Two Brothers, Saint Leo ROTC Grads Proudly Serving in Army
Meet Chris and James “Dakota” Swonger, two brothers and alumni of the Saint Leo ROTC program who have gone on to successful careers serving in the Army.
Chris and James “Dakota” Swonger are both proud alumni of Saint Leo University and the Saint Leo ROTC program. The brothers have put their degrees and military training to good use by carving out accomplished careers as captains in the U.S. Army.
Chris, 31, is currently stationed at Fort Benning in Columbus, GA where he and his wife, Tara, reside. Dakota, 29, is based at Fort Campbell on the Kentucky-Tennessee border, but he is presently deployed to Iraq. He is married to Alex (Fern), also a Saint Leo ROTC program graduate and current Army officer herself. The couple has a four-year-old daughter, Avery, and a three-year-old son, Landon.
Along with their older brother, John, the three grew up in Zephyrhills, FL and are proud alumni of Zephyrhills High School. In fact, Chris and Dakota have donated over $7,000 in scholarship funding to help Zephyrhills High graduates attend college.
Chris originally had his sights set on enlisting in the military upon completing high school. However, his path changed thanks to a positive influence on him.
“I honestly didn’t plan on going to college,” Chris confides. “During the second semester of my senior year, one of my teachers talked me into applying to Saint Leo University to try to get an ROTC scholarship they were offering.”
While he didn’t get the scholarship he applied for initially, he ultimately did receive it and other grants, most of which covered his tuition.
Dakota followed a very similar path and says Chris had some influence on him applying to Saint Leo and earning a degree before anything else. He also received an ROTC Scholarship and a substantial amount of financial aid.
Some other key selling points about Saint Leo appealed to the Swongers as well.
“The campus is less than a mile from our grandma’s house,” Chris says. “We grew up in the Zephyrhills and Dade city area and knew it was a very military-friendly school. Plus, the ROTC program had sponsored some events at our high school.”
Chris began his college career in 2010. After some academic exploration, he opted for the bachelor’s in business management degree program.
“I knew I wanted to be an infantry officer,” Chris explains. “I thought this degree would help translate over to management skills in the military.”
Dakota started college one year later in 2011. He chose the undergraduate economics degree program.
“I was proud to be a part of the first class that actually graduated with this economics degree from Saint Leo,” Dakota says.
Dakota fondly recalls Drs. Patrick Murphy and Barbara Caldwell, both of whom taught courses in the economics degree program.
“Those two definitely stood out to me,” Dakota says. “I considered them mentors. They had a big positive influence on me. Dr. Caldwell was also my advisor and was very accommodating to my needs.”
He enjoyed taking several classes in the major, including Game Theory, Behavioral Economics, and Microeconomics.
Chris remembers an eye-opening philosophy course he took.
“I took it early on as a student,” he says. “The professor is what made the class so great. It provided a new perspective on life for me.”
He adds that as a cadet in the ROTC program, his schedule was unique at times. However, he was always supported by his professors.
“The professors were always super flexible with us,” Chris says. “At one point, I had to have jaw surgery and couldn’t talk. They were so accommodating to me.”
The small class sizes allowed both brothers to connect with their instructors more closely as well.
“The professors knew who you were,” Chris says. “You weren’t just a random face in the crowd.”
Based on his experience, Chris provides a timeline of the Saint Leo ROTC program.
“In your first two years, you learn basic marksmanship, patrolling, and navigating in the woods,” he says. “In your junior year, you lead underclassmen and get experience in a leadership position. During your senior year, you get the opportunity to become a battalion command sergeant major, something I was fortunate to achieve.”
As an ROTC cadet, Chris got the opportunity to travel to Benin, Africa as part of a cultural language program. While there, he helped train Army cadets.
During Dakota’s sophomore year, he completed an air assault training program in Texas. He also served as a battalion commander. In his junior year, he spent time in Guyana where he trained with the Guyana Defence Force. This opportunity was sponsored by the Florida National Guard.
“We still talk to guys from the ROTC program,” Dakota says. “The community aspect has carried on eight-plus years since we graduated.”
They both lived on campus for portions of their time as students. Along with their rigorous requirements in the Saint Leo ROTC program, they were both quite active in other campus activities. Both were members of the Sigma Tau chapter of the Tau Kappa Epsilon (TKE) fraternity. In TKE, Chris was a “big” to fellow student Joey Hernandez, his “little.” Dakota served as an officer. Dakota was also a senator for the Student Government Union (SGU). In addition, Dakota worked for the Residence Life department during his junior and senior years.
On the recreation front, the brothers were members of a championship-winning flag football team. They also participated in a variety of other intramural sports, including ultimate frisbee, basketball, volleyball, and soccer.
Both brothers can point to several Saint Leo University core values of note. These include integrity, responsible stewardship, and community.
“Being in the military, you get lots of responsibilities,” Chris explains. “So, you are kind of running your own show. Also, when you have soldiers looking at you, they’re looking at you to do the right thing no matter what. As for community, you definitely have one at Saint Leo and in the military as well. With responsible stewardship, you want to make sure you’re using your resources responsibly. You have to remember that you’re responsible for taxpayer dollars.”
As they look back on their college careers, they are incredibly grateful to Saint Leo University for the numerous ways in which the university impacted them.
“Saint Leo was the perfect choice for me,” Chris says. “With the small campus, I got to know people well. Plus, the ROTC program and extracurriculars were such a great experience. If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t have gone to any other school.”
“The convenience and small class sizes were big for me,” Dakota explains. “Not only will you get a great education, but the campus offers so many different activities as well.”
Chris wrapped up his bachelor’s degree in 2014. Dakota earned his diploma in 2015. For the 2014-15 academic year, Dakota was named Outstanding Student in Economics and Outstanding Student in the Donald R. Tapia School of Business. He was also a Distinguished Military Graduate.
Chris explains a big reason as to why he and Dakota chose to serve their country.
“Our grandpa on our dad’s side served in World War II,” he says. “Growing up, he would tell us stories about fighting in Europe. I kind of knew I wanted to always serve.”
Following his completion of the Saint Leo ROTC program, Chris officially launched his Army career in 2014. He first completed a training course at Fort Benning. He transitioned to Fort Bragg in North Carolina before serving a deployment to Afghanistan where he worked as an infantry platoon leader and liaison officer. He also spent time in Jordan and parts of Europe.
He later trained at Fort Huachuca in Arizona and then spent time at Fort Richardson in Alaska where his roles included brigade collection manager and battalion intelligence officer. His current assignment is with the 75th Ranger Regiment at Fort Benning.
In His decorated career, Chris has earned numerous awards. His resume includes the Bronze Star Medal, Joint Service Achievement Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Afghanistan Campaign Medal, Global War on Terrorism Medal, NATO Medal, Senior Parachutist Badge, Combat Infantryman Badge, and Expert Infantryman Badge.
For Dakota, he began his enlistment in 2015. He initially spent time at Fort Rucker in Alabama where he completed flight school. He went on to serve as a platoon leader and aviation officer at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. He has served multiple deployments overseas in Afghanistan and Iraq and is currently assigned to the 1st Battalion of the 101st Aviation Regiment where he has been commanding Delta Company since September. Serving in Iraq, he is part of Task Force No Mercy in support of Operation Inherent Resolve.
Like his older brother, Dakota has earned many awards from his service. These include the Army Commendation Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Afghanistan Campaign Medal, Global War on Terrorism Medal, NATO Medal, and Air Assault Badge.
The brothers explain what the biggest takeaways have been from their experience in the military.
“For me, I have learned work ethic and the need to work hard,” Chris says. “In the military, you are surrounded by so many great leaders, and everyone is looking out for each other. Being a team player and having a strong work ethic can get you far in life in general.”
Dakota has thoroughly enjoyed the connections he has made while serving.
“The environment and camaraderie are what I have enjoyed most,” Dakota explains. “The Army also does a great job of giving you opportunities to develop your leadership skills.”
Both men have unique goals in terms of their military careers. Dakota is aiming toward getting his second command with his goal of becoming a major in the Army. His goal is to be a battalion or squadron commander.
As for Chris, he hopes to move back to the Sunshine State with the goal of transitioning into the Florida National Guard. He has his sights set on moving up to be a battalion or brigade commander.
Photo credit: The photographs included in this blog article were provided by Chris and Dakota Swonger and are used with permission.