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Army Spc. Matthew K.S. Swanson, 20, Lake Forest; dies of injuries in vehicle rollover

The combat engineer suffered brain and back injuries when he was thrown from an MRAP, or Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle, that overturned in Afghanistan.

September 27, 2009|Scott Gold

In June, Army Spc. Matthew K.S. Swanson came home from Afghanistan on leave and visited his sister, Traci Swanson, in Chicago. The two were best friends. Matthew, as usual, had an idea: They would get tattoos together of cantutas, brightly colored flowers from Peru.

According to an Inca legend, the sons of two rulers were forced into battle, wounded each other, forgave one another and then died, side by side, in a grassy field. There, cantutas bloomed -- a symbol of unity, family and hope.

Matthew got three flowers tattooed on one arm, one for his half brother, Hakan, 11; one for Traci, 24; and one for himself. His sister had her flowers tattooed on her back.

"It was no big deal to him. But I was so scared," she said. "I'm so glad I have it now."

Swanson, a combat engineer with the 3rd Brigade Special Troops Battalion, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division (Light Infantry) at Ft. Drum, N.Y., died Aug. 8 at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. He was 20. Swanson had been injured July 19 when he was thrown from a military vehicle that overturned in central Afghanistan's Logar province, south of Kabul.

A memorial service was held in the Lake Forest resident's honor Thursday at Ft. Drum.

Swanson was born in Denver and, due to his father's military postings, moved several times during his childhood. He enlisted in the Army after graduating from Trabuco Hills High School in Mission Viejo in 2007.

He had been promoted to specialist ahead of schedule and recently had been accepted to the Rangers' Airborne School, which required him to tack another five years onto his two-year Army commitment.

"He loved it. He loved the Army," said his father, Jeff, a retired Air Force officer who lives in Lake Forest. "His career was really taking off."

Swanson loved the outdoors and hiked, biked and camped frequently when home in California. He also was a music buff and had two electric guitars with him in Afghanistan. He'd recently purchased a motorcycle there and hoped to drive it across the United States upon his return.

"He was this big Army guy. But when he would come home, he was our Matt," his sister said.

The results of the military investigation into the accident have not yet been released to the family. But they said their conversations with members of Swanson's platoon indicate that he died after being thrown from an MRAP, or Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle. His family said the vehicle was pulling another one down a hill when it appeared that the brakes failed, causing both vehicles to roll twice.

Swanson was treated in Germany and in Bethesda, with his family at his side. But he had suffered severe injuries to his brain and back and was in a coma.

"His body healed. His body was very, very strong," his father said. "But his brain was never going to recover."

Said his sister: "It was clear that it was irreversible. My brother could live for some time. But he would never be the same. He would never wake up and be Matthew."

The family decided to remove him from life support. He lived for another 56 minutes.

In addition to his father, sister and half brother, Swanson is survived by his mother, Ana Lara; and his stepfather, Hakan Larsson Sr.

His funeral was held at Fairhaven Memorial Park and Mortuary in Santa Ana.

The family had his body cremated. He and his sister had been scheduled to vacation in Europe next summer; some of his ashes will be spread there, Traci Swanson said, as well as in a patch of wilderness near Temecula where he had enjoyed hiking.

"There are a lot of things in life that he won't get to do," his sister said. "We're going to kind of fulfill it for him, and spread the ashes in the places he loved."

Swanson was an organ donor. His family learned this month that doctors had used his eye tissue donations to restore the vision of two patients.

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scott.gold@latimes.com

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