Mike Swick On Afghanistan Visit: “I Think We Got Hit With About Five Total Rockets In The Span Of About An Hour…”
By Tom Taylor
It’s been two years since Mike Swick set foot in The Octagon, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t been busy. Swick recently returned from a trip to Afghanistan, during which he devoted himself to supporting the troops. Despite having only returned to the US a few days ago, Swick shook of his jetlag and spoke to Full Contact Fighter about his tour of Afghanistan and his MMA career.
Swick last competed in the UFC over two years ago, falling to a Paulo Thiago choke at UFC 109 on February 6, 2010. Since then, he has been plagued by injuries, but he says he is finally ready to start thinking about his return to the cage.
“I’m healing up my knee, and I’m nine months post-op on my ACL replacement, so I’m still rehabbing but I’m pretty much back to full training,” Swick said. “The only thing I can’t do is super hard, live wrestling. I already sent word to the UFC and told them that I’d be ready by August or September so, hopefully they’ll come back with a fight here any time.”
Swick says the two years he’s spent away from the cage have not been easy, as he has missed the competition greatly.
“I was there since The Ultimate Fighter 1, so I’ve seen this whole rise of the UFC and been a part of it, and I was fighting full time. Then having to sit back and just be a fan and watch the sport that I’m technically a fighter in, and not being able to fight, has been really difficult,” he admitted. “I’m really looking forward to getting back in there and being that fighter again.”
During his long hiatus, though, Swick has found other ways to fill his time. Through the development of his clothing company, “Combat Life,” he has dedicated himself to supporting the troops. The military, he says, is something that he has been passionate about for most of his life.
“When I was a kid, I wanted to be in the military more than anything, but you can’t enlist as a kid. So I got into martial arts, basically because I wanted to improve my skills with the goal of enlisting one day and being some super commando with all my martial arts experience.
“One thing led to another, and then I got into the UFC and my career took off, and so I never got to enlist. It was a deep regret that I never got to go serve my country, so I vowed to myself that I would do everything I can to support the troops and do as much as I can with the notoriety that I have.”
So dedicated to the troops is Swick that, since 2005, he has been on 15 overseas military tours, across 10 different countries. His destinations have included Iraq, Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kuwait, Bahrain, The United Arab Emirates, Germany, Belgium, The Netherlands and Djibouti, many of which he has visited on more than one occasion. These tours were the reason that Swick created his clothing line.
“Combat Life was because of these tours. It wasn’t vice-versa,” he explained.
“What happened was, when I first started doing these tours to support the troops, I wanted to give something back, so I handed out sponsor t-shirts and basically anything I had, and that ran short. So I decided to come up with a name that was fitting and then just start printing my own stuff, and then I could hand out as many shirts as I wanted. I came up with the name Combat Life and I felt it was fitting and I started printing shirts.
“That’s how it started. It was just me handing out these shirts and caps to guys overseas, and especially in the hospitals to the guys who had gotten wounded. From there it picked up and people really liked it so we went full retail. Now we have a website and we’ve gone the retail route, but all the money I’ve made from Combat Life has gone back into handing out shirts and putting on events and donating it and working with other non-profit groups.”
Swick says his most recent trip to Afghanistan was an amazing experience; one that was at times quite chaotic.
“We had a few organizational problems on the tour. We got kind of stranded a couple of times. One time when we got into Afghanistan, we ended up at Kandahar Airfield and we had no escort and no point of contact.
“When you travel military, it’s very often that you don’t travel at the time you think you’re going to travel, or to the place you think you’re going to travel. We literally got on three airplanes before we actually took off and left, because they had to evacuate the plane for whatever reason.
“So we finally ended up in Kandahar, which wasn’t where we were supposed to end up and we had literally no escorts, no nothing. We were stranded,”
Swick said that his group was finally located, and was able to get their trip back on track. He says the time he spent in Kandahar was quite impressive, overall.
“Kandahar is a massive base—there’s the NATO base with – I don’t know how many countries of troops – so you’re walking around the base and you’re seeing every type of uniform you can imagine,” he said.
“Plus there are contractors everywhere, so you’ve got guys walking around that look like Steven Segal, with ponytails and pistols and machine guns. It’s got be one of the most interesting places I’ve ever been.”
Not only did Swick’s group get stranded in Kandahar, but they also took shellfire during their stay there.
“We were on the airfield which is really the worst place to be during a rocket attack. That’s generally where all the rockets land. We had the back of a C-130 open, and we were just hanging out on the ramp, and the alarms went off.
“We didn’t hear the initial blast, and so we all had to get down and wait for the all clear. Then in the course of the next, I guess, hour, going back and forth to the bunkers, we heard them all. They were kind of exploding all around us. I think we got hit with about five total rockets in the span of about an hour or an hour and half.
Over the course of the tour, Swick’s group, which comprised of the group’s organizer, Kurt Shrout, several other martial arts aficionados, and Swick’s fellow UFC fighter, Nick Ring, didn’t follow any one specific military unit.
“There were no specific guys we followed. We just met new guys everywhere, from Manas, all the way to Afghanistan,” he said. “We took Blackhawks to various bases in Afghanistan, and we’d show up and do seminars with the troops.”
It was a trip that was rich in opportunities for Swick. One of his favorite aspects was the dialogue he shared with the troops that he met along the way.
“Hearing their stories and what they’d been through was great, and inspiring, and humbling and sad and happy all at the same time. We (also) did a lot of really crazy stuff. We shot a lot of guns, and blew stuff up, and flew around in C-17s, C-130s, and Blackhawks, and that’s always entertaining.”
Swick also had the chance to watch UFC 145 with the troops.
“I watched from a base not far from the Iranian border. We watched the fights, and it was pretty incredible. That was my second live UFC fight from a war front.”
Now, back on American soil, Swick’s respect for the military has only grown.
“It’s a rough life over there. I’ve gained a lot of respect for what those guys endure on a daily basis. They don’t complain, they just do it, and they do it for 7 to 12 months at a time.
“I wish I could showcase more of what they go through, because I think a lot of people don’t realize. The housing situations, and the food situations, and the heat, and the amount of stuff they carry, it’s really tough. It’s a grueling life, and I think a lot of people don’t appreciate what these guys do.”
To raise awareness of the hardships of life in the military, and to commemorate his trip to Afghanistan, Swick will be releasing video footage of his adventure on YouTube.
“I took all my cameras and got an enormous amount of video—a hundred gigabytes, of total video from mounted head-cams and stuff,” Swick said.
He expects the task of editing and releasing so much footage to be challenging, but believes it will start to appear on his YouTube channel in about a month.
Following the release of the initial video, he says he will release behind-the-scenes footage of explosions and gunfire, as well as outtakes.
“Hopefully it [the video] will do it justice. I captured everything. The goal of these trips is to go out there and make people’s time better and get their mind off of their hardships. To wrestle around, and teach them, and inspire them, and give advice and answer questions, and hand out shirts and we did that. We did that 27-7 for two weeks. I think we impacted a lot of people and I think it was a huge success.”