Bob Swinea is right back where he started before joining the Navy at age 17 in July 1949.
After seeing all of the United States and much of the world during his 44 years of government service, he lives on the same farm where he grew up in Elkton, Tennessee. When his civilian career brought him to Redstone Arsenal in 1979, he built a house on the farm where he still resides.
Swinea served 22 years in the military and 22 in civil service. He was in the Navy from 1949-53 and is a combat veteran of the Korean War. He was in the Air Force from 1955-73 so he is a Vietnam-era veteran. He worked for the government from 1974-96 and retired as a contracting officer for the Corps of Engineers in Huntsville.
Together his military and civilian service encompassed three branches – the Navy, Air Force and Army. He was the youngest of 12 children of Yancey and Violet Swinea; his father was a teacher and a farmer. After graduating from Bridgeforth High School in Pulaski, Tennessee, in 1949, Swinea joined the Navy because of the career and retirement it offered.
“But after I got in there I found out it was different.” Swinea said. “I thought you could go all the way from a private to a general but you can’t. I didn’t realize that you had officers and you had enlisted men.”
He served aboard the USS Saint Paul, a heavy cruiser, during the Korean War. He was an ammunition handler at his battle station when the ship fired its guns. He left the Navy as a storekeeper third class.
In 1955 he was in Chicago when an Air Force recruiter convinced him he would have a better career in the Air Force. Inventory management, part of logistics, became his specialty in the Air Force. Swinea said he didn’t get assigned to Vietnam because his career field was associated with nuclear weapons.
He didn’t encounter the general public’s antimilitary sentiment which was prevalent throughout the nation during the Vietnam era.
“As long as you were in the military environment or on base there was no change, except when you went downtown or things like that,” Swinea said. “I have had nothing but total respect for my uniform and it still goes on today.”
He retired from the Air Force in June 1973 as a master sergeant at Colorado Springs, Colorado. His civilian career started in April 1974 when he went to work at the Air Force Academy. He transferred in March 1979 to the then Missile Command at Redstone Arsenal, still in the contracting field. Swinea spent 1980-94 at the Corps of Engineers in Huntsville.
His wife of 22 years, Dorothy, died in 1990. His son, Christopher, died in 2012 at age 50. Swinea belongs to the Vietnam Veterans of America’s Chapter 262 in Pulaski, the American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and the Disabled American Veterans. He is a member of the Elkton United Methodist Church where he served as chairman of the board of trustees from 2005-09.
At 87 he enjoys fishing, photography and spending time with his family and friends. Swinea was among the 30 veterans, plus 20 support people, who traveled from Nashville to Washington, D.C., on May 1 for Honor Flight of Middle Tennessee.
“I think it was great,” Swinea said. “What was great was to be able to see all of our monuments. And it was an honor for me to participate.”
He shared his thoughts on this nation’s commemoration of 50 years since the Vietnam War.
“I think it’s good and all occasions should be remembered,” Swinea said. “We just finished the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11.”
Editor’s note: This is the 230th in a series of articles about Vietnam veterans as the United States commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War.