EATON — Two former teachers took to the calm waters of Crystal Lake on Saturday morning to honor the memory of US Army Master Sgt. Richard L. Ferguson of North Conway, who was killed in the line of duty during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2004. Although Barb Anderson of Fryeburg, Maine, and Margi Wright of Brownfield, Maine, never met Ferguson, they will never forget him.
Anderson and Wright were to swim across Newfound Lake on July 11 as part of the fourth Annual Swim With A Mission to raise awareness and funds “to honor the 89 New Hampshire service members who have died in service to our country during the Global War On Terror.” Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the event was unable to take place in person. Participants were asked to take part in a virtual swim between July 1-31 to recognize the event.
Over the past three years, Swim with a Mission, founded by Phil and Julie Taub, “has raised over $2 million to honor and support local, regional and national veteran support organizations that provide critical services to our veterans. These include supporting Veteran organizations that provide housing, take care of our homeless, support day to day services, provide service and support K-9’s, provide scholarships, provide jobs, create equine immersion programs and support art programs.”
Each swimmer was assigned one of the 89 Granite State service members who died in combat. Little did Wright and Anderson know they would get the same person, and someone with ties to Conway.
Master Sergeant Ferguson, according to Swim With A Mission’s website, was killed in action on March 30, 2004, “when the military vehicle he was riding in rolled over in Samarra, Iraq serving during Operation Iraqi Freedom.” He was 45, and had been stationed with the 10th Special Forces Group out of Fort Carson, Colo. He served in the military for 27 years, enlisting in March of 1976.
According to the website Run for the Fallen NH Inc., Richard served in Bosnia, Germany, Iraq and elsewhere, but his missions and deployments were often kept secret.
“’What went on, he left at work or with the guys,’ said his father, Lee Ferguson Sr. on the website. ‘When he came home, he laughed, he joked, he went camping with the kids, he went on trips, he worked around the house.’
“Richard dropped out of high school at age 17 and later earned his GED. He joined the Army, becoming a career military man. ‘Once he got in, he loved it and he stayed with it. That was his home,’ his father said.”
Ferguson’s awards and decorations, according to Run for the Fallen, include the Legion of Merit, the Bronze Star Medal and the Joint Service Commendation Medal.
The lone mention of Ferguson in the Sun’s archives was on April 2, 2004. It states: “There are indications that Ferguson may have been a second-home owner in Conway. Property tax records at the Conway town clerk’s office have a Richard Ferguson with a Warwick, R.I., address. A Patricia Ferguson with the same Warwick address is also listed as property owner at 2725 West Side Road, Unit 14, in Conway. Neither Richard Ferguson nor Patricia Ferguson are listed as registered voters in Conway. The incident in which Ferguson was killed is under investigation.”
Wright learned about Swim With A Mission from a friend and immediately wanted to do her part.
“Both my brothers served in the Navy and many of my friends and former students (she is a retired New Jersey high school teacher) have served and are still serving in various military branches,” she said. “I feel it is important to remember those who have fallen serving our country. The Swim With A Mission organization works hard for veterans’ services.”
It is a great organization and cause for men and women who deserve the honor,” said Anderson, a former teacher in MSAD 72, said. “I have always loved to swim. Our three miles for MSGT Ferguson was my longest continual swim. I have done the Peaks to Portland swim a few times to benefit YMCA programs.”
Wright said she had never done a swimming fundraising event before but is a strong swimmer.
“I did run a 10-mile fundraiser for MS in college as well as a 25-mile bike ride also for MS about 15 years ago, but nothing recently,” she said.
Anderson and Wright had plenty of time to think while they were in the water with Nelle Cooper, leading them in a canoe and offering inspirational words of encouragement throughout.
“Sometimes the mind can really wander on a swim,” Anderson shared. “I thought about MSGT Ferguson and what an incredible career and life he led. I thought about his family. I thought about his face in the photo SWAM sent of him and I would like to have known him.”
“I almost cried right before we began, and I did tear up, thinking about the sacrifice and loss of MSGT Ferguson,” said Wright. “Once the swim began I just relaxed and let my body do what we had trained for. We had trained well so the first two miles I found relatively easy with my second mile being my strongest. The last .33 was the most difficult as I was getting very tired. I counted how many strokes it took me to get across that last third of a mile, 367. I thought then, of what we were swimming for, and pushed past the tired.”
The duo also learned a little bit about themselves on Saturday.
“I panicked a bit the night before, three miles, but we did it and it was easier than I thought it would be,” Wright said, “so I guess not to allow that self-doubt to win.”
“I learned many things through this experience,” Anderson said. “There are the physical lessons in completing a 3-mile swim, but for me, the real value is what I learned about MGST Richard Ferguson his family and his career and to know that on July 18 he was not forgotten.”
Both said they would like to do the Swim With A Mission again in the future.
“One of the nicest things about our swim on Saturday morning was that others not registered in the SWAM event joined in: swimming, photographing and guiding us around the lake on the straightest line,” said Anderson. “Thank you, Nelle!”
Wright added: “Our veterans are often forgotten and struggle and I am proud to have raised money for such a great organization. I loved training with a group of such supportive, strong ladies.”