Walking 1,000 miles from Dallas, Texas to Northfield, MN may seem like a big task. But Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran Gunnar Swanson doesn't think so. His heart is in it.
And just why is he taking on this task?
Serving as a boat operator in the 957th Engineer Company, Gunnar conducted riverboat patrols along the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, as well as convoy operations throughout Iraq. "The experiences that really affected me most had to do with the kids. During the first few months of my tour in Iraq, we would purposefully pull our convoys over to talk to kids who waited for us on the side of roads. They were a real morale-booster for the soldiers, and we usually stopped to hang out with them, give them some of our MRE's (Meals Ready to Eat), and trade with them for things they needed.
"Unfortunately, insurgents in Iraq started to use and manipulate kids into planting roadside bombs, using them as child soldiers, and even using them as suicide bombers. Since we no longer knew who was safe to be around, we were forced to stop our interactions with the kids during military missions. The soldiers and the kids really experienced a sense of loss when that happened."
Gunnar's concern for the Iraqi children couldn't be ignored. Even after he ended his tour of duty (2004), he couldn't forget the faces of these kids.
"Though I have adapted to my civilian life, I have had this constant, urgent need within me to do more for the kids I saw suffering from this war. I came across War Kids Relief when searching the internet for a way to help these kids, and as soon as I learned more about its goals I knew that being a part of this organization was my life's mission."
Gunnar, currently living in Dennison, gave up his job as a dolphin trainer in Key Largo, Florida and moved to Minnesota. He was greeted with familiar faces, and some old memories. His grandparents, Clifford and June Swanson, lived in Cannon Falls at one time. Clifford, who died last year, was born in Cannon Falls and was a pastor at St. Olaf in Northfield. Gunnar has a brother, aunts, uncles and cousins scattered around Minnesota. His parents live in North Dakota. His family is encouraging him every step of the way, from donations, computers, office space, moral support, and everything in between.
His 1,000 mile, cross-country walk is a War Kids Relief interactive fundraising event, called "A Soldier's March for Peace" (ASM4P), an idea Gunnar came up with to raise funds to help the kids who haunt his war memories.
"During my 1,000 mile march from Dallas to Northfield, I'll be stopping in towns along the way to give presentations and raise money. We are encouraging kids to do their own mini-fundraisers and donate a penny a mile - that's only $10 each. We hope kids in all 50 states will get involved in this 'Kids Helping Kids' concept. This is a leadership opportunity for kids to take a stand and reach out to help other kids.We want kids to do their own fundraising events so they feel they are actually participating in the project, and understand its goals. It also gives them an opportunity to educate others."
Funds raised from A Soldier's March for Peace will be used by War Kids Relief to build a youth rehabilitation center in Mosul, Iraq, and an after-school, vocational training program in Afghanistan, as well as funding peace-building programs in the United States. Gunnar hopes these programs will give youth in Iraq and Afghanistan an alternative to violence, which in turn will make it safer for American troops stationed abroad. "It's a win-win situation," he stated.
War Kids Relief (WKR) is a program of Children's Culture Connection, founded by Dina Fesler, who is the WKR project coordinator. Earlier this year she traveled to Iraq and created a pen pal exchange between Iraqi and American children. She says the walk has already begun to galvanize attention among American youth.
Teens in Northfield rallied for a kick-off fundraising celebration last week in Central Park, raising over $1,000 with henna painting, dunk tank, tie dye t-shirts, bracelet making and food booths.
Iris and Lily French, and their friend Rosemary, set up a stand outside of Acacia Studio, downtown Cannon Falls last week, selling lemonade, peace sign magnets, peace sign face painting, etc. They understood the education part of the project, as they had a My World book on the table, opened to the page and map of Iraq. The girls collected $50 in just two hours.
Young boys are getting $10 pledges to get the "Gunnar Buzz" military haircut
Cousins, Taylor Bickman, Randolph, and Paige and Devin Gesme, of Bertha, made creative cards they are selling with a goal of raising $300 for the kids of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Wall entries on the Soldier's March for Peace website lists kids as far away as New York who have joined in the March for Peace and raised funds.
These kids get it!
"People ask if I can physically walk 1,000 miles in 10 weeks. I say, 'My word means everything to me. The children of Iraq and Afghanistan can't wait any longer. Every day these kids are being manipulated and used as tools of war against our troops. Stopping this cycle CANNOT wait. We are setting the stage for kids across America to change the world...one penny, and one mile at a time. It's the kids, not me, who will inspire the rest of the nation to take a stand, help kids affected by war, support our troops, and begin to build peace in a real constructive way."
Gunnar's March begins on the Fourth of July, from Dallas and will end in Northfield, Sept. 10, for the Defeat of Jesse James Days. He will come through Cannon Falls on the march. Dates and details will be printed closer to the appearance date.
Like Forest Gump, Gunnar hopes to attract a lot of attention along the way.
For fundraising information and to follow Gunnar on his 1,000-mile trek, visit the War Kids Relief ASM4P website at: www.warkidsrelief.org/march.