Arlington marker's personal at S. Fulton

May 10, 2008|By JENNIFER FITCH

ARLINGTON, Va. -- If not for the 60 teenagers gathered around it, the gravesite for Lance Cpl. Steven Szwydek would not have stood out from the thousands of others lined up with military precision and damp from late spring showers on Friday afternoon.

To these students, however, this 42-inch by 13-inch stone at Arlington National Cemetery marked the final resting place of a hometown hero who graduated from their high school just five years ago.

Several Southern Fulton high schoolers commented that being in the cemetery was overwhelming, something that the Marine's mother said she's felt, too, now that the grave markers have become more personal.

"If they were like me before, they would go to Arlington and see the stones and not the people," Nancy Szwydek said.


"The first time I went, I was really young and didn't understand. This time it was really personal," said Crystal Hughes, 18.

"It's definitely different when you know the name on a tombstone," said Kristin Palmer, 17.

The Semper Fi Memorial Fund, started in memory of Szwydek, paid for two buses that left the Warfordsburg, Pa., school not long after sunrise. Each student was handed lunch money, also an expenditure from the memorial fund.

Nancy Szwydek said paying for the meal on the annual trips reminds her of her son, who was killed in October 2005 during his second tour of duty in Iraq. Several Marines have told her how the young man offered to take them to dinner when their spirits were in need of a boost.

"His buddies said that Steven would give them his last dime," Nancy Szwydek said.

Comrades called Szwydek "the Marine's Marine" during his overseas memorial service, a video of which was played on the buses.

The Semper Fi Memorial Fund pays for all Fulton County, Pa., high school seniors to make the trip to Arlington every year. It was the only field trip that the Southern Fulton seniors had taken as a group this year.

Erikka Macon, 17, said she would tell the Szwydeks that "I respect your son for serving our country. I really appreciate you taking us to his grave because it's worth it."

"I'm very thankful that we were able to do that to honor their son, who graduated from our school and was from this community," said 19-year-old Cody Dicken, a member of the Army Reserves.

Nancy Szwydek said the trip encompasses two of her son's strongest fascinations -- history and the military.

"My son was an extreme patriot. He loved this country. ... I think he'd like to give a history lesson to others," Nancy Szwydek said.

Many of the classmates hugged each other and wiped away tears while at Szwydek's grave. For Kristin, the tears were connected to her brother's role in the Army Reserves.

"He just left on Sunday to finish out his training in California and go to Iraq," Kristin said.

When they first arrived at Arlington, the teenagers waited solemnly for a funeral to finish and a riderless horse to pass. An average of 27 funerals are conducted daily at the national cemetery.

"That's somebody's dad, somebody's friend and somebody's lover," Crystal said.

"I'm always surprised by the amount of funerals that happen every day," said Logan Fischer, 18.

"Just to see all the funerals going on, that was really emotional," said 18-year-old Anthony Wertz, who was on his first trip to Arlington.

Shannon Kline, 18, went to the funeral for Szwydek, who was serving with Weapons Co., 2nd Battalion, Regimental Combat Team 8, 2nd Marine Division (also known as 2/2 Weapons Co.) when an improvised explosive detonated near Nasser Wa Salaam and killed three.

Kline remembers the 21-gun salute, playing of taps and the Marines who cared for the family. He found that Friday's trip to Arlington was more relaxed.

"It wasn't as formal, but we paid the respects that needed to be paid," Shannon said.

Most members of the Class of 2008 did not know the fallen Marine very well, but several remarked on what they perceive to be his legacy.

It is to "drive forward on what you believe. All through school he said he wanted to be a Marine," Cody said.

Steven Szwydek made that decision at age 5, according to his mother.

"He almost missed graduation to go to boot camp a week earlier. He always felt the Marine Corps was the best, and he wanted to be a part of the best," Nancy Szwydek said.

"We feel very fortunate we had a son who knew what he wanted to do and followed his dream. I believe in quality of life. He sure did a lot with his 20 years," she said.

Anthony summed up the Arlington experience as "very moving and very powerful."

"Some people have a tendency to tune it out, but anywhere you go, you see the effects of the war," Anthony said.

The mother of Lance Cpl. Steven Szwydek said she would like to expand the offerings currently provided by the Semper Fi Memorial Fund. To contribute to that nonprofit fund, send checks payable to the "Semper Fi Memorial Fund" in care of Nancy Szwydek, 276 Mays Chapel Road, Warfordsburg, PA 17267.

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