WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (WGHP) — Jake Swaim is a legacy Marine. In his mind, he says, there was never a question he was going to join.
“My dad is a Marine. There’s pictures of me as a kid wearing his hat or his uniform,” he said.
Sept. 11, 2001, solidified that choice, but there was one problem. The Carver High School senior and Winston-Salem Chick-fil-A employee was only 17 years old, so he needed both of his parents to give him legal permission. While his father offered little resistance, his mother was a different story. However, 45 days after the Twin Towers came down, she relented.
“In June of 2002, I’m in a van leaving from Charlotte to go to Parris Island,” Swaim said.
The month before his 18th birthday, he graduated from boot camp. Before long, he was on to the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms as a member of the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines.
“Everything there is live fire. All the ranges are live fire,” he said. “Artillery, air.”
With leadership including General James Mattis, then-Colonel Steven Hummer and Colonel Brian McCoy, the Marines continued preparing and training for war as one of – if not the – first Marines to get to Kuwait.
“You get there, and they’re giving you your ammo … and they’re saying, ‘load up,’” Swaim said. “We stayed at what was called Camp Ripper, and there was nothing there. We set up Camp Ripper, so I’m pretty sure we were the first people to arrive.”
After a steady diet of daily running and digging trenches, they got a taste of Marine tradition: pre-war fare.
“We get there. We’re having steak and lobster,” Swaim said. “So we knew.”
At 10:16 p.m. EST, on March 19, 2003, President George W. Bush addressed the nation, announcing that American and coalition forces were “in the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger.”
“I describe it kind of like before the big game, and not that war’s a game by any chance, but it’s what the military trains for,” Swaim said. “At the time, being a young Marine, you want that. It’s like a badge of honor to say, ‘I fought a war.’”
After crossing the line of departure, Swaim and his battalion saw their first action in the battle of Basra.
“We had our skirmish, I would call it. It wasn’t a long firefight. But Apache helicopters come in, and they’re hitting targets out, and we’re all taking pictures,” Swaim said, motioning as though he was still holding his disposable camera. “I remember our lieutenant’s like, ‘Put the cameras up! Look outward!’”
Next came the two-day battle for the Diyala bridge before the battalion found itself in the battle of Al Kut. It would be the first time Swaim personally saw his fellow Marines injured, and in one case, killed.
“Corporal Mark Evnan. He was a sniper,” Swaim said. “He was talking, he was fine, he got on the medivac helicopter and he died. He bled out.”
Less than a week later, his battalion helped write history in Baghdad’s Firdos Square as a large statue of Saddam Hussein was destroyed.
“It was the tanker’s idea to pull it down,” Swaim said, chuckling. “Of course, our colonel’s like, ‘Yeah!’”
The Marines watched as Iraqis dragged the head of the statue down city streets, hitting it with sandals.
“They did not stop. They did that all into the night,” Swaim said. “A dictator was removed that day.”
Intense looting followed the toppling of the statue, so the Marines didn’t leave for several more days. As soldiers arrived to relieve them, much of the world looked at the event as a turning point. For Swaim’s battalion, however, the mission would eventually head to Fallujah.
“Back then, us being 18, 19 years old and even early 20s, we weren’t going to say we were scared, but we were all scared,” Swaim said. “You’re in war.”
It would be the year he saw the most combat. It was also where he would lose a good friend to the war.
“It was Operation Vigilant Resolve, and I have his picture,” Swaim motioned before an extended pause. “Daniel Amaya was killed in 2004. He was shot multiple times. We were entering a house, and I remember pulling him out. I was on an overwatch. I didn’t realize it was him.”
Corporal Amaya had already served his time but decided his war was not over.
“He extended to go back with us, and he didn’t make it home,” Swaim said.
After his third tour, Swaim got out in 2006. Much like his service, Amaya’s memory has followed him throughout the 20 years since the beginning of the war.
“Named my daughter after him,” he said, adding two other members of his battalion did the same. “There’s three Amayas.”
Swaim continued his lifelong mission of public service back in his hometown. He currently serves as a sergeant over the Winston-Salem Police Department’s homicide unit.