Marine thrives in 'retirement'

Flathead native back home, but still traveling the world as military expert

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United States Marine Col. Tom Sward, retired, speaks at the Marine Corps Ball on Saturday, November 17, in Kalispell.

After 30 years of traveling the world, leading troops and making policies that will influence the future of military operations, Flathead native and retired Marine Corps Col. Tom Sward has finally come home.

“I got out in 2007 and just became reacquainted with the family,” Sward said. “I think in 30 years there were about 15 [permanent change of station] moves, but when you count moving into a place while you're waiting for on-base housing, then moving on base, if you count total moves, it's many more than that. It was a life very much lived out of boxes and back into boxes.”

Although Sward and his family, including twin sons who are now 19, moved a lot, he said he always kept a positive outlook.

“We always looked at the moves as another fresh start and an opportunity to make new friends and learn new things,” Sward said. “Of course, that was our story line to the kids, who were always very sad to have to leave because they made good friends. But then, it didn't take them long to make new friends, and then you move again, and the whole thing starts over.”

Through all the moves, Sward said Kalispell and the Flathead Valley were always in the back of his mind as a place to finally settle down.

“My wife is from North Carolina and when we became serious, I brought her here to meet the family,” Sward said. “I grew up in Evergreen and graduated from Flathead High School in 1973, so this was home and she fell in love with the Flathead Valley. We've loved other places; wherever we've been, we've enjoyed it. Wherever you are, you can find interesting things to do and you meet people and you think maybe this is where we'll settle down after, but the Flathead was always in our minds.”

How it actually happened that he ended up here though, was a little unexpected.

“We were in Louisiana during [Hurricane] Katrina and when we escaped the hurricane, my brothers in Bigfork called and said 'give us your boys and we'll get them in school here,' so they had someplace to go,” Sward said. “I was getting ready to deploy to Iraq, so I moved here with them and that's when we decided to just buy a home here and I'd come back and join the family. So that's what we did, and we don't regret it; it's been great.”

Sward's tour in Iraq was the last of his career with the Marines. Although he has retired from military service, he is still very much involved.

“I can't afford to ‘retire’ retire, so I need to do something,” he said. “I landed a contract to support Georgia Tech Research Institute with some consulting work, and it's kind of gone from there. They were doing cutting-edge modeling and simulation for the Marine Corps and their development of their next personnel carrier. Since I had the experience of a light-armored vehicle guy, I was perfect. They were Ph.D.s, pretty young, never been in the military — really bright, but they needed a 'Napoleon's Corporal,' if you will.”

Sward took that first consulting job, “teaching them how to speak Marine” and turned it into a series of consulting jobs in the United States as well as overseas. Currently, he is an analyst supporting the Pacific Command Theater Engagement exercises, which takes him to Korea, Japan, the Philippines and Thailand on a regular basis.

For Sward, the road to the Marine Corps was an unexpected one that began with the Boy Scouts and a father who had served in the Navy.

“All three of my brothers and myself are Eagle Scouts and that had a huge impact on all of us,” Sward said. “After Boy Scouts, I was a quartermaster in Sea Exploring. Beyond high school I became very interested in the Navy, because that's kind of what Sea Exploring was based on and I really thought I wanted to be a sailor.”

With that in mind, Sward enrolled in the Navy Reserve Officers Training Corps program at the University of Idaho. But through that program, he said he found himself spending more and more time with the Marines, who were also part of the program, and eventually decided to switch from the Navy.

“I had spent a spring break with a Marine infantry unit before my senior year, and I saw what a huge challenge it was to be a lieutenant and lead Marines,” Sward said. “They had lots of discipline problems, and the lieutenant was a teacher, he was a judge, he was a jury, he was everything, and I was impressed that doing this might be the most challenging thing to do, so that's what started the rest of my career as an infantry officer.”

During his career, Sward served with some of the first light armored vehicles the Marine Corps fielded as well as in command staff positions in the U.S. and nearly two dozen other countries.

“I had an initial obligation of four years, and really didn't have any plans on staying beyond that. I was just going to wait and see; if I enjoyed it, I'd stay, if I didn't, I'd leave.”

Those initial four years quickly passed and Sward found himself moving up the ranks from his initial ROTC commission to colonel.

“Before I knew it, it was 20 years and I was still having fun, but it was professionally rewarding, too.” Sward said. “There's no feeling like being in an environment with other people who feel strongly about the same things you do and have that sense of purpose.”

Sward served with all four Marine Divisions, led three platoons, commanded five companies, a light armored reconnaissance battalion and an infantry regiment. He graduated from the Marine Corps Command and Staff College and the National War College and co-authored the Department of Defense Roadmap for Future Urban Operations and NATO's Urban Operations 2020 plan during his tenure in the Corps.

“It was a great 30 years, but 30 years was enough for me, and having more time with my family has been wonderful,” Sward said.

Reporter Melissa Walther may be reached at 758-4474 or by email at mwalther@dailyinterlake.com.

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