Article Thumbnail

After Four Tours in the Army, Readjusting to Daily Life Is a New Fight for Survival

‘It took a long time but finally I realized: I belong in this world, here at home.’

Travis Switalski, 37, retired Army Sgt. First Class, served two tours in Ramadi, Iraq, in 2004–2005 and 2006–2007, and served in southern Afghanistan in 2009.

I grew up in a fishing town on the Puget Sound in Washington. For the most part, guys ended up doing one of three things — becoming a fisherman, working for the local oil refinery or moving north to Alaska. I chose a different path and joined the Army. Though I joined in peacetime, it didn’t last long. I ended up doing four tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Going to war is a journey. You have to change from the kid who played on the high school baseball team to the man who is prepared to kill other human beings. The journey starts with the drill sergeants and calling out marching cadences: Trained to Kill. Kill we will. I remember after the bayonet assault course at basic training I thought, “Yeah, I could probably run a knife through a guy.” I was ready to go to war and do my job.

We’d been in Ramadi, Iraq, for about a week when we sustained our first casualty, a kid from Charlie Company. He’d been shot in the head; there was blood all over the Humvee. We’d never seen anything like that before.

We got in gunfights almost every day. And there were IEDs everywhere. It was never-ending. One night we were ambushed twice. The next night we were ambushed again. Another day a car came through the checkpoint, and the engine died. The driver and these combat engineers started pushing it through the checkpoint to get it out of the way. Suddenly it blew up, blew these guys all over the place, six or seven of them. I picked up a dude’s leg in my assault pack. My buddy picked up a glove with a hand in it. How do you get past that?

For me, there was no question. I pulled the trigger, the guy was gone and it was over.

During my time there we had more than 100 casualties, killed and wounded. I started feeling like I didn’t want to go home to my family. I felt like I had done all these horrible things, and they deserved better than what I had become. I wasn’t me anymore, but I didn’t know why it wasn’t me. When I did get home, I became destructive. I started drinking, doing things that were out of character. I did that for a long time. That became the new normal.

Everybody else I knew who came home did the same thing. They — and their wives — were suffering, too. As human beings, we gauge ourselves against other people. You say, “Well, I’m not as crazy as him, so I must be doing okay.”

One time when I was on leave from my first tour, we had a bunch of people over, and a guy at the party asked me what’s it was like to kill somebody. My reaction was probably not appropriate. I came a little unglued. Since then I’ve been asked that question a lot. I guess people think it’s their tax dollars paying for it, so they have a right to know. The truth is, human beings are destructive by nature. If we weren’t meant to kill each other, we wouldn’t do it. Everyone, to some degree, has thought about killing someone else; it’s the animal instinct inside of you. What happens to you afterward is another thing.

In combat, when bullets start flying at you, you just start shooting bullets back. It wasn’t like in the movies where a guy has a moral moment, and he says, “Can I actually do this? Can I kill another human being?” People put a lot of emphasis on this moment of truth: When it comes down to it, are you going to be able to kill somebody or aren’t you? For me, there was no question. I pulled the trigger, the guy was gone and it was over.

Unfortunately, after a while, killing becomes mechanical. See them run, pull the trigger, see them fall. If there’s any part of killing that I regret, it’s that I let it become mechanical.

I was just a hollow shell. My humanity had gone missing.

People say this all the time: “You signed up for it.” And that’s true. So at some point, you start agreeing with them. You accept your altered condition. You tell yourself, “I did this to myself, so I might as well just live with it and accept it for what it is.” For any man, and especially a career soldier, to say that you’re sick is admitting weakness. To say you need to go to the hospital is career suicide. I was a sergeant first class. I was planning to stay until retirement. I couldn’t just quit.

I’m lucky my wife is still here. She always knew that she came second to the Army, and that was the case even more so after I returned from combat. My job stateside was turning my guys into the best soldiers possible so we could accomplish our mission and ultimately stay alive. That was all I could focus on. I ruined my home life for a lot of years. I didn’t know then that I wasn’t being a good husband or father. I thought doing my job meant that I was a good husband and father. I brought home money. I was responsible. People looked up to me. I was important. By Army standards, I felt like I was doing the right thing. But really I was just a hollow shell. My humanity had gone missing.

In the end, I had do the right thing for myself and my family. I had to quit the Army. I had to go home. And I had to get help.

Six years ago my wife and I moved back to Washington. We were hoping to reset our lives. We didn’t have anything. We lived in this tiny house. The roof leaked. There was a little wood stove that barely heated the house. I worked at the plywood mill pulling fresh cut lumber off the line. Eventually I quit the mill and applied for the job I have now — a disabled veterans case manager for the State of Washington. While I was waiting to hear back about the job, my wife and I went out deer hunting every day and got to know each other again. It was like high school, when we’d first met. She was like, “There you are.” And I was like, “There you are.” We started getting back to being the people we were before all of the killing and the death and the craziness.

Our life is not without its problems, but I would take this life over when I was Sergeant First Class Switalski any day of the week.

This year, when ISIS took over Ramadi, I had a hard time with that. I had 27 months of my life invested in that city. This was a place I hated. But my friends died there. My soldiers. Dead, gone. I thought if I could go back today, I would, and I would just start shooting people. But I had to get over that. I had to breathe deep and focus. I had to remember that my mission is over here now. My fight is all about daily life.

It’s still hard sometimes, but here’s the thing: When I joined the Army, we were taught that we didn’t make policy, we just executed it. The war wasn’t my idea. They asked me to do something, and I did it. I gave everything I had. My guys gave everything they had. I’m not the one who blew the war over there. My boys aren’t the ones who blew it. We did what we were asked. The politicians let that slip away.

In the end, I wouldn’t be who I am today without the Army and the war, but I let it define me for a long time. Nothing before that mattered and nothing after that mattered. There’s a difference between letting it define you and learning from it. Sometimes you have to abandon what you know and try something new. I let go of the Army and figured I’d give having a family a shot, and I think it’s working out. Our life is not without its problems, but I would take this life over when I was Sergeant First Class Switalski any day of the week.

It took a long time but finally I realized: I belong in this world, here at home. Sgt. Switalski is an anachronism. That guy’s not meant for this time and place. For the most part, he’s gone.

As told to Brian Mockenhaupt

Brian Mockenhaupt served two tours in Iraq as an infantryman. He is a contributing editor of Outside and a regular in The Atlantic.