When Jason Swiger returned home to South Portland last June from his second tour of duty in Iraq, his family members barely recognized him. Gone were the black trench coat, the combat boots, the rings on his fingers and the long, black hair he wore in high school. In their place, he wore khakis and a dress shirt, with his naturally blond hair cut short.

Despite his appearance, his family members said, six years in the U.S. Army had no effect on his personality. He was still the caring, comic person he had always been.

“No matter what, Jay was Jay,” his sister, Becka Swiger, said Monday.

“He wouldn’t change,” added his cousin Chelsea Swiger, “not even for the military.”

On Monday, members of the Swiger family packed into the South Portland home of Valorie Swiger, the mother of the 24-year-old sergeant in the 82nd Airborne Division. Jason Swiger, who had wanted to be a soldier since he was a boy, died Sunday in the Anbar province in Iraq on his third tour in the country, according to his family.

Swiger was the second soldier from South Portland to die in Iraq this month. Marine Lance Cpl. Angel Rosa, 21, was killed in combat March 13.

According to Swiger’s sister, Angelica Cole, her brother was killed when he and three other soldiers got out of a Humvee to hand out candy to Iraqi children. “That’s the type of guy he was,” Cole said.

The family learned of Swiger’s death Sunday night when his wife, Allana, called. Members of the family filled the home of his mother Sunday to receive friends, answer phone calls and remember their son, grandson, cousin, nephew and brother.

Swiger was “a leader in his peer group” who “served as a mentor” to his friends, said South Portland High School Principal Jeanne Crocker, who held a press conference Monday afternoon at the district’s superintendent’s office. Crocker said it was clear Swiger joined the military to define himself.

“It was through service to his country that he found his niche in life,” she said.

Both Crocker and Swiger’s family talked about the pride Swiger had in serving his country. Valorie Swiger said her son had wanted to be in the military since his childhood, when he would visit his uncle’s house in Pennsylvania and could sit on the porch and see paratroopers jumping out of planes. His uncle had served in the 82nd Airborne Division, and he decided he would, too.

Valorie Swiger has always been active in supporting the U.S. military troops. In 2003, she hung yellow ribbons throughout the city, which landed her in a battle with the South Portland City Council. She eventually removed the ribbons.

Despite problems in the past, the council met on Monday night and unanimously voted to allow the temporary hanging of yellow ribbons to honor both Swiger and Rosa. According to City Manager Ted Jankowski, the council thought that authorizing the

display of yellow ribbons from March 27 to April 27 was the “approriate response” to the shock of losing two “great young men” from South Portland in such a short time. “The council decided they wanted to take action,” he said.

Just before noon on Tuesday, friends and family gathered at The Thomas Room, a banquet facility on Broadway in South Portland, to assemble boxes and boxes of yellow ribbons to be hung all over the town again.

Ray Lee, of South Portland, who said he had known Swiger since he was in diapers, said he and Dan Fortin, another family friend, would hang up the ribbons “every place we can whether the city allows it or not.”

Cousin Susan Swiger said the ribbons were “for all the troops as much as for Jason.”

After the ribbons were hung, Valorie Swiger planned to hold a press conference at the Thomas Room in order to get information about her son out all at once. The conference was to be held after The Current’s deadline.

Valorie Swiger said that regardless of whether her son was a soldier, she would be going out of her way to show her support for the troops.

“He told us, ‘When there’s no support out there for us, morale goes down, and when morale goes down, soldiers die,'” she said. “We need to support them until the last one comes home.”

She said her son’s death hasn’t affected her views on the war.

“I would like to see some resolve,” she said, but the last thing she wants to see are the troops being pulled out without any resolution. “It’d be like they died for nothing,” Cole said.

Last May, Swiger married Allana Regan, whom he met at a coffee shop at Fort Bragg, N.C. They lived with her parents and brother in North Carolina.

Crocker spoke about the impact on the high school of having two graduates killed in the war in such a short time period. “There’s a cumulative effect to this,” she said.

Crocker said the silence that filled the school following her announcement over the P.A. system Monday afternoon was the same as the reaction to Rosa’s death, even though Swiger, a member of the class of 2000, graduated long before any current students were at the high school.

Between his five siblings and numerous cousins, Swiger was still connected to the school. Also, Swiger often came to visit the high school when he was home from Iraq. Sometimes it would be a casual visit to see teachers, but he would also come in full uniform to visit a U.S. military history class called “America in Conflict” to give a presentation and answer questions about his service.

Crocker said Swiger was a good student. John Chapin, a retired South Portland High School history teacher, said Tuesday Swiger was “always very engaged and enthusiastic about the subject matter.” He corresponded with students in Chapin’s classes after Swiger joined the Army.

Becka Swiger said school came easily to him and the speed at which he completed his homework left him plenty of time to pursue other interests. He was an artist, constantly covering his schoolwork with pictures of headless horsemen and fantasy lands. He was also an eloquent writer, Becka Swiger said. He wrote stories and always kept a journal.

“He had a way of describing things that I’ve never seen anywhere else,” she said.

Had he not joined the military, he would have been a journalist.

Jason Swiger was also a singer, a dancer and a drummer. He loved music, and he and his sister, Becka, would go out to a bar to sing karaoke every time he was home from Iraq. His favorite song to perform was the Steve Miller Band’s “The Joker” – he was known by the same name among friends and family for his humor and constant pranks.

Coming in and out of Valorie Swiger’s house on Monday, friends and family couldn’t talk enough about the things Jason excelled at, from his intricate artwork to his dependability as a friend.

“Picture the greatest guy you ever met and multiply it times 10,” Becka Swiger said. But their cousin, Kalie Swiger, corrected her.

“Times a million,” she said.

At Current deadline, arrangements for the funeral, which will be under the direction of Hobbs Funeral Home, were still being made.

Second South Portland soldier killed in Iraq

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