Over 32 years as an Army wife, Beth Shwedo learned to adapt to her husband’s long hours and absences.
Col. Kevin Shwedo would leave for a month or two on military missions, and in the days before cellphones or Skype, there would be little, if any, contact between them. It was jarring at first for Beth Shwedo, who said her father worked a 9-to-5 job and that she expected a similar routine when she got married. Eventually, she said, she adjusted as she began to understand the importance of his work.
Kevin Shwedo retired from the Army in 2011 and soon after became director of South Carolina’s Department of Motor Vehicles. But for Beth Shwedo, the past few weeks have felt much like he is on another mission, even while they live in the same home.
The Shwedos were among South Carolina’s volunteers who worked round-the-clock in the early days after the Oct. 4 flooding that left behind damaged homes, businesses and lives. Now, Kevin Shwedo has taken on a new leadership role in the state’s flood recovery.
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Early on, Beth Shwedo, who is chairwoman of the volunteer board of directors for the Red Cross of Central South Carolina, worked tirelessly as a volunteer with the organization. She took her husband with her from shelter to shelter, dropping off supplies and asking how they could help. Kevin Shwedo said they volunteered together for roughly 14 or more hours straight in the two days after the flooding.
“I was just like one of a million ants that was busy doing what I was doing,” Beth Shwedo said. “I was by no means a standout in all of this. I was just one piece in a puzzle.”
But two weeks after the Oct. 4 flooding, Gov. Nikki Haley appointed Kevin Shwedo indefinitely as South Carolina’s flood recovery coordinator, a position created to address the state’s long-term needs.
Kevin and Beth Shwedo both knew the position would bring long hours, challenging work and little time to just sit down and talk. But, Beth Shwedo said, “It’s your civic duty to help those that need help.”
And as her flood recovery work wound down, his was just getting started.
The flood recovery coordinator job entails driving to affected areas throughout the state to identify unmet needs, attending town hall meetings to hear from counties and municipalities and sending more than 100 emails per day.
Shwedo said he had no previous flood recovery experience before his appointment and that he also had to learn how the recovery process, agencies and groups should work.
“My No. 1 job right now is to accelerate the recovery,” Kevin Shwedo said. “But you’ve got a limited amount of resources. Read that as money and supplies and everything else. You’ve got a limited amount of volunteer organizations, and you’ve got a plethora of disaster.”
Kevin Shwedo’s work days often start before 8 a.m. and end early the next morning. Some days, he saw his wife only when their missions overlapped, bumping into her at a Red Cross fundraiser or at a disaster recovery center.
“We literally would not see each other except at night to say, ‘Hello,’ and maybe, maybe in the morning,” Kevin Shwedo said.
He said jumping into a position that did not previously exist, for which there were no standard operating procedures or existing staff, has been challenging. He has been used to order throughout his military career, and he got a dose of it in college.
Shwedo played football at the University of North Carolina in the late 1970s, and he remembers a certain resident adviser who cracked down on him and his buddies when they made too much noise in the athletic dorm.
Shwedo said he had an ego, and that it frustrated him to no end that a girl was in charge. “I hated her guts,” Shwedo said.
But it wasn’t long before the two began hanging out socially, going on a ski trip together and later meeting up after a bowl game. They started dating, and then Kevin and Beth were married in June 1979.
Since then, they have had two children and moved 24 times in 32 years with the Army. But more than four years after retirement, he is again often gone from home.
This time, the couple catches up over the phone, often while Kevin Shwedo is on long drives to town halls and meetings across the state. And he said he is thankful when he can sleep in his own bed at night.
Understanding the importance of his work also helps, just as it did when he was in the Army, Beth Shwedo said.
“Once you see the devastation and what people are going through, there is absolutely no room to complain,” she said. “You do what needs to be done at the time it needs to be done.”
More than two months after the flooding struck South Carolina, things have started to slow down. Disaster recovery agencies, groups and volunteers have moved out of the immediate response phase and toward the long-term recovery period.
Kevin Shwedo still likely has many long days ahead of him, and a few more late nights at his desk at the Joint Field Office in Blythewood, not far from the state DMV headquarters where he intends to return when his work as the flood recovery coordinator is finished. Until then, Kevin and Beth will keep soldiering on.
“You know it’s temporary, but you make it work,” Beth Shwedo said. “It’s kind of like somebody going through med school. If you get one day on the weekend or a couple of hours on the weekend, that’s great. You kind of get your fix.”