A former American special operator died early Thursday morning after being wounded days before fighting alongside the Ukrainian military in intense fighting in the eastern frontline town of Bakhmut.
Daniel Swift, 35, resided primarily in the Pacific Northwest and served as a Navy SEAL. The US Navy told Rolling Stone on Friday that Swift is currently classified as an active deserter and has been since March 2019.
Divorced, he leaves four children. Swift represents a growing number of US military veterans who have been killed fighting Russian forces over the past year, despite President Biden’s pleas for Americans to stay away. News of his death was first reported by TIME magazine.
Adam Thiemann – a former US Army ranger who previously fought with Swift in Ukraine and kept in touch with his platoon through phone calls and late-night text messages – told Rolling Stone that this happened during an operation in Bakhmut on the night of March 14 Happened into the night of January 15 Early in the morning of January 15, Russian forces fired an anti-personnel rocket grenade at Swift and two other soldiers, knocking them out.
An American intelligence official who first told Rolling Stone about Swift’s death said he suffered massive traumatic brain injury and died early Thursday morning. The officer asked not to be named because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
Thiemann wrote on Facebook that Ukrainian troops are doing everything they can to keep Swift alive, but their resources are running out as they attempt to house all the wounded.
Swift was left in critical condition with severe head trauma, according to Thiemann, who was not on duty at the time but was informed by his platoon mates. The other two soldiers are stable and recovering.
Daniel Swift (far left), Grygorii “Greg” Tsekhmistrenko (middle right) and Adam Thiemann (far right) in Ukraine. Courtesy of Adam Thiemann
Contacted by Rolling Stone, Swift’s sister confirmed his death but declined to issue a statement on behalf of the family.
For months, intense fighting around the small town of Bakhmut in Ukraine’s Donetsk region has resembled more a World War I battlefield than the post-9/11 uprisings.
Ukrainian soldiers fight from trenches while waves of Russian soldiers and hired weapons from the Wagner Group — a nominally private military company run by Putin confidante Yevgeney Prigozhin — storm across open ground. This war of attrition is raw and ugly as gunfights rage for hours amidst heavy artillery bombardments. Success is measured in smudges and cheating death to see another day.
Retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, who previously served as head of US Army Europe, told Rolling Stone Bakhmut had become a test of Prigozhin’s influence within Russia’s military hierarchy.
“His mercenary organization, PWC Wagner, has focused on this area for months without much success, ‘meat grindering’ thousands of Russian troops,” Hodges said. “His squad consists of veterans of PWC Wagner, but a large percentage of them have been recently mobilized and poorly trained to overwhelm the Ukrainian defenders with mass.”
He added: “The ability of Ukrainian soldiers to withstand multiple attacks by human waves supported by seemingly endless Russian artillery strikes every day is remarkable. It also shows the Ukrainian General Staff that Ukraine, despite being outnumbered by Russian troops, can hold off Russian attacks with what it has, albeit at a very high cost. This is important as it will allow Ukraine to build up new forces for a major counter-offensive in the spring, rather than rushing every new soldier or weapon system into the Bahkmut area. Incredible resistance at the tactical level will lead to offensive opportunities at the operational level.”
White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Friday that the US Treasury Department will impose additional sanctions on the Wagner Group next week and designate the private military company as a transnational criminal organization.
Before he died in Ukraine, Swift joined the US Navy after a high school career in both football and wrestling, according to a self-published memoir on Amazon that Swift wrote in August 2020 under an apparent pseudonym. The book is called “The Fall of Man”.
Ironically, he came to boot camp on June 28, 2005 — the day of Operation Red Wings in Afghanistan and the 2013 film theme “Lone Survivor,” starring actor Mark Wahlberg. 19 US soldiers died during this operation.
By the time he was 30, Swift claims to have been deployed to combat missions five times in 2018, in Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen. Swift is the recipient of medals such as the Legion of Merit and several personal and campaign awards. He later served as a police officer for the Washington State Patrol and the Medford Police Department in Oregon.
However, by April 2019, Swift had a warrant out for his arrest on the main charge of false imprisonment related to his divorce. The North County Superior judge set his bail at $250,000. The San Diego County Sheriff’s Department told Rolling Stone that the warrant is still active. A month earlier, the US Navy listed him as an active deserter.
Thiemann told Rolling Stone that when Swift showed up unexpectedly in Irpin, Ukraine, he didn’t have his own equipment but would operate anyway.
“He only had one uniform … He used duct tape to stick armor plates on his chest and back to aim until he got a plate carrier,” Thiemann said. “After our SEAL Team Six guy left, he led our team in Crimea, Severodonetsk and Svyatohirsk and continued to lead the team after I left. He was one of the toughest and most tactical men I’ve ever met.”
Swift was serving on the same platoon as another volunteer soldier who was killed last weekend: Canadian citizen Grygorii “Greg” Tsekhmistrenko, who served as her medic.
“Even though he had no military experience, Greg was one of the best soldiers I’ve ever met,” said Thiemann. “Under constant fire from the Russians in Hostomel on the first day of the war, without a rifle, without a weapon and with little chance of surviving, he was there – with only his medicine bag – ready to die for his country. No matter how bad or how dark things ever got, Greg was positive.”
Greg’s father, Vitalii Tsekhmistrenko, told Kyiv-based CBC News on Monday that his son “wanted to build a house by the water after the war.” At Greg’s funeral in Kyiv on Friday, the train driver said Greg died trying to save Swift, said Thiemann, who attended the funeral service.
A combatant’s life affords little time to take stock of all that has been lost in wartime. You miss birthday parties. You miss wedding anniversaries. Baseball games and dance nights. Your child’s first steps and the warmth of a spouse under cool sheets. Infantry soldiers are often left with divorce and debt. Bad memories and another funeral. And then another.
When asked how he was dealing with the loss of friends in both the Afghanistan and Ukraine wars, Thiemann said, “I’m just fed up. I want the war to end because the cost will only increase, but worse, I want to stand up for what’s right. It’s a really terrible thing that’s going on. It breaks my heart that most people will never understand the depth of their sacrifice and it breaks my heart that they had to make that sacrifice.”
Jim LaPorta covers national security and military affairs. He is a former US Marine infantryman and a veteran of the Afghan War. You can follow him on Twitter @JimLaPorta