Posted on October 25, 2016
Major Shawn Swanson spent more than two decades in the Marine Corps. He deployed seven times between 1995 and 2009 – including three deployments to Iraq between 2005 and 2009.
So it’s somewhat ironic that he suffered his traumatic brain injury not while serving in Ramadi or Fallujah, but in Pennsylvania while driving from Buffalo, New York to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.
“I was run off the road,” he says, recalling the June 2010 incident that changed his life forever. “The kid was going 86 miles per hour, and I believe I was getting onto a rest area ramp. I was hit from behind while I was driving my Ford Explorer.”
“I’m told that the 18-year-old that hit me was coming back from a friend’s high school graduation party,” he continues. “He was never tested when they got him back to the station. I talked to a first responder who had that individual in his vehicle, and he didn’t smell one bit of alcohol on him.”
Shawn, who was in a coma for just under a month, was extremely fortunate to have lived through the accident with minor physical injuries.
“I do have limited rotation with my neck,” he notes, “so I can’t look to my left or right as easily as I did before.”
The mental effects of the TBI, however, were more significant.
“Initially, before the cranioplasty was done when I was at Bethesda and UPMC (University of Pittsburg Medical Center), my recollection of unimportant things took between five hours and five days; then I would recall. After the cranioplasty was done at UPMC in January 2011, my recollection came back a lot faster, somewhere around five minutes rather than five hours or five days, so it made a difference.
A cranioplasty, according to the Johns Hopkins Medicine website, is “the surgical repair of a bone defect in the skull that’s left behind after a previous operation or injury.”
“I still forget things every now and then,” Shawn says. “When I go to a restaurant or a place and I see people, I put their names in my phones. I check names before I go in. But I know for a fact every single day I’ll forget something.”
What Shawn hasn’t forgotten, however, is how the Semper Fi Fund helped him during his recovery—and how to give back to the Fund in his own unique way.
“After the incident in Pennsylvania, I was taken to Bethesda for a few months. I heard afterwards that my sister Shannon was assisted financially by the Semper Fi Fund, because she was with me for seven out of the nine months when I was all over the place.”
Shawn, who medically retired from the Marine Corps in January 2013, began woodworking in 2005 and has used those skills as a way to give back to the Fund.
“I’ve been doing Adirondack chairs since 2005,” he says. “I first did one for a friend that was watching my motorcycle for a year while I was deployed. I’d take a pallet that was being destroyed and I’d break the pallet apart and I’d make a chair out of the pallet. One pallet will make one chair.”
“The first chair I made with a Pocket Mechanic—similar to a Swiss Army Knife. A friend of mine gave me a Pocket Mechanic where the blade folds out and the Phillips screwdriver folds out. I used that blade to cut the parts of the pallet I needed, and I used the Phillips to screw in the screws. So I made my first chair using a Pocket Mechanic.”
“Then I started making pens and pencils and other things in September 2013, I’ve been doing it with a lathe. I’m more productive with the lathe because I can sell those items for less money and increase the donation amount to Semper Fi Fund, which is a win-win-win.”
“I’m constantly making something or finding out new things to make. I started with chairs, then pens, then on the lathe pens and postcard openers. Now I make rings or cufflinks out of pins and cigar bands. When my Case Manager emails me and says an organization is doing a fundraiser or auction for Semper Fi Fund, and she asks me for an item to donate—anything with the Semper Fi Fund, I never say no. I’ll donate whatever I can.”
“It makes me feel great and I feel like there is a purpose and goal for me to do as much as I can do to sell my items and donate to the Fund, because I know that the money is going to where it’s said it’s going to go—to the wounded, ill and injured and their families. I know that for a fact, because I’m a part of that.”
[Editor’s note: Visit Shawn’s Facebook page to see photos of his woodworking and to place an order.]