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After the battle, Mike Sword's war within

After the battle, Mike Sword's war within

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GRAHAM SWORD STORES WHAT REMAINS OF HIS SON in labeled plastic binders — photographs, emails, a box of souvenir M&Ms. There's Mike leaving for Air Force boot camp in 2001, followed by pictures of his first and second tours in Iraq.

There's Mike at 22, clutching a weapon at Andrews Air Force Base, where he had top-secret security clearance and where President George W. Bush gave him M&Ms bearing the insignia of Air Force One.

Micah Brentford Sword was such a law-and-order guy that early in his military career he wrote a speeding ticket on the base where he was stationed — to his wife. He was among the top tier of airmen tasked with securing the president's plane and had hopes of one day guarding the White House or the Pentagon.

That's the narrative his father can't make sense of — and why, more than three years later, he's finally decided to talk about his son's death. How did it come to pass that the 24-year-old, an expert marksman and former military cop, opened fire on police from Roanoke and Franklin counties in the ­early-morning hours of Feb. 29, 2008, provoking a shootout that ended his life?

Was he so overcome with post-traumatic stress that he set out to initiate a so-called suicide by cop? Or did the blaring sirens of the police cars chasing him on U.S. 220 trigger flashbacks of Iraq?

Graham Sword, 62, will never know. But that hasn't kept him from poking at the questions — second-guessing police procedures, alienating family members, looking for someone or some policy to blame.

Twice a year, sometimes more, he drives to Roanoke from his Virginia Beach home to retrace his son's final steps. He's created his own tour of duty that begins where the photos of his soldier-son leave off.

The ritual features a gravel-filled cinder block, a hilltop grave, a handful of American flags and a question he can't help but circle around:

Was there a better way to handle his son's PTSD?

Military mindset

Since World War II, every generation of the Sword family has had at least one relative serve in the military. Graham Sword's draft number was too high to get him into Vietnam, but he served his country as an engineering technician at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard, where he's worked on carriers since 1985.

The family split in 1991 when Mike, the youngest of three children, was 8. Graham retained custody of the elder son, while a daughter and Mike lived with their mom in Charleston, S.C., and, later, Roanoke. The battle over custody was contentious, according to court records, and Mike lived with his father only during his sophomore year of high school, visiting irregularly in between.

Still, Graham drives regularly past the Tidewater places where he believes Mike's character was formed: the Baptist church, the library, the neighborhood rec center.

Meticulous and hypervigilant, he taught his adventure-loving sons to be the same. During visitations, the boys hiked and camped, played war games and paintball. They went scuba diving and boogie boarding and played Skee-Ball on the Virginia Beach tourist strip.

They spent hours in the woods, where they practiced military maneuvers from sunrise to sundown, calling it "insertion" when their dad dropped them off and "extraction" when he picked them up.

Mike Sword (left) stands with his father, Graham, and his brother, Stuart. (Photo courtesy of Graham Sword)

Mike Sword (left) stands with his father, Graham, and his brother, Stuart, who joined the Marines and later the Army Rangers. (Photo courtesy of Graham Sword)

Older brother Stuart joined the Marines straight out of high school and, later, the Army Rangers. So nobody was surprised when Mike enlisted with the Air Force during his senior year at William Byrd High School. He intended to make a career of it, bringing along his newlywed wife, Kristi, a Glenvar native he'd met at the Arnold R. Burton Technology Center in Salem.

He was in boot camp when the twin towers fell. In 2002, he and Kristi moved to Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama, and the following year he was deployed to Iraq.

"The military was his whole identity; it meant everything to him," recalled his sister, Windsor Nevitt.

Air Force colleagues describe him as stoic and focused, always aiming for the next career-ladder rung.

"Some people are great philosophers, some are great educators. Mike was a great worker," said Quentin Floyd, his shift supervisor at Andrews, where Mike was stationed before and after his second tour in Iraq.

"He liked to joke, but he wasn't a chattermouth," said Sondra Mihovich, another Andrews alum. "When it came to his work, he was somebody you could rely on absolutely to do the right thing."

He once turned in a popular military contractor at Maxwell for pumping gas into his personal car.

With his work ethic, his fellow airmen thought he was destined to become a high-ranking security officer.

The White House, the Pentagon — it was all within his reach.

Survivor's guilt

Graham Sword traces Mike's death back to a handful of incidents in Iraq, where he pulled security detail during five- and seven-month stints in 2003 and 2005.

Details trickled out from Mike to his dad via clipped email and instant message exchanges and during later conversations that were equally guarded.

On his first tour near Kirkuk, he was part of American efforts to help the Kurds re-establish control of their homeland in oil-rich northern Iraq. Mike discovered a cache of mortar rounds on one patrol, preventing at least one insurgent attack. Another time, he led the response to a rocket attack against the base, earning an Achievement Medal.

Mike sent his father this photo of a burned-out Humvee in Iraq. His father believes that the violence of combat contributed to Mike's PTSD.

Mike sent his father this photo of a burned-out Humvee in Iraq. His father believes that the violence of combat contributed to Mike's PTSD. (Photo courtesy of Graham Sword)

One photo he gave his dad showed the watchtower where he regularly stood guard, pocked with bullet holes from enemy fire. Another showed the aftermath of a roadside bomb that killed one of his fellow airmen.

Mike didn't elaborate on his comrade's death, except to say that he'd ridden in the vehicle before.

"I never asked about it," Graham said, pointing to the charred Humvee in the picture. "I waited for him to bring things up."

At Andrews between tours, the un­spoken rule was to leave the war stories overseas. "You don't really talk about the bad things," Floyd said. "Everyone just knows the silent truth."

On his second tour, in 2005, Mike was stationed in a southern Iraq detention facility called Camp Bucca, named for the New York fire marshal who died at Ground Zero on 9/11. Opened in the wake of the Abu Ghraib scandal, the prison was riddled with riots, overcrowding and escape attempts. Mike earned hazard-duty pay for volunteering to transport prisoners from Baghdad to Camp Bucca at night. Sometimes they blared heavy metal music and flashed strobe lights to irritate the prisoners.

Though Mike's stomach bothered him — he'd developed wheat allergies — he complained only about the weather, with daytime temperatures in Iraq soaring to 140 degrees. ("I think after 120, it's all the same," he wrote.)

In September 2005, Mike emailed to thank his dad for the wheat-free cookies he'd sent. Then, almost as an afterthought, he added: "The other day a little girl got ran over on a convoy, she just walked out in front of a hummvee and that was it for her."

He didn't talk about it much, but relatives say that child's death weighed on him, especially after his own son was born in 2007.

This weighed on him, too: During his three days of off-duty bereavement for his grandmother's death, the 21-year-old airman who took his place was killed in a roadside attack.

"It's like I don't belong anywhere anymore," Mike said.

While the wartime snapshots form a grim collage, friends and fellow airmen say nothing depressed Mike as much as what happened after he learned that his stomach pains were actually symptoms of Crohn's disease, a serious autoimmune disorder with flare-ups triggered by stress and diet. The military couldn't accommodate the rigid food restrictions that Crohn's management required, nor could it guarantee the elimination of stress.

When the doctor told Mike in early 2007 that the Air Force was handing him a medical discharge, his father said, Mike did something he'd never done in front of another military man before. He cried.

Mike had an infant son now and little hope of landing a job in Roanoke that paid anything resembling his military salary. Crohn's flare-ups had him frequently doubled over and running to the bathroom. Carleena Blankenship, his aunt, remembers his piercing brown eyes filling with tears when he finally admitted how crushed he felt.

"It's like I don't belong anywhere anymore," he said.

Thousand-mile stare

Graham Sword likes to drive by Mike's house in north Roanoke County and look at their last father-son project: the roof they put on in October 2007, a few months before the shootout.

For two weekends they worked, hammering shingles and rigging rope so the two of them could hoist and fasten the gutters on by themselves. As they sat on the finished roof, Graham told his son, "There's nowhere I'd rather be right now in the whole world than helping you here."

By all accounts, Mike's Roanoke homecoming hadn't been easy. He sent out dozens of resumes but got very little response. His goal to become a Roanoke County police officer was waylaid by the braided-knot tattoo on his wrist. It was so small you could barely see it beneath his watch, but the rules for new recruits were clear: No visible tattoos permitted.

He applied for work as a police dispatcher and a mail carrier instead. While he waited for openings, he took a second-shift job at a food distributorship, running a forklift in the freezer section. For a time, he also restocked grocery store shelves part time. Relatives say it gave him plenty of time to ponder how he'd fallen from shaking President Bush's hand to moving giant pallets of frozen meat.

Mike showed none of the trademark signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition in which a traumatic event is re-experienced in a variety of troubling ways long after its effects would normally fade. He didn't have jitters or hyperalertness, and he didn't dive under things when a car backfired. He maintained his wry sense of humor around most people and worked out regularly, keeping his hair and physique military-trim.

But from mid-2007 until just before his death in early 2008, Mike did attend group and individual counseling sessions at the Salem Veterans Affairs Medical Center, where he was also treated for Crohn's. Larry Blankenship, an uncle who'd served in Vietnam, had encouraged him to seek treatment soon after landing in Roanoke; otherwise, it could be cumbersome to make war-related medical claims.

He even drove Mike to the Poff Building in Roanoke and helped him fill out his PTSD disability claim, which relatives say wasn't approved until May 2008 — three months after his death.

Sometimes, relatives said, he'd drift into one of his "thousand-mile stares" mid­sentence, as if looking through a dirty, distorted window.

Mike talked privately to his uncle about his combat experiences and even shared that he'd suffered at least one flashback. Sometimes, relatives said, he'd drift into one of his "thousand-mile stares" mid­sentence, as if looking through a dirty, distorted window.

"Mike tried to hide his PTSD," his uncle said. "He had a problem, but he tried to make everyone around him think he was all right."

He told other relatives he didn't enjoy "sitting around telling war stories" during the group therapy sessions. But apparently he felt comfortable enough at the VA that one night he got drunk and checked himself into the emergency room there for a few hours, asking for help.

Mike's bosses resented the time his appointments for Crohn's and PTSD took away from his work, relatives say, and threatened to find a replacement. So Mike missed several sessions, prompting calls from his counselor. (In an effort to reduce no-shows, VA policy requires staffers to call three times if an appointment is missed.)

Graham later learned that his son was taking four separate medications for depression and psychosis during the fall of 2007 and early 2008, pointing to a severity few friends and relatives grasped at the time. (VA counselors were not permitted to discuss Mike's case for this story, lacking permission from his widow, Kristi, though she did talk to a reporter on the phone.)

"When I saw him, he seemed just as normal as you and me sitting here talking right now," Graham said, repeatedly, though he didn't learn of Mike's flashback or the drunken hospital visit until after his son's death.

During the day, Mike fixed up his house, helped neighbors with projects and worked on his old pickup, a 1987 Dodge Ram that had been a gift from his dad. With a loan from his dad, he replaced the engine on the truck, which he nicknamed "the Big Black Beast."

Mike sword with his son, Gavin.

Mike with his son, Gavin. (Photo courtesy of the Sword family)

The night before the shootout, his widow, Kristi, recalled, they stayed up late painting the kitchen together. "He talked about things he was going to do with Gavin," their toddler son. "He wanted to get an old car and fix it up together. He was making plans all the time."

Kristi knew about Mike's guns. He enjoyed target shooting and had killed a deer earlier in the season — Graham paid to have it stuffed and mounted on their guest room wall. Mike had been eyeing a new gun in American Rifleman magazine. He planned to trade the guns he had to get it, which is why he hauled them around in his truck, Kristi reasoned, not thinking they were loaded.

He'd been depressed about his job, she said. But things improved when the Salem post office hired him in mid-February 2008 and began training him to deliver the mail.

"I didn't pick up on any PTSD, and I'm an ex-military guy myself," said Shawn Godfrey, the Salem postal supervisor who hired Mike for a carrier position.

Later, after the shooting, Roanoke County police Lt. Chuck Mason interviewed the postal workers who trained Mike in the days before his death. While Mike's own relatives saw no signs of trouble ahead, a co-worker who'd known him just two weeks saw the stoic veteran as struggling.

He never smiled, seemed very preoccupied and rarely spoke unless someone asked him a question, he told Mason.

"He felt that Mr. Sword wanted to die," Mason said.

Relatives dismiss that description, saying Mike was slow to warm to strangers and didn't smile effusively even when he was happy. But with people he knew well, he could quote from the movie "Napoleon Dynamite" and cite Johnny Cash lyrics and was not above prank-calling a friend.

"When he found out he'd gotten the job at the post office, he was ecstatic," aunt Carleena Blankenship recalled.

Floyd, the retired airman, said he and other colleagues like to think they would have picked up on the warning signs. But last summer, another Andrews colleague, a lieutenant, took his own life. "From the outside looking in, he seemed hunky-dory," Floyd said.

'Shooting to kill'

Graham Sword likes to retrace the route Mike drove that February night. Maybe by recreating his son's final drive in the Big Black Beast, he can figure out where Mike was heading when a policeman traveling the opposite direction clocked him going 94 mph on U.S. 220 South near Towers Shopping Center.

Sometimes Graham even stops at Gold & Silver, the Franklin Road strip club where Mike landed that night after an argument with his wife over money, according to relatives and police.

He drank a Red Bull and talked to some dancers. "The ones I talked to told me it looked like he was just killing time," his father said.

In the wake of Mike's death, Blankenship met with the dancers, too, trying to understand the final hours of Mike's life. "He sat in a corner by himself, and when the girls asked him twice if there was anything he wanted, he said, ‘I have a lot on my mind. I just want to sit here and be by myself,' " she said.

He'd bought a bottle of Aristocrat vodka earlier in the day but was not drunk when he left the club about midnight. Police say his blood-alcohol content registered 0.05, well under the legal limit.

map of the 2008 chase that ended in Mike Sword's death on U.S. 220

When Roanoke County Officer Shaun Chuyka got word that a speeding pickup was heading his way just before 1 a.m., he parked his unmarked car in the median in front of Hunting Hills Plaza and waited. By the time Mike's truck came into Chuyka's view, it had significantly slowed, to between 55 and 65 in the 45 mph zone.

According to police, Mike swerved as if to hit Chuyka's car, then veered away at the last second, continuing south on the curvy, rolling four-lane highway. Chuyka pulled out behind him and radioed for backup, with two other officers joining the chase within minutes. Speeding had just turned into eluding the police, usually a felony charge.

Had Mike planned the provocation all along? Or did he panic when he saw the cruiser's lights, remembering the loaded guns, ammunition and vodka in his truck cab?

Franklin County Deputy Brian Garland joined the pursuit near Clearbrook, pulling just behind the truck toward the end of the 7.4-mile chase as it edged toward the Franklin County line. A patrolman for a year, Garland had been looking toward the 2 a.m. end of his shift, when he would finally get to celebrate his 24th birthday. He recalled thinking: It's probably just some drunk trying to outrun the Roanoke police.

A few hundred feet shy of the county line, police say, Mike started hitting his brakes, then stopped so abruptly that Garland's car hit the rear of his truck. The officers prepared for a confrontation as the vehicles screeched to a halt in the middle of the road, then Mike's door flew open. Four police cars were now gathered before him, with Chuyka and Garland just 15 feet away.

It was 22 degrees, cold enough to see your breath.

It would take Garland a year before he could bear to listen to the hard rock anthem screaming from Mike's speakers: Buckcherry's "Crazy Bitch."

"It was obvious something was going to happen," Chuyka, now 30, recalled.

But no one expected it to be a semi-automatic assault rifle barreling out of the door, firing — toward Chuyka — before Mike's feet hit the ground.

With the cruisers' lights bearing down on him, Mike blasted the first of 30 rounds. Most ricocheted off the cars and ground, but one took out Garland's spotlight and another pierced the leg of Chuyka's trousers.

Crouched behind his door, Garland thought that Chuyka was down because he'd disappeared from his peripheral view, having run behind another car to reload.

Mike didn't get out threatening to fire, Garland said. He got out shooting.

Had the music, lights and chaos triggered a full-blown flashback? Some relatives, including Graham, believe it did. Others think Mike must have planned to bait officers into shooting him, pointing to the fact that no officers were wounded.

If that were the case, Garland reasons, why didn't Mike fire above the officers or toward the roadside instead of into the car door directly in front of him?

"I don't know if it was a flashback. But I don't think he was shooting to make us kill him," Garland said.

"I think he was shooting to kill."

Mike was driving a 1987 pickup he dubbed The Big Black Beast during the shootout with police.

Mike was driving a 1987 pickup he dubbed The Big Black Beast during the shootout with police. (Photo by Eric Brady | The Roanoke Times)

Grainy video from the only dashboard camera working that night — shot from the cruiser farthest from Mike — offers no clues to his mindset, just the flinching of officers scrambling to duck for cover as Mike, a onetime turret gunner, fires on them.

Mike isn't visible in the video, just the sparks from his rounds and the splaying of glass. The officers return fire, pumping 40 shots and covering for each other as they reload.

Police say Mike retreated to his truck, presumably to reload. He had two other loaded weapons in the cab, a shotgun and a pistol, and so much ammunition stacked on the seat and floor that a passenger would not have fit in the truck.

That's when Garland delivered the fatal shot through the truck's rear window and into the back of Mike's head.

Forty seconds had passed since the shooting began.

Mike lay unconscious, his legs dangling from the truck, Buckcherry still wailing obscenities from the speakers of the Beast.

He was comatose when he arrived at Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital. Trauma surgeon Tyler Putnam, a retired airman himself who'd spent four years operating on American troops injured in Iraq and Afghanistan, knew the young man was not long for this world. Graham recalls Putnam telling the bewildered family that what they'd just experienced was a textbook case of PTSD.

Others who'd served with Mike say the person who opened fire on police is not the Mike they'd fought alongside.

"The story doesn't add up for me," said Chris Wilson, a fellow airman who was at Camp Bucca and at Andrews and is now on partial disability for traumatic brain injury and PTSD.

"If it was PTSD," he said, "that's the worst case of it I've ever seen or even heard of."

Collateral damage

In the aftermath of the shootout, Graham Sword did not turn inward. He hired a lawyer to investigate a wrongful death lawsuit against Roanoke and Franklin counties but backed out when the family became divided over whether to proceed.

As his attorney Bill Cleaveland put it: "I didn't encourage them to file the suit, because they're emotionally draining, expensive and there just wasn't strong evidence to show that the police weren't telling the truth."

Graham looked for answers in articles about PTSD, in which he underlined sections about how spouses can help prevent tragedies — then mailed them to his son's widow.

Kristi says he blamed her for Mike's death. He says he was sharing information so she could help others. The two no longer speak.

Last spring, three years after the shooting, Graham petitioned for the right to visit his grandson and was turned down both in the initial hearing and on appeal. Kristi does not have to allow Graham to visit the boy, now 4, though he sends birthday and Christmas gifts.

"There's a whole lot of blame going around," said Windsor Nevitt, Mike's sister. "But at the end of the day, she's out a husband, he's out a son, and we're out a brother and friend."

"Just about everyone says, 'We didn't see it coming.'"

Nevitt has met with local Iraq war veterans to help her understand her brother's mental state. She reads books and articles about PTSD that underscore for her the fact that in most cases of veteran violence and suicide, "just about everyone says, ‘We didn't see it coming.'"

Among her last memories of her brother is the prank he pulled at a fall 2007 family reunion, pretending to be an irate neighbor in the hotel room next to hers, calling to complain about her barking dog. (She's a cat person and doesn't own a dog.)

A year of therapy helped her come to peace with the not knowing, she said, though she suspects her brother set out that night to bait police into killing him. "The hardest thing is learning to accept that only Mike and God will ever really know what happened," she said.

Mike's aunt Carleena Blankenship, an environmental activist in Narrows, wants to push for legislation requiring the labeling of a PTSD diagnosis on veterans' driver's licenses, similar to labels for corrective lenses or concealed weapon permits. "It could help protect the officers and the person with the disorder," she said.

"The Sword family has always been law-abiding, God-fearing Americans, and we would really like for something positive to come out of this," she said.

PTSD treatment resources

Roanoke Vet Center

  • 342-9726

Nationwide Vet Centers

  • 877-927-8387

Salem Veterans Affairs Medical Center

  • Main number: 888-982-2463
  • Center for Traumatic Stress: 888-982-2463, ext. 1578
  • Specialized inpatient PTSD unit: 888-982-2463, ext. 1160

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline for Veterans

  • 800-273-TALK (8255)

Virginia Wounded Warrior Program

Graham attends monthly meetings of a Virginia Beach chapter of The Compassionate Friends, a support group for parents who have lost children. He was so morose after Mike's death that it was a year before he could sputter out a laugh — while watching "America's Funniest Home Videos."

He spent the 10th anniversary of 9/11 visiting Mike's grave. He was still coming to grips with his family's response to Mike's illness, wishing he'd have pushed his son harder to take up white-water rafting or get back into scuba diving.

"We all should've been circling the wagons," he said, pulling together to share what each person had witnessed. A clearer picture of Mike's dwindling mental state might have emerged.

Graham still refuses to accept the police version of events, pointing out what he believes is an inherent conflict of interest in the follow-up investigation. It was conducted by Roanoke County police and reviewed by the county's top prosecutor, who cleared the officers of any wrongdoing. Four of them won statewide valor awards for their actions that night.

"He thinks we shot his son for a speeding violation?" Mason, the Roanoke County lieutenant, said, incredulous. "How do you even answer something like that?"

Garland, who fired the fatal shot, said he read ­Graham's description of him as a "cowboy cop" on an Internet message board.

"I didn't wake up that day thinking I want to kill Mike Sword," Garland said. "I woke up thinking, ‘It's my birthday today.'"

He had wanted to tell the family he was sorry for their loss. He even considered attending Mike's funeral but was advised by superiors to leave the family alone.

"He wakes up every day and his son's gone," said Garland, now an officer in Rocky Mount. "But I wake up every day and have to deal with what happened, too."

'A reminder'

The last stop on Graham's tour is always the same.

Every Christmas Day and again on the date of Mike's death, Graham drives to his son's grave and then to the scene of the shootout. He spiffs up the roadside memorial he created to honor his son — and tweak officers who pass by.

Graham Sword visits the site where Mike was killed on U.S. 220. He drives there at least twice a year, to spruce up the memorial he made and to remind passers-by -- including police officers -- what happened there.

Graham Sword visits the site where Mike was killed on U.S. 220 near the Roanoke-Franklin county line.
(Photo by Sam Dean | The Roanoke Times)

He replaces the tattered American flag he stuck in a cinder block the time before. He replaces the faded cross, too, which he fashions with hardware-store trim. With a Sharpie marker, he prints "USAF" and "Micah Sword" where the bars cross.

He bends down to pray.

"Let this be a reminder to people," he says.

Before he leaves, he snaps a photo of the road, the flag and the cross.

Back home, he files the picture away with his other keepsakes — images of boyhood and boot camp, and the empty, bullet-riddled truck.

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