The healing instinct took root early in James Michael Swink II.
At 13, when friends his age were obsessed with dirt bikes and video games, Swink — the youngest in a close-knit family of military veterans — volunteered with Project R.I.D.E., a Northern California group that provides horseback lessons for children with autism and other special needs. He was too young early on to do more than muck out stalls, but stayed with it until he could give the hands-on help the new riders needed.
When his family moved from Elk Grove, southeast of Sacramento, to Yucca Valley in San Bernardino County two years later, Swink became enthralled with the paramedic work of his oldest brother, Brian Mullins, and joined him and his sister-in-law in the Scouting-like California Fire Exploring Assn.
It was no surprise to anyone in the family when Swink, often called Mikey to distinguish him from his father, Jim, joined the Navy right after high school and trained at the Naval Hospital Corpsman School in Great Lakes, Ill. He wanted to treat Marines wounded in battle in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class James M. Swink, 20, was killed Aug. 27 while supporting combat operations in southern Afghanistan’s Helmand province, on the Pakistani border. It was the hazardous duty to which he had deployed just six weeks earlier. The military has told his family he was riding in the turret of an armored vehicle on patrol when it flipped over in rough terrain and crushed him.
He was assigned to the 2nd Marine Division, 2nd Marine Expeditionary Forces at Camp Lejeune, N.C.
Swink was buried at Arlington National Cemetery on Sept. 8 on what would have been his 21st birthday, in the presence of his parents, sister, brothers and friends.
“It was the most heart-wrenching ceremony I’ve ever been to in my entire life,” his father said. “It made me very proud to be an American, the way the military carried on toward my son and my family.”
The younger Swink was following longstanding a family tradition when he joined the Navy after his 2007 graduation from Yucca Valley High School. His father and grandfather had both served in the Navy. Brothers Brian Mullins and John Swink did their service in the Marine Corps, and sister Melissa Strickland did a stint in the Air Force.
“Mike became a corpsman because he loves people and he loves to care for people,” his father said. “He went into the Navy because of family tradition, but he specialized as a corpsman because he knew his job would be with the United States Marine Corps, working with people who make a difference out in the field.”
Joy Montoya, a high school classmate whose husband, Andrew, was Swink’s best friend, recalled the late corpsman as “an amazing person” whose smiling, 6-foot-4 presence could light up a room.
“We were like brother and sister,” she said of her relationship with Swink, reminiscing about hiking and camping trips in his “brown bomber,” the old Ford truck he lovingly restored and drove everywhere. Andrew Montoya and Swink deployed to different Marine units in Afghanistan; Montoya is due home in two months.
Fellow corpsman Theo J. Delorey, with whom Swink trained this year at Camp Lejeune to prepare for joining a Marine unit, said his friend was mature beyond his years and the “go-to guy” for advice and answers.
Swink left for the war zone with his eyes open and focused on the mission, Delorey said.
“He was very anxious to go. He wanted to do everything he could to be the best corpsman for his Marines,” said Delorey, 25, who is now assigned to the Naval Hospital in Portsmouth, Va. “It kind of makes me want to go over there and do everything I can. I can’t wait to deploy, and when my time comes, I’m going to do the same things — everything for my Marines that Mike did.”
Tina Calanchini of Project R.I.D.E. in Elk Grove recalled Swink as a caring and earnest aide to the disabled children he helped with balance and coordination on horseback as he walked beside them.
“He was obviously drawn to help others, as he was one of very few volunteers who came here in their teens, as those years are a time when they are more into themselves than others around them,” Calanchini said. “So he stood out.”
After graduating from the Navy’s corpsman training program, Swink served two years at Naval Hospital Okinawa, Japan, then entered Field Medical Service School at Camp Lejeune in March to prepare for overseas deployment. He left in early July to join the 2nd Marine Division, 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force in Afghanistan.
He is survived by his parents, Jim and Laura Swink of San Angelo, Texas; brother and sister-in-law Brian and Brandi Mullins of Palm Springs; brother and sister-in-law John and Kristen Swink of Raphine, Va.; sister Melissa Strickland of Abilene, Texas; grandmother Delores Marshall of Shingle Springs, Calif.; and numerous aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews.
Memorial services were held at Arlington, at the Marine base in Helmand province, at Camp Lejeune and at the hospital in Okinawa. Another is planned at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at Yucca Valley High School.