Dawn Maietta, left, and Rebecka Mendoza stand at Sgt. Jason W. Swiger Memorial Park, which was recently dedicated by the city of South Portland. Swiger, a paratrooper who grew up across the street from the playground in Ferry Village, was killed by a suicide bomber in Iraq in 2007 while handing out candy to Iraqi children. The effort to rename the park was spearheaded by Jennifer Kirk, who is from the same the neighborhood as the Swigers. Mendoza is Jason’s sister and Maietta is his cousin. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

As a kid growing up in South Portland’s Ferry Village, Sgt. Jason Swiger was a constant presence on the little playground across the street from his house on School Street.

He and his siblings played cars in the park, lining up popsicle sticks to make roads. They went down the short slide in his yellow Tonka truck and played baseball on the grass. They climbed trees and played hide-and-seek, manhunt and tag. As a teenager, Swiger would climb to the highest point on the playground and jump off, uninhibited by fear.

Later, home on leave before a deployment with the 82nd Airborne Division of the Army, he climbed again to the top of the playground.

“He sat there for the longest time just watching the kids play. He was making sure everything was good and making sure his park was good,” said Jennifer Kirk, a friend of the Swiger family who grew up a few doors down.

Swiger, a paratrooper known for his generosity and larger-than-life personality, was 24 when he was killed in action by a suicide bomber in Baqubah, Iraq, on March 25, 2007. He and three other soldiers had left the protection of their Humvee to hand out candy to children after their convoy stopped.

Swiger died as he lived: extending his hand in friendship.


Sgt. Jason Swiger in Iraq with the 82nd Airborne Division. Photo courtesy of the Swiger family

Sixteen years after his death, Kirk pushed the city to replace the worn-out playground and name the park for Swiger to ensure he and his sacrifice are not forgotten. The city spent just over $92,000 through a Community Development Block Grant and matching city funds to install a new playground.

“I think that would be a beautiful way to keep his memory alive and highlight the joy that park brought to his childhood,” Swiger’s widow, Alanna, wrote to the City Council before the unanimous vote to name the park for him.

Last week, the city officially opened the new playground at the Sgt. Jason W. Swiger Memorial Park, where a plaque reminds people to “always extend your hand in friendship.” Swiger’s family and friends gathered at the ribbon cutting to celebrate and share stories about the little boy with a wide smile who grew up to be their hero.


Rebecka Swiger Mendoza can’t look at the park without thinking of her younger brother and the countless hours they spent playing there.

“We were always playing from sunrise to sunset,” she said. “My mom would say, ‘When the streetlights come on, you come in.'”


It seemed like the six Swiger children, their cousins and friends were always there at the park, first climbing all over the original wooden playground, then later on the new playground installed after their mother helped raise money to pay for it by making and selling a neighborhood cookbook.

Swiger’s mother, grandmother and aunt were a constant presence, too. They sat on the front porch of the family duplex to watch all the neighborhood kids play, handing out Band-aids, popsicles or a warning to behave as needed.

Jason Swiger, left, on the original playground on School Street in Ferry Village, with two other children from the neighborhood. Photo courtesy of the Swiger family

Swiger was always running around and constantly played pranks on his friends and family. He was an eloquent writer who wrote stories, poems and kept a journal. He was a talented artist and covered his schoolwork with drawings. He loved listening to music and sang karaoke with his mom and sister at the Amvets in Westbrook.

“There wasn’t a kid in the neighborhood who didn’t want to play with Jason,” said his cousin, Dawn Swiger Maietta. “Jason made everyone feel welcome.”

He was also a daredevil. One time he climbed to the top of a 60-foot pine tree at the edge of the park, nearly giving their mother a heart attack as she watched him make his way back down, his sister said. As a teenager, he jumped trains and rode them to Old Orchard Beach.

“Jason was always looking out for the underdog,” Mendoza said. “He would pick the person who would normally be picked last to make them know they belonged.”


When Swiger was 9, he went to visit an uncle, Carl McAfee, who had served two tours in Vietnam as an Army paratrooper. From his uncle’s backyard near an Army base, Swiger watched paratroopers drop from training planes.

“He got to see them parachuting and said, ‘That’s what I want to do,’ And that was it,” Mendoza said. “He had no fear.”

Swiger enlisted in the Army at 17, before graduating from South Portland High School. His mother, Valorie, agreed to sign for him so he could enlist early. He was so proud of his military service that he wore his uniform when he went back to the high school to talk to students and teachers.

Swiger, who had married Alanna the year before, was on his third tour in Iraq in 2007 and traveling through Dayala Province between two U.S. camps when the convoy stopped. He got out to hand out candy when a motorcyclist approached and blew himself up. Swiger and three other soldiers were killed.

The devastating news was delivered to the Swiger family in Maine by Swiger’s young widow, who lived in North Carolina.

“He gave his all to the country, not just his life,” Mendoza said. “It was something he loved and wanted to do from the bottom of his heart. He wanted to be in the military. That was his life.”


After his death, hundreds of yellow ribbons were hung around the city. More than 400 mourners holding small American flags and wearing yellow ribbon pins packed the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception for his funeral.


“It was a nightmare that you don’t wake up from. It still hurts every day,” Mendoza said. “When you lose someone like that, you don’t get to say goodbye.”

Mendoza and Maietta say they think about him every day, telling so many stories to their children that they feel like they knew him. Maietta’s daughter, Jaelynn, is named for him.

Sgt. Jason Swiger playing with Iraqi children while in Iraq with the 82nd Airborne Division of the Army. Photo courtesy of the Swiger family

He is even more present in Mendoza’s mind on Memorial Day and in summer when the family gathers for cookouts. That time of year was always special for her and her brother because they both had July birthdays and liked to climb to the top of the playground to watch fireworks.

“He’s still alive within us,” Mendoza said. “Memories just flood right in.”


When Kirk told the Swiger family about the idea to fix the playground – it was falling apart and unsafe, she said – and name the park for Swiger, they were immediately on board. Streets around the city are named for people killed in action in Vietnam. But nothing was named for Swiger, and Kirk wanted to make sure his memory stays alive even after those who knew him are gone.

Maietta said seeing the playground dedicated to her cousin brings tears of joy.

“If he were still here and he knew this was happening, it would be an honor for him,” she said.

For Mendoza, driving through her old neighborhood feels like coming home and she knows her brother would love to see kids still playing in the space where they made so many memories together.

“Any kid that goes to play there from here on out should feel special because I’m pretty sure he’s still there sometimes,” she said.

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