans Cemetery in Mission, was part of the 10th Mountain Division, “the most deployed active division in the U.S. Army,” he said. “There wasn't a year that I wasn't deployed.”

“We were infantry and we were inexpensive to deploy,” he said. “We may not have been the best but we were cost-effective. We could deploy quickly and rapidly and they didn't hesitate to extend us.”

Swoboda joined the U.S. Army not long after graduating high school in Toledo, Ohio, in 2001. The Edinburg resident served a pair of tours in Iraq, the first tour from 2003 to 2005 and the second in 2009-2010.

“There were difficult rimes and good times. It's something I would do all over again if I could,” said Swoboda, who is on permanent disability. “Some of the coolest people you ever could meet are in the military. I still have close friends I met there.”

Swoboda is an avid angler and hunter who enjoys being outdoors and with his wife and children as much as possible.

Rice is a big man – 6-foot-4 – and when he was playing football at Texas A&M Kingsville he weighed probably a little on the far side of 300 pounds. He was a strong, quick and ferocious lineman after graduating from Mission High School. He said he joined for “all the romantic reasons – I wanted to fight; that's why I stayed in so long, until my body started catching up to me, a 37-year-old with a 50-year-old body.” He retired from service when he found out his wife was pregnant and they were expecting a child.

The toll on his massive size – where he went from above 300-pounds to under 240 – began as soon as he hit basic training, something he still isn't too fond of when recalling when he went through.

“I got to basic training and they considered me overweight and put me on 2,000 calories while my BMI (body mass index) required 4,500, especially with all the activity I was doing. They basically starved me and I lost a lot of muscle mass,” he said. “It was just run, run, run, push up, push up, push up. They just followed doctrine.”

He said his morning breakfast would consist of egg whites, hard-boiled eggs or omelets – just a little more than a snack for someone burning upwards of 5,000 calories per day. He said his mom and sister were in tears when they saw him at graduation.

“I loved my time in the military but there were things I didn't agree with,” he said. “In basic, they just didn't know better and when I tried to educate the drill sergeant (telling him they were pretty archaic on their methods), I would get punished for that.”

During one mission his truck went right over an IED (improvised explosive device) with a kill range of 50 meters. The blast sent his vehicle into the air, tires flying off. He was knocked completely out and when he woke up – still heavily groggy – he saw an Iraqi trying to pull him out of his seat. Survival instincts kicked in.

I was scrambling, trying to pull out my knife,” he said. “Then I realized he was a good guy with our team – I was just out of it.”

The explosion, in 2008, wasn't the first close call for Rice. In 2004 he was hit with shrapnel from a rocket attack.

As dangerous as it was, however, both veterans talk about many good times – and many wonderful sights.

“There were some very clarified moments,” Rice said. “In Afghanistan we would be on top of the mountains and the blue skies and starry nights was absolutely amazing, something you see in movies.”

Both men have no regrets and were quick to say that if they could – they would do it all over.

“There were numerous close calls and some crazy times; a bunch of stories,” Swoboda said. “There was something though about the camaraderie – it always sticks with you. You can't forget that. It was all sorts of crazy different people that you would meet or come in contact with. But we were all there for one purpose – protect our freedom.”

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