Shaler grad pens poems on time served in Vietnam
As a teenager, Shaler High School graduate Kathie Trew signed up for the Army's Student Nurse Program.
She dreamed of working in San Francisco, Denver or Washington.
The Army instead sent Trew — at age 20 — to the 93rd Evacuation Hospital in Long Binh, South Vietnam.
“I peel his dying skin off like layers of an onion … I wait for someone to peel away my feelings of horror, disgust, helplessness and sadness,” she later wrote in “Debriding,” one of 29 poems in Kathleen Trew Swazuk's “Wartorn Heart,” her new, self-published book.
“I wrote most of them when I got back. Then I kind of hid them away,” said Swazuk, now a 67-year-old grandmother. “Some of them I've written more recently.”
Swazuk, also a visual artist, developed the book with encouragement from family members, friends and fellow members of Art and Inspiration with William Rock, an artists' group that meets at 7 p.m. Thursdays in the Shaler North Hills Library.
About 150 people attended the book's release party on Jan. 16 at the library, which included a screened montage of Vietnam War-era videos and war photos.
Carson Middle School eighth-grader Jack Lopuszynski sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” a cappella. Vietnam War veterans, District Judge Robert Dzvonick and personal friends read Swazuk's works aloud.
“That was just a phenomenal program. … A lot of us forget how turbulent that time was,” said retired Brig. Gen. Paul Hill of Shaler, who attended the event with his artist wife, Patty.
Hill said he hopes people explore Swazuk's new book. “It gives recognition to the medical personnel … and what they went through,” he said.
Swazuk sold 78 copies of “Wartorn Heart” at the library event.
To illustrate Swazuk's words, Art and Inspiration group members made the quilts, tapestries, sculpture, paintings and drawings pictured on the glossy pages of “Wartorn Heart.”
“She embodies healing,” said William Rock, the Shaler painter and sculptor who leads Art and Inspiration meetings. “She's quiet, but there's an inner strength that permeates her body.”
In 2012, Swazuk retired as a major in the Army Reserve after working 12 years as a nurse practitioner at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in O'Hara.
A lot of Swazuk's poems are short, as in “The Tops Connection”:
If the mob had reigned in Long Binh
they would have dined
at Loon Foons trade center
over the counter meals
under the table deals!
Swazuk stashed away the poems for years after serving 13 months in the Vietnam War and ingesting the toxin she writes about in “Agent Orange”: “I am old now. The body is racked with pain, bones soft and bones broken. Lungs no longer willing to expand and let in the reborn air of spring.”
“I have horrible lung disease,” Swazuk said. “I have what they call asthmatic granulomatosis. I see a lung doctor every three months. I'm short of breath all the time.
“There hasn't been enough research done on women to know, but I'm sure it's due to Agent Orange,” Swazuk said about the highly toxic herbicide sprayed as a defoliant during the Vietnam War.
After coming home from Vietnam, Swazuk got married and bore two sons — Christopher, 40, of Upperville, Va.; and Blaine, 39, of Munhall.
“I got out of the Army and got married right away and worked in emergency rooms all across the country,” she said. “My ex-husband was still in the military.
“When we divorced, I brought the two babies back home and I started working at St. Francis Hospital,” she said.
Swazuk subsequently became a certified nurse practitioner through the University of Pittsburgh and got a bachelor's degree in nursing from Carlow College in Pittsburgh.
To keep busy, Swazuk now volunteers with the Little Sisters of the Poor on Pittsburgh's North Side, where she makes flower arrangements, wreaths and other decorative items sold in the sisters' gift shop.
“I'm not making anything on it, but I'm so happy the book is done because I've been working on it for so long,” Swazuk said.
Deborah Deasy is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-772-6369 or email@example.com.