By Andrea Sutherland (Fort Carson)November 1, 2012
FORT CARSON, Colo. -- Debby MacSwain's successes can be measured by the lives she's touched. Throughout her 45-plus year career with the American Red Cross, she's traveled the world, supporting troops in Vietnam during some of the most tumultuous points of the conflict. She served at the American Red Cross headquarters during Desert Storm. She traveled to Somalia in 1993 to check on the welfare of Red Cross volunteers.
Yet it's her dedication in the swimming pool that has defined her career.
"There's nothing like teaching somebody to learn the front float," said MacSwain, who teaches swim lessons at Iron Horse Sports and Fitness Center. "I learn something new every time I'm in the water."
MacSwain estimates that she's taught close to a thousand children and adults to swim, or at least feel more comfortable in the water.
Among her successes, she counts Ana, a little girl with Down syndrome who loved the water; Ian, a 4-year-old autistic boy who was afraid of the water at first, but after four years of lessons would jump off the diving board and swim the length of the pool; and Sidney, an 11-year-old girl with autism whose favorite position is riding a kickboard like a surfboard.
For her dedication and efforts, American Red Cross officials awarded MacSwain the Harriman Award, the highest recognition for volunteer service in the organization.
"Debby has had a wonderful career of service with the American Red Cross as both a professional and as a volunteer," said Thomas Gonzalez, CEO of the American Red Cross Pikes Peak Chapter in Colorado Springs, in a release. "In our chapter boundaries, we know Debby as a selfless volunteer who has served in many roles and continues to give of her time and many talents."
MacSwain's first encounter with the Red Cross came in 1968 when she took a water safety instructor course. She applied to be part of the American Red Cross "Donut Dollies," serving a year in Vietnam in support of the military.
"We experienced every emotion every single day," she said.
MacSwain traveled the country with other female volunteers, concocting games and other forms of entertainment for the troops.
"It was tremendously exciting," she said.
Other times, her work in Vietnam was much more somber.
"I was in Da Nang at an American Field Hospital and I was asked to hold the hand of a dying Soldier," she said. "He looked just like one of my brothers."
After returning to the U.S., MacSwain continued volunteering for the Red Cross, eventually accepting a position in Germany where she met her husband, then a second lieutenant in the Army.
Her career with the Red Cross continued as did her commitment to supporting the military.
Despite her contributions abroad, MacSwain is adamant her most significant work takes place in those swimming pools, where she continues to volunteer as a swim instructor.
"It is the most important," she said. "Everything else just kind of happened."