When Derek Swickard was a young soldier, his supervising corporal told him to always remember where he was, where he came from and where he was going.
“Life isn’t going to hand you things. You have to get after it and go for it,” Swickard said. “It’s just a matter of setting goals. Nobody gives you anything.”
After 21 years in the Army — pursuing and achieving every goal he has set for himself — Swickard has returned to Roswell with his own family to begin a new chapter in his life.
While attending local schools, he had always thought about entering the U.S. Army and flying helicopters like his father, Jack. Swickard attended Goddard High School his first few years, but had a chance to spend his final high school year at New Mexico Military Institute, where he graduated.
“I had always wanted to go to NMMI,” he said. “I finally had the opportunity my senior year. I enjoyed it. It was a little bit unique in that my ‘rat’ year was my senior year. But I chose that and I’m glad I did.”
He debated his choices about college but decided to enlist in the Army. He was sent to basic training at Fort Sill, Okla., and from there his first assignment was in air defense artillery at Fort Campbell, Ky. It was there that Swickard first applied for helicopter flight school but was turned down, possibly he thinks for lack of education.
He was transferred to Fort Bliss and took an opportunity to start reaching his goal, he said.
“I figured out that probably my lack of college the reason I wasn’t accepted for that and it was kind of a dream for me,” he said. “When I was transferred to Fort Bliss, I really knuckled down.”
He attended El Paso Community College and knocked out “every college class I could do,” in six months, he said.
By that time, he had married his wife, Amber, and had two young daughters. His third daughter came along two years later.
After he was sent to Fort Polk, La., he applied again for flight training officer candidate school and was accepted. From there to Fort Rucker, Ala., where he spent a year learning to fly rotary wing aircraft.
“While I was at Fort Rucker was when 9-11 happened,” he said. “I remember being at my post. I flipped on the TV and was actually in the course. They actually grounded flights for some period of time. The Army goes above and beyond and grounded flights even longer.”
In 2003, after Swickard was accepted to a fixed-wing flying course. He was sent into the combat zone in Iraq a few weeks after the conflict began, where he spent 15 months providing air security for rescue operations and providing aerial support for ground troops.
“It gives you a unique outlook on things. You learn to appreciate things in life a little more,” Swickard said. “You truly find out what’s important in life and that’s the biggest take away from that, I’ve learned.”
When he returned, he was sent back to Fort Bliss, where he finished his bachelor’s degree through Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. His assignment as a fixed-wing pilot in military intelligence took him away from his family, as he did rotations in South America and Columbia, giving him months at a time to study, he said. He was also able to learn Spanish.
Then, his family’s life took a new twist when the Army reassigned him to South Korea to fly DHC-7 aircraft. While there, he and a friend enrolled in a master’s of business administration program through the University of Phoenix.
His family enjoyed spending time in the country, he said. His middle daughter was able to learn to speak Korean, and as “foodies” they tried to learn some of the Korean-style cooking, he said.
“It was wonderful,” he said. “Initially, we were nervous, but the whole family embraced the culture and absolutely loved it.”
Also while there, he and his friend started a business enterprise, ClarusAudio.com, selling speakers online for smartphones and other electronics. Swickard, who remains a shareholder, is optimistic about the venture.
He filed his retirement paperwork in June of 2013 and left Korea. He and his family didn’t have plans, cars or anything to their names when they left. They took a flight into Albuquerque to stay with Swickard’s sister and headed to Roswell after that. He had applied for a few jobs in the area and stayed to interview while his wife drove his oldest daughter to Southern Illinois University, where she entered a competitive radiological sciences program.
Swickard was soon hired as the plant manager for Purina Animal Nutrition in Artesia and his family now lives in Roswell.
“The good news story is, take advantage of every opportunity you’re offered and you’ll do well,” Swickard said. “Have plans, goals and take advantage of opportunities. I feel blessed for the opportunities that I’ve had.”
He said he wishes he could find that first supervisor who first encouraged him.
“I wish I could find that gentleman and tell him how much he’s helped me through my life, actually,” Swickard said.